Oct 31, 2010

Canada Reads 2011 - preliminary thoughts

At the risk of fanning the flames of controversy, I'd like to take a moment to discuss Canada Reads 2011.
And please note: I am hardly a disinterested third party here. As my novel Shelf Monkey is in their rankings of the Top 40 Novels, I do have a somewhat vested interest in the contest.
Canada Reads was launched ten years ago by CBC, an effort to bring to attention certain books that each year's jurors wished other Canadians would read. It has always been an imperfect contest, prone to pushing already popular novels out further into the spotlight, but has led to some interesting books receiving a level of public consciousness they might not normally have achieved (Fruit, Brown Girl in the Ring, Natasha and Other Stories etc.).

As some of you likely know, this year the organizers behind Canada Reads have altered its format, allowing Canadians to personally vote for the one book they wished everyone would read. From this list, the top 40 selections would be deemed 'The Top 40 Essential Canadian Novels of the Decade.' This decision to change format likely arrived as a result of public dissatisfaction with past years' selections as being a trifle too obvious. Suffice to say, when Oprah has already chosen a book for her club, it has reached a level undreamed of by most, and gets read all over the continent. Doing a Canada Reads debate on that book, regardless of its quality, seems a touch superfluous.

Already, this new format had major flaws, akin to any such lists. Voting in such a venue is a crapshoot at best, with already well-known novels likely to dominate, and smaller novels falling by the wayside unless the author/publisher makes a conscious decision to personally push a novel to get on the list.

And this is exactly what has happened; I'm proof of that. I did not go out of my way to solicit votes from strangers, I did not purchase billboard space, I did not launch attack ads against Joseph Boyden. I simply put up a public Facebook page and invited friends to vote for me, and put up a blog post as well (and if you did indeed vote for me, my deepest thanks to you and yours). If others wanted to join in, so much the better. But by focusing a group of willing participants to vote for one single novel en masse, I squeaked in and got on the list. The Top 40 is chock full of well-known, best-selling authors (and I do not mean to slight them, these are quality novels), but by virtue of a coordinated attack (the closest I'll ever get to reaching a level approaching competitiveness), both myself and number of other, lesser-known quantities such as Chris Benjamin and Leo McKay got ourselves prime positions on the list.

Frankly, I don't see anything wrong with this. In today's environment, it's increasingly hard to get recognized, and every little bit of publicity helps. I don't consider this hucksterism, or akin to prostitution (a charge leveled on me and others by a few bloggers); I consider it an opportunity, for free advertising if nothing else. Being that Canada has a few very large publishing companies that dominate the sales lists, us small-time hoods have to step up once in awhile to make ourselves heard. And besides, just being on the same list as Atwood, Boyden, Vanderhaeghe, Martel, and Shields is a thrill unto itself.

It's all silly anyway. Really, 'Top 40 Essential Novels?' Such a list is impossible to define, prone to massive subjectivity, and is far better used as a marketing ploy than a definitive collection. Which is what I suspect this all is; you can't deny, people are talking. At least, people who follow Canada Reads. If, as they claim, they had over 6000 votes, that's a sizable contingent of literary lovers.

From the Top 40, the original plan was for the five unnamed jurors to chose their Top 10, and then from those the five they would debate together on national radio in 2011. Now, at literally the last minute, Canada Reads has changed the conditions of the test, and left it to the public to decide the top 10. After the cutoff date of November 7, 2010, the as-yet-unknown jurors will be forced to choose their selections from that much smaller list.

This new decision has led to both enthusiasm and outright condemnation, and without meaning to appear wishy-washy, I do see both sides here and heartily agree with both arguments. By limiting the choices, presumably at least one of the jurors will end up with a novel he or she does not actually care about in the slightest, which could lead to a less-than-enthusiastic debate. And conceivably, as they were not declared verboten, the Top 10 could be made up entirely of past winners and nominees, leading to, again, a less-than-riveting chat about books we've all already read (or are at least familiar with).

