I am going to give voice to something that is common knowledge among people in the business of writing and publishing, but rarely stated publicly, for obvious political reasons. There is a lot of private, secret scorn, in dark pubs and bedrooms, about Canada Reads, the CBC’s annual book competition. This is frequently among people who publicly say what a great boon this promotion is for literature and literacy and how happy they are for the winners.
What could possibly be wrong with Canada Reads? It’s a lighthearted debate show among five prominent and diverse Canadians about their favourite books. It takes the form of a Survivor-style competition in which a book is eliminated every day. Canadians are supposed to all read the same books so that we can follow along and cheer for our favourites. The idea is to encourage a national conversation about representatively Canadian books.
It does create interest in these few books, which is great for those authors and their publishers. Already, several of this year’s chosen books have risen into the bestseller charts. It attempts to bring literature out of the sallow halls of academe to a popular consciousness by associating it with fun, lively, non-academic and almost-famous people such as Canadian musicians, actors and athletes. What snob would object to such an entirely positive project?
I do, because I am not convinced that the approach – and particularly the framing of the conversation about literature as fundamentally moral, edifying and unifying – actually encourages reading at all. Instead, it promotes a very unappetizing idea of literature that ends up turning people against it. It is bad for literature’s brand to market it as good for you or historically or nationally important. Most of us came to a love of literature because it is entertaining. The idea that the books – rather than the judges – may themselves be entertaining is the one side of the conversation consistently lacking.
The first year of Canada Reads, in 2002, showcased four novels and a long narrative poem. That would look like sheer artistic snobbery now. Even recently, the competition has been for the most part among novels. Last year, it featured three novels and two memoirs.
This year, literature as art is almost ignored. Five books have been chosen to represent the deliberately all-encompassing theme “One Book to Move You.” That could mean anything at all. In practice, what it means is four very personal memoirs and one novel.
The novel is admittedly a fine one – David Chariandy’s Brother, which does contain the artistry I am looking for (and which I am guessing will win the competition). The memoirs are as follows: one Holocaust, one Syrian war, one Asian-Canadian family with mental illness, one strong grandmother. (This last, Suzanne, translated from French, is a fictionalized account of a real life, so it’s sort of on the line.) I’m sure that each of these books individually has its merits. But as a group, they represent a narrow band of Canadian literary output, and give an odd impression to the skeptical of what function literature serves.
Why is the novel being phased out of consideration? Well, you may ask, why, after all, is fiction important to the life of the country? Is non-fiction not more widely read, and should we not, in a populist contest, simply recognize that?
If you ask historians to name great works of Canadian literature, they will probably cite books by Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje before any memoirs. This country produces imaginative art just as well as it produces personal essays, and its imaginative arts are what resonate internationally and what get remembered in encyclopedias and taught to schoolchildren. Culture is not a simple matter of statements and principles.
The thing about works of imaginative art, though, is that they are well served by experts in literary technique to explain their intricacies. The CBC will not use these. Instead they want judges who might be recognized for some other accomplishment. I understand the Corp.’s thinking in employing “personalities” from non-literary fields to be spokespeople for books. This year, the judges are a stadium rock star, a model, an actor and two television presenters. I suppose the producers thought that a writer or a media critic or a professor would not be famous enough to draw viewers and listeners. But the thing is, these people aren’t very famous either – these are a particularly CBC kind of celebrity, that is, the nice kind. The not exactly-worldwide-famous kind. The reason for this choice is not just anti-elitism – it’s also part of a nationalist strategy to create Canadian celebrities. A show such as Canada Reads aims to kill two birds – it wants to promote Canadian writing and perpetuate the consensual hallucination that we have media stars at the same time. Let’s celebrate Canadian cultural heroes by inventing some!
The celebrity panellists are already making appearances on CBC Radio announcing why they are supporting the books they have been assigned. Each one makes a point about why the book is important – because it “teaches us” something about difference or healing. Each book is chosen because of its lesson.
The national broadcaster’s ubiquitous hype about books we “should” read perpetuates ideas that most non-readers already have about literature – that literature is essentially a sermon, a sermon on suffering and loss delivered through the narrative of a good person coming to terms with the past. As a writer, I find this to be bad advertising. This is why people don’t read.
To be reminded of obvious moral truths is not why we read nor why we should read. Literature is an art form and, like all art, relies on aesthetic effects. We do not judge painting or music for its moral lessons; we describe its colours and tones. We read as we listen to music – for pleasure. And for the same reason we turn on Netflix – to be entertained, to be sucked body and mind into a story we believe is actually happening to us. Fiction is pretty good at this, and to largely ignore its importance in a show nominally about literature is an insult to literature.