Canada Reads inspires hand-wringing across the country

Oh, it’s that time of year again–Canada Reads! Now, we all know that I love me some Canada Reads. Not only did it change my life as one of the panelists in 2009, but it changed the life of all the authors we discussed, including my runner-up, Brian Francis’ FruitBut that doesn’t mean I can’t listen to the broadcasts with a critical ear.

This year, Canada Reads has come under a lot of criticism, stemming mainly fromthe comments of one of the panelists. Plenty of people have made comments upon her comments and then commented again. I don’t think I need to.

The CBC is a funny entity. And when I say funny, I mean that Canadians are funny about their feelings toward it. The people who listen and care about what CBC broadcasts are hardcore fans. They have very intimate and personal relationships with their favourite programs, which is great, and they feel that they have a tangible stake in what their national radio and television should or shouldn’t do. Which means that when something happens that is the tiniest bit controversial, emotions are twice as intense as they would be if the exact same thing aired on a commercial radio or television station. What if someone said the same things that Anne-France Goldwater did on FOX News? Or your local Top 40 radio show? Maybe a few people might have noticed, but a national outcry? Not likely.

Having people care this much is a good thing, a stupendously wonderful thing. I have no problem with criticism birthed out of genuine concern. In fact, I read a lot of it and understood why listeners were upset. But one particular analysis of this year’s Canada Reads debates really irked me. And that one came from The Globe and Mail.

First of all, the online headline: “the CBC is bottom-feeding on culture.” Hmm, I thought when I read that. Funny how that sounds when the CBC is practically the only media outlet in this country that hasn’t cut back on arts and culture coverage (not that I’m pointing any no-longer-inkstained-fingers). But I was determined to move on.

Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer writes:

Last year, Canada Reads instigated an online public recommendation system. Writers who were savvy with self-promotion flogged their work, pleading, in some cases, for votes. Scrolling along the Canada Reads Web page was what I came to refer to as “the Twitter feed of desperation.” I felt sick about it. It was wrong that writers should have to beg.

I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble about what writers actually do when they promote their work, but a lot of is glorified begging. When you’re an emerging writer who is reading with someone super-famous, you’re begging for people to notice you. When you put out an invitation on Facebook to your book launch, you’re begging for people to come. When you’re competing for entertainment dollars with Netflix and XBox, you’re begging for the smallest possibility that someone will put down his or her controller and actually pick up a copy of your book. When we write grant applications, we’re begging then too.

We beg all the time. We’re used to it. It’s really not a big deal.

Kathryn also writes that

…[begging for votes] also created an atmosphere of unpleasant competition in a very small community. Writing is about conversation, and that conversation lags and dies when the topic becomes as mundane as ‘which book is best?’

That sense of competition among writers in Canada is nothing new and wasn’t created by Canada Reads or even the Giller Prize. Writers are neurotic. We obsess over punctuation. We spend a lot of time alone reading other people’s books. It’s kind of a given that we feel unhealthy competitive urges.

I don’t resent Zadie Smith’s success. No, not at all. Ahem.

But this is really the best part:

Readers need to be trained to read properly. I know that sounds snotty. I don’t mean it to. I simply mean that there is a meaning to the way a book is put together, and that meaning is important to why the book was put together the way it was.

Reading and the entire medium of print is the greatest democratic achievement of humankind, full stop. Books are meant to bring knowledge to everybody who canread, not everybody who is trained to read. Why are we making reading into something only qualified people should be allowed to do and then discuss? And if a reader who is reading simply for pleasure notices how a book is constructed or put together then that book isn’t very well-written, is it? Like most writers, I write for my readers. I put in all that work not so people notice the effort, but so my effort is hidden and the story and characters and structure are seamless.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t think deeply about what we read. Of course we should, if we want. But every person has different motivations for reading. Some people want to learn. Some people want to escape. And, sometimes, the very same person who wants to learn today might want to escape tomorrow. I, and all of the writers I’m proud to call my friends, respect that.

The beauty of Canada Reads is precisely that non-writers are discussing books. That almost never happens in real life outside of very well-organized book clubs (most, in my experience, end up rather boozy, which I totally endorse as well). Having an author on the panel is ideal, but it sometimes isn’t possible, and, really, do we need to listen to five writers talk about writing for five days in a row? Thanks, but I’ll listen to Jian interview Billy Bob Thornton again instead.

To suggest that Canada Reads is a bottom-feeding cultural beast is ridiculous. This isn’t Keeping up with the Kardashians or The Jersey Shore. This is the CB-freaking-C: mostly earnest, usually informative, often soothing, but never engaged in sham marriages or drunken pants-wetting. Once in a while, someone gets on the air and says something that jolts us out of our soft jazz doze. Well, so what? We get a temporary flash of titillation that provides us with some talking (and writing) material, and then we return to regular programming, with which we can sip our tea and pet the cat.

How Canadian.