It's been four years sincethe radio and TV program Canada Reads made its debut, and Canada is still complaining.
When the first edition of CBC's annual book bun fight appeared in 2002, there were concerns about the game-show-like format, voting books "onto the bookshelf" one by one until there was one book remaining. Then there were the complaints of celebrity stunt casting. Instead of a panel consisting solely of authors or other literary types, Canada Reads had a mix of personalities weighted toward non-books people and ranging from politicians to actors and musicians.
As recently as last year, in an editorial in the Autumn, 2004, issue of the quarterly journal Canadian Literature, UBC English professor Laura Moss argued that the show should re-evaluate its cultural responsibility as a potential nation builder more carefully and noted that the discussions rarely moved out of the realm of emotional appeal. She noted that the talk about Paul Hiebert's Sarah Binks, championed by Will Ferguson in 2003, for instance, completely neglected to pull apart some of the book's complex issues such as historical context and how it related to its descriptions of native Canadians.
"The discussion of the texts themselves often doesn't do justice to either the art or the politics of the book," Moss said. "I don't want to sound like a curmudgeon, but I think [the show]underestimates what readers can actually do."
But Canada Reads is not trying to be Canada Critiques, say the show's producers. "We try to be more populist, and sometimes we get criticized for that," said Talin Vartanian, senior producer for Canada Reads. "Yet I think the fact that it's not a highbrow debate, that we're not getting into intricacies of literary styles or plot developments in the way a book club might, and that we're using celebrities who are not in their usual comfort zone, attracts a different kind of listener. . . .You can't be all things to all people, so I'm not defensive about that. We don't pretend to be highbrow."
And, the show has certainly proved popular. Since its debut on radio in 2002, the program has practically exploded into a full-blown franchise.
This year's edition, its fourth, will not only continue on last year's expansion into televised segments in addition to the radio program, but includes a behind-the-scenes, making-of documentary airing this weekend as an appetizer for the show, which begins Monday on CBC Radio One and CBC Newsworld.
Schools and libraries across the country routinely adopt their own, follow-along Canada Reads programs while the show airs, and a teen edition is in development. A French version, Combat des livres, was added last year.
Significantly, the book-selection process has changed this year. In the past, the panelists weren't allowed to pick which book they were defending -- prospective panelists each submitted a list of five books and were then assigned one by the show's producers. This year's participants were asked to defend their first, and only, book choice.
Stepping onto the Canada Reads set along with host Bill Richardson are Toronto city councillor Olivia Chow, defending author Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake; author and former National Librarian Roch Carrier, going to the mat for Jacques Poulin's Volkswagen Blues; author Donna Morrissey, singing the praises of Frank Parker Day's Rockbound; Olympic fencer Sherraine MacKay, championing Mairuth Sarsfield's No Crystal Stair; and singer Molly Johnson, stepping in to replace singer Rufus Wainwright (now on tour), making a case for Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers.
But the peccadilloes of the celebrity-judging system remain. The fact that Johnson did not get to pick her own book, for example, has the potential to revive the initial criticisms of the show.
Still, even Moss, the professor, doesn't think the non-academic panelists are necessarily a problem. "I don't think that celebrities can't be good readers -- they could be excellent readers. . . ." she said. "There have been good readers. [Former Winnipeg mayor]Glen Murray was an excellent reader, and the idea behind a book club is bringing people together from different perspectives and different backgrounds, and really focusing on what's happening."
In fact, it is those from non-literary backgrounds who tend to triumph on Canada Reads. In the past, two of the winners were championed by musicians: In 2002, the winning book was Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion, selected by Steven Page of Barenaked Ladies; last year, Blue Rodeo's Jim Cuddy took Guy Vanderhaeghe's The Last Crossing across the finish line. In 2003, it was Quebec journalist Denise Bombardier who successfully defended Hubert Aquin's Next Episode in an upset win that saw rival Justin Trudeau abandon his own choice for the Aquin camp.
And even those who might express misgivings about the judging process heartily endorse the show for its unquestionable influence on sales of those books that make it onto the reading list. It may sound clichéd, but Canada Reads really does get Canada reading.
First published in 1988, Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion saw its sales jump to 80,000 in 2002, a figure its publisher, Random House of Canada, attributed to winning the contest.
According to McClelland & Stewart, Aquin's Next Episode, little known outside of Quebec where it was originally released in French, reached sales of 18,500 when it won the following year. M&S also report that last year's winner, Vanderhaeghe's The Last Crossing, an enormously popular book already enjoying healthy sales at the beginning of its paperback release when Canada Reads picked it as a contestant, doubled its sales after the book won.
As for this year's contenders, both the heavyweights have witnessed their sales beef up in the run-up to the program. McClelland & Stewart reports that orders for Beautiful Losers have increased tenfold. Even Oryx and Crake, which has already spent a combined 46 weeks on The Globe and Mail's bestseller lists since its release in early 2003 and has been coasting on a non-stop publicity wave following nominations for the Giller Prize, the Governor-General's Award and the Man Booker Prize, doubled its orders in the month after the announcement of its inclusion in the Canada Reads program, according to the latest edition's publisher, Random House of Canada.
Meanwhile, the three relative unknowns on this year's list -- Rockbound, Volkswagen Blues and No Crystal Stair -- have already experienced sales jumps. Rockbound went from selling roughly 200 copies a year to shipping 7,000 since the announcement of the Canada Reads shortlist in November, says Bill Harnum, a spokesperson for University of Toronto Press. Marc Côté, head of Cormorant Books, reports that Volkswagen Blues had been selling around 200 copies a year, but had demand for 5,000 in the last three months of 2004 and another 2,500 this year. As for No Crystal Stair, it was a casualty in the demise of Stoddart Publishing, with 1,100 copies languishing in a warehouse when Women's Press bought it from the author in 2003, says rep Renée Knapp; they've now shipped 7,000 copies.
While the increase in sales isn't as large as those experienced by the books on 2002's reading list, publishers and booksellers predictably are still embracing the program.
Even UBC's Moss sees the benefits of Canada Reads. "It was not too long ago that Canadian literature was not even considered worthy of debate."
Canada Reads: Preview Special airs today at 4 p.m. on CBC Newsworld and tomorrow at 7 p.m. (ET). The show airs twice daily this Monday through Friday, on CBC Radio One at 11:30 a.m. (noon NT) and at 7:30 p.m. (8 NT) and on Newsworld at 12:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. (ET).