This is a real risk, and I agree, the format this year is hardly ideal. The Top 40, while a very strong collection, is very possibly going to be whittled down to an unimpressive line-up of already popular titles. This is what happens when a large amount of people are polled, the result ends up rather homogenized in nature. I sometimes wonder, if this list included American novels, would Dan Brown have made the cut? I fear so.

But I cannot tell a lie (unless you count writing fiction as telling lies, in which case, I am an inveterate liar): I'd like to get into the top 10. I do not hold my breath on this possibility, I've already beaten the odds to get this far. But I like it when people read what I've written. I like it when people buy my book. Am I going to return the $4.00 in royalties I've made so far on Amazon.ca for sales since the Top 40 announcement? I am not, and to come out against the Canada Reads format this year would be supremely hypocritical on my part.

But what if? That's the question. Laying aside my own selfish concerns for a moment, what if we could get the list we want? Look at the Top 40 as it stands now: these are terrific fictions, and while some have arguably had their critical/commercial days in the sun (and not to take away anything from their accomplishments thus far - I think it part of the Canadian condition to distrust those who have achieved a certain level of success, but I will not succumb, I truly love many of these fine best-selling works), there are others so gawd-damned deserving of wider recognition that I salivate at the thought of a Canada Reads debate on their merits.

Think of a Top 10 like this:
  1. Inside by Kenneth J. Harvey
  2. Come Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant
  3. Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
  4. The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis
  5. Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
  6. Bottle Rocket Hearts by Zoe Whittall
  7. Conceit by Mary Novik
  8. Elle by Douglas Glover
  9. The Fallen by Stephen Finucan
  10. Moody Food by Ray Robertson
Now that would be an interesting selection. Some well-known, some esoteric, all winners, all deserving.

Do I wish that the overall list was different? Of course. I wish desperately that past winners and nominees were ineligible, to lend more space to deserving books. I wish Minister Faust has made the list; ditto John McFetridge, Peter Darbyshire, Andrew Kaufman, Emily Schultz, and Jonathan Bennett, amongst many, many others.

But I don't make the rules, I only work within them, so all I can do is work my small part of the world and hope that it is enough, and enjoy whatever fame/notoriety I can.

So if you want, please ignore Canada Reads this year, it won't hurt my feelings one bit. But if you are going to vote, vote wisely. Start up your own campaigns for your favourite novels. Let's do our best to sneak a few outsiders on the list.

And if I turn out to be one of the outsiders, I won't complain.



Great post! I totally agree.

Corey Redekop said...

Much thanks, miss Whittall. With luck, I shall meet you soon on the field of battle. Prepare to be shelved.

John Mutford said...


Just kidding. But I actually like the dissent. A discussion on what it takes for an author, in the computer age, in Canada, to get some recognition is yet another worthwhile discussion stirred up by Canada Reads.

Cliff Burns said...

Writers these days must be their own strongest advocates. An innovative, literary writer doesn't get nearly the push from publishers and publicists that a popular author does--compare the advertising budget of a talented dude like Corey Redekop to an inveterate hack like Dan Brown and the disparity is pretty obvious.

Canvassing and self-promoting is a fact of life for authors these days and no apologies are necessary on that front.

That said, I personally have no interest at all in making ANY top ten, top 100 or top ten thousand list of Canadian writers. And if, by some miraculous act of God, I was ever selected for the "Canada Reads" series, I would ask to be removed. I detest the format of the program, voting authors on or off, holding them up in comparison to each other like varieties of fruit. I despise most of the twits they feature--Canadian "personalities"-- advocating on behalf of their favorite books. The "Survivor" mentality. I shudder at the very notion. Kim Mitchell or Randy Bachman or Sean fucking Cullen extolling the virtues of one of my novels? I'd rather drink hemlock laced with strychnine.

Good luck with your endeavors because, truly, you're a guy who deserves a larger profile in the Canadian literary community (infested with a whole lotta hacks, cultural whores and wannabes). We need authors like Corey Redekop showing younger writers/readers that there's fine fiction being published in this country, work that's off the beaten track, edgy and thoroughly literate.

Yer one of the good ones, kid...

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