Mar 7, 2010

Canada Reads, but does Canada listen?

As some of you may know (the Canadians, anyway), tomorrow marks the start of the ninth annual Canada Reads competition, that "battle of the books" wherein Canadian celebrities (???) meet at an undisclosed (but probably in Toronto) location to argue over those particular books they each feel all Canadians should read. The winning author is then proclaimed king or queen of all Canadian literature for a year, and attends mall openings and rodeos as part of their royal obligations. Or something.

I have nothing against Canada Reads, nothing at all. I am all for anything that gets people interested in reading, and very often the list yields some interesting candidates worth discussion. Brown Girl in the Ring? Volkswagen Blues? The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant? Fruit? Some real interesting stuff. The great thing about such competitions is that there is room for genuine surprise. The sad thing is, such surprises are invariably few.

As is the case with almost all similar contests, very often the popular trumps all. I don't mean to argue that the winners of Canada Reads are not worthy of merit, not at all. But the nebulous point of Canada Reads was to get all Canadians to read the same book. That worthy ideal becomes diluted when the choices are novels that everyone has already read.

Canadians already read Margaret Atwood. Was there any person actually interested in Canada Reads who hadn't read The Handmaid's Tale? Ditto Life of Pi, ditto The Stone Angel, ditto A Fine Balance, ditto A Complicated Kindness. Again, I do not mean to disparage these novels; I unreservedly love
Handmaid and Life of Pi, I dig Complicated, I've never even read Balance, and my views on Stone Angel are likely distorted by the overall unhappiness of my high school years and cannot be trusted.

But most every reader (every Canadian reader, anyway) has already read these novels. These are bestsellers, Canadian classics discussed in college courses, and sometimes international sensations.

What I'm saying is, be a little more creative. There was no need at all to argue over The Book of Negroes, a bestseller many times over. Fall on Your Knees has Oprah's stamp. Generation X is so popular it actually changed the way we talk. Let's look into the nooks and crannies for the books that fell behind the couch.

These are not new arguments, I know, and they have been made repeatedly over the years by persons far more knowledgeable than myself. And maybe next year, I'll follow the example of others and have my own mini-Canada Reads.

But for now, all I'll do is offer up a list of Canadian novels that I wish more people would read so that we could discuss their merits. I have decided not to list authors who have already had a novel on Canada Reads, even though I may desire their inclusion, as they have had their chance.

These are not all 'perfect' books. Some have sold fairly well, some have not, but I don't think anyone will argue that they are overexposed. Some are 'literary,' some are just plain fun. But they all, in unique ways, affected me deeply, and need more love. And if you've already read them, and dislike them, or actively hate them? We can talk about that too, if you want.

And no, I did not include Shelf Monkey, as I figured that went without saying.
  1. 4x4, by Wayne Tefs
  2. All My Friends are Superheroes, by Andrew Kaufman
  3. Amphibian, by Carla Gunn
  4. Angry Young Spaceman, by Jim Munroe
  5. The Big Why, by Michael Winter
  6. The Culprits, by Robert Hough
  7. Entitlement, by Jonathan Bennett
  8. From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain, by Minister Faust
  9. The Incident Report, by Martha Baillie
  10. Inside, by Kenneth J. Harvey
  11. ManBug, by George K. Ilsley
  12. The Mysterium, by Eric McCormack
  13. Planet Reese, by Cordelia Strube
  14. Shining at the Bottom of the Sea, by Stephen Marche
  15. Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, by Cory Doctorow
So, anyone have anything to add? What novel would you like to see represented?


gypsysmom said...

I'll start by admitting that I haven't read any of the books on your list. I consider myself passionate about reading Canadian lit but your tastes are substantially different from mine. So maybe my defence of Canada Reads won't change your mind.

First of all, I'm not at all sure that everyone who listens to CBC has read A Fine Balance or The Handmaid's Tale even though CBC listeners do tend to be more well read than the norm. So anything that brings those excellent books to their notice is valuable.

Secondly, although as I said I am passionate about Canadian lit, of the 8 past contests I had only read one of the eventual winners before they were nominated. I didn't love all of them when I did read them but I am glad that they were brought to my attention. And when you add in all the other nominations there are at least two from every year that I read because they were nominated. There is certainly a value in bringing previously published books back to the forefront so that we have another chance to pick them up.

Thirdly, lots of years the book that might be perceived to be the "popular" choice does not win. Really who would have predicted that In the Skin of the Lion would win against The Handmaid's Tale, A Fine Balance and The Stone Angel? Or Rockbound against Beautiful Losers and Oryx and Crake?

My own dissatisfaction with Canada Reads has to do with how the celebrities tend to view the show as a Survivor type of reality show. Last year it didn't seem like they were really interested in finding the best written or most illuminating or most captivating story but in scoring points against each other. I'm hoping that was just a function of the people doing the defending last year and that this year will be different.

As to books that I think should be nominated for Canada Reads I am astonished that no-one has ever promoted No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod. There's been nothing by Farley Mowat or Pierre Berton nominated! I'd love to see someone do The Dog that Wouldn't Be or The Last Spike. Maybe their works aren't fictional but they are certainly essential Canadian reading.

Sorry for the long post but you got me thinking. Thanks for that.

Corey Redekop said...

Well, we have some disagreement here, but I agree, I wish the judges talked more about the quality of the writing, and how disparate books can be compared. Did The Book of Negroes win because it was more 'literary' than the runner-up Fruit? I'd argue that while Fruit may have a different style than Book, it is equally as difficult to write a 'funny' book as it is to write a 'historical.'

Remi said...

Even worse than the selection is the fact that we make all this hype for something that is done in a week. Perhaps if it were done 3 or 4 times a year there would be a better selection of books.

The Stone Angel does get better with time. In high school, I loathed it. Now, I like it. Doesn't top The Diviners, though.

On the plus side, it is nice to see people talking and reading Canuck books. I just hope people getting introduced to Canuck lit realize that there is a whole strange world of books out there that won't make it onto the contest.

Mark said...

I agree with you on the whole quality of writing issue Corey -- it doesn't seem to be a big criteria for the exercise. And if it's not too self-serving, I'd underscore how difficult it is to write something that is funny and literary at the same time. (Unless you're writing unintentionally hilarious sex scenes.)

K said...

A month on... (Just found your blog via a link on goodreads - I just finished reading Coupland's Generation A.)

I've nothing to say about Canada Reads, as I've never listened to the show. (Looking at the nominees/winners over the years, I've only read 14, maybe 15 as I can't remember if I've read Oryx and Crake though I know I own it, of 45. Maybe I should pay more attention to the show.)

I was going to agree with Remi about The Stone Angel; it does get better with time. I remember reading it in high school and having a groaning and eye-rolling reaction because it was yet another book taking place in the Canadian prairies (I went to HS in Saskatchewan). Even five years on I could say I liked it much better, though now I think I'm a bigger fan of A Jest of God. I always meant to read The Diviners, but it somehow slipped through the cracks of my mental list of things I'd like someday to read.

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