Skip to main content

I knew I was on a different kind of radio show when the host asked the famous writer sitting across the table from me her favourite word in the French language, and the 89-year-old author replied with an archaic word – bâsir, to disappear from the horizon – explaining that the word was important to her Acadian heritage, being both archaic and maritime. It was a response at once erudite and personal, and reminded me of the thrill of being with French-speakers who, wherever they are from, seem to have an interest in language that can only be described as literary. They can discuss their favourite words for hours.

It is easy to romanticize a culture when you are learning its language, and even easier to romanticize a place when you don’t actually live there. But I am in the mood to romanticize Quebec literary culture after spending a week in Montreal participating in an intense literary contest on the radio.

You didn’t hear much about Combat des livres in English Canada, just as Quebeckers don’t hear much about the English-language CBC’s equivalent competition, Canada Reads. On Combat des livres, which ran for a total of six hours over five days on Radio-Canada across the country and online, five round-table panellists defended a book published in Canada in the past year. Audience members then voted online for their favourite book, and one was crowned the winner on the fifth day.

It was a pretty big deal in Montreal. I was startled by a Godzilla-sized billboard on the Boulevard René-Lévesque advertising this radio show, with a photo of the Combat des livres’ elegant host, Marie-Louise Arsenault, in black evening wear. By the end of the week, there had been more than 30,000 online votes.

The winner was decided by public vote rather than by panellists “voting off” the books they liked least. There was not much criticism of rival books; we each just defended our own. The books were chosen as representative of five metaphorical “regions” (Quebec, Ontario, West, Atlantic and Indigenous lands), with the panellists chosen from those “regions” as well. The panel was carefully diverse, although the books were not – they were all fiction, and they all ended up being by women (the producers were excitedly proud of that – I’m not exactly sure why).

The books were not chosen according to any edifying theme. They were not meant to heal the country or represent the country or provide inspiration for the future. There were no official criteria: We all assumed we were just looking for the best book, from a reader’s perspective. The debate was divided into sections on general merit, writing style, characters and longevity. We were not asked to evaluate a book’s good-for-you-ness.

This special event was part of the programming of a regular two-hour books show that is broadcast every weekday from 1 to 3 p.m. on Radio-Canada’s Première chaîne (yes, that’s two hours of books coverage every day on the main network). I was invited to participate in Combat because I am a regular contributor to that book show: every couple of weeks I get about 12 minutes to try to summarize cultural news and events in Toronto, including books, music and theatre. This sounds tiny, but it is a whole lot more than Toronto broadcast media give to Montreal.

This show, called Plus on est de fous, plus on lit! (a punning title on a well-known phrase), is fast-moving. Guests sit around the studio table and can jump into other interviews while waiting their turn – a device taken from TV talk and variety shows (of which there are many on French TV). Even more astounding to someone who has grown up with the CBC is that guests are not always authors. Some are critics and academics. The focus is not on personal stories. There are a lot of book reviews. With this rapid-fire, critical approach, books come across not as the sacred healing experiences of traumatized people but as a part of an entertainment culture that we all have comments on, just as we discuss movies and fashion.

The star of the Combat was writer Antonine Maillet, whose 89th birthday was celebrated live in the studio with a surprise cake and champagne. The reverence around this Acadian hero – author of La Sagouine , a play I had on my syllabus at university, and Pélagie-la-Charrette , the book for which she won the Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize – was genuine. Producers and writers alike approached her saying what an honour it was to be in her presence. She was vivacious, impish, learned.

Another panellist was the 30-year-old comedian Philippe-Audrey Larrue-St-Jacques, who showed up every day in a different bespoke suit and tie. He was defending a new book of literary short stories and prose poems, the kind of thing that few people other than academics read in my part of the country. We were awaiting the start of our show one afternoon when I saw him being interviewed on a TV monitor: Oh, he shrugged, that was an entertainment talk show he had been on the night before. He was also a popular television star.

The last day of the Combat was a two-hour variety show, with a jazz band in the studio, commentary by a sports journalist, a slam poetry match and live readings of selected literary texts by a couple of actors. We were all drinking wine. There were a dozen performers in the studio and a dozen producers behind the glass. They called it a fête.

A young Innu novelist, Naomi Fontaine, and a Winnipeg professor of Senegalese origin, Ibrahima Diallo, rounded out our team. The winning book was Fontaine’s choice, one that had won a number prizes in English Canada: The Break by Katherena Vermette. (I was defending the French translation of Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last, which came a close second, not through any effective debating techniques of mine.)

It is unkind to both cultures for me to use my happy experience in Montreal as a stick with which to beat Canada Reads, but one can hardly help it. The English-language CBC and Canlit as a whole do tend to promote the idea of literature as a series of historical injustices about which we must feel ashamed, for the good of our souls and of our country – literature as penance, and the discussion of it as a kind of exculpatory prayer. But in Quebec, this was literature as entertainment and social life, a combination one feels is lived out more truly on the café-strewn, pedestrian-friendly streets of Montreal, where going to the theatre is something one does for actual fun rather than to make up for one’s sins.

Very few Quebec books get published by Anglo-Canadian publishers. But three of the five books in our contest were translated from English. I know this plea has been made before, but could we not again consider taking as much interest in their culture as they do in ours? We might learn how to have a happy time with books.

Interact with The Globe