By Z. S. Roe
Hooray for Canadian booklovers … I guess. CBC’s annual battle of the books competition is underway once again. The list of books for this year’s edition has been announced, and the results are … well, about what you’d expect. This year, the competition is pitting regions against each other, wherein titles published in one Canadian region vie for the top spot against titles from the other four regions. (Click here for a fuller explanation as well as the list of competing novels.)
As a fan of CBC radio, I do listen to the Canada Reads debates, but never with any real enthusiasm. Look, I understand the value of such an exercise (exploring and celebrating the Canadian literary landscape), but the whole thing always seems just a little bit underwhelming. I wish I didn’t have to say it, but I do. Let me explain.
For starters, the discussion/debate is often rushed and is almost always issue-centered, leaving the elements of style and storytelling mostly unexamined. Yes, host and moderator Jian Ghomeshi is something of a god among Canadian personalities, but the five panelists (no matter the year) rarely make insightful arguments in support of the books they are championing. Instead, their positions can usually be summed up as, “My book made me feel _______, but your book didn’t. I like how my book made me feel. Hooray for feelings!”
In the end, Canada Reads is a fun, but largely superficial annual event. Books matter a great deal to me, as they can be both powerful and life changing. Sometimes, however, I wonder if this literary smack down serves as anything more than an occasion for book lovers to look in the mirror and congratulate themselves on being so trendily literate.
I don’t mean to suggest that we should do away with Canada Reads. On the contrary, I’d like to see it continue, but in a much more expanded upon form—no more one-week, blink and you miss it tea parties. Let’s really get into what makes great Canadian fiction so great by discussing, debating, and unpacking these novels in a thorough and thoughtful fashion. And while we’re at it, let’s do away with the “relatable” Canadian personalities who serve as panelists each year; instead, let’s see panelists who actually know how to discuss books, such as authors, literary scholars, and book critics.
Maybe these are harsh words, but they’re said with love. Of course, Jian Ghomeshi has been known to have that effect on people. That man’s dashing.
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