By Steven W. Beattie
That’s the approximate amount of time it took after the announcement of the 40 titles in contention to appear on the 2011 edition of the CBC’s “Canada Reads” program for Twitter to explode with tweets from authors, publishers, friends, and fans, all of them advocating for one title or another. Throughout the day, my various e-mail accounts were inundated with pleas to vote for specific books. Normally sensible people were reduced to shouting, slavering promotion machines, backs were scratched, logs were rolled, and asses were kissed.
Welcome to the Canada Reads Effect, 2011 style.
On the off chance that you’ve been living under a rock for the past few weeks, allow me to explain the cause of all this commotion. This year, “Canada Reads” decided to change the format for choosing which books appear on its program. Instead of allowing the five panelists to pick their own books, the producers decided to canvass the public for nominations. The books had to be Canadian novels published after January 1, 2001. Librarians, booksellers, and bloggers (including yr. humble correspondent) also submitted choices for what they felt to be “essential” books of the decade. From these submissions, the idea was to come up with a 40-title longlist from which the panelists would choose one book each to defend on air.
So far, so stupid.
As you may remember, I had some difficulty with this new format. Chiefly, I was perturbed by the notion that the CBC would take the one thing that made “Canada Reads” so interesting – the practice of having five panelists each choose a Canadian book they felt personally invested in to defend during the debates – and artificially curtail it.
Then on October 26th, associate producer Erin Balser posted a new amendment to the rules for this year’s competition. To wit:
We want YOU to choose the Canada Reads Top 10 list. That’s right, instead of the previously announced panelist-chosen Top 10, the list will be yours to decide. Canadians across the country (and around the world) can have their say in what novels belong in the Top 10 Essential Canadian Novels of the Decade. The panelists will pick from that very list.
In other words, they’ve taken one of the biggest problems with this year’s format and exacerbated it. Now, instead of choosing from a relatively robust slate of 40 books, the five panelists will be forced to choose from a meagre 10 titles. Not only will panelists face the very real potential of finding not a single book among the 10 that tickles their fancy, but, assuming they don’t all choose different titles the first time around, some panelists will be forced to defend their second, third, or even fourth choice. Hopefully, they’re all really good actors, because it’s going to be very difficult to fake that kind of sincerity.
For listeners, there is the possibility of having to suffer through a week of discussions around five books that have already been “Canada Reads” contenders. A Complicated Kindness, Lullabies for Little Criminals, The Book of Negroes, Oryx and Crake, Life of Pi, and Three Day Road, all of which have made prior appearances on the show, are included on the longlist. Should the public in its infinite wisdom decide that these six books all constitute “essential” titles from the last ten years, that won’t leave the panelists much else to choose from. (It’s also interesting to note that the most exciting “Canada Reads” winner from the eligible period, Nicolas Dickner’s Nikolski, didn’t make the longlist. It was the only eligible winner from previous years to get snubbed.)
But all of this pales in comparison to the one unintended consequence of this year’s revised format: the transformation of authors and publishers into carnival barkers and circus performers all clamouring for the public’s admiration in the form of a vote for their book. This is one aspect of the new rules that I didn’t see coming, although I should have (it happened on a more limited scale around last year’s “Canada Also Reads”). The “Canada Reads” Effect is real: the upswing in sales and attention an author receives as a result of being on the show is something that writers who toil in obscurity hoping for a big break would be foolish not to covet. But the unfortunate result is the kind of undignified, depressing displays of self-promotion and glad-handling we’ve witnessed over the last few weeks. Now that the public is in charge of selecting the shortlist of books, this sad spectacle is only going to get worse.
The CBC has turned Canadian authors into dancing monkeys, tapping along to the tune of Mr. Ghomeshi’s hurdy-gurdy. It’s unrefined, depressing, and base. And it’s the best reason why I’ll likely be tuning out of the 2011 program from here on in.