Photo: flickr/snow0810

Another Canada Reads is done and another simultaneous outcry and cheer about the validity of the program has happened. Maybe’s it’s the terrible weather this time of year or maybe it’s the reliance on a “survivor” style format, but either way, Canada Reads has become a polarizing topic in discussions about CanLit.

“The format is the worst!” “It generates so much exposure!” “The readers don’t have a voice!” “I love Jay Baruchel!” “It’s just a game!”

There are lots of opinions and comments about Canada Reads and there seems only one thing left to do: we need to have a point-counterpoint with ourselves.

So, let’s compare some art! The question on all our minds: Is Canada Reads beneficial to Canadian literature?

PRO: Canada Reads puts CanLit on display and in the mainstream

This fact can’t be argued. Canada Reads reaches a big audience (both online and on tv) and engages people about CanLit. It has a pretty dedicated following, guidelines that stipulate books must be by a Canadian author (which seems to be a more inclusive than exclusive term) and exposes people to books they may not have read (or wanted to read) before.

CON: Why is everything a competition?

Why does it take a competitive format where books are pitted against one another in order to spike people’s interest in CanLit? The format harpoons an industry of writers and publishers that are already being attacked. Maybe they could change the moderation to focus on the ‘solutions side’ or the championing of books instead of throwing them into the pit and fighting it out.

PRO: Debating Canadian books in an open forum

It nice to watch Canadian celebrities — or “celebrities” — (and people in general) passionately discussing books they think are important to readers across Canada. This year, especially, provided an insightful and informed debate about the books and showcased a genuine passion for CanLit. Also, Canada Reads does try to get a wide variety of “defenders,” authors and genres, so that is nice. The defenders do seem to come prepared and take the competition very seriously.


CON: Bashing other books is just weird (and trivializing)

Right? The general concept of “winning” by knocking off another book by highlighting its weaknesses seems counterintuitive to the idea of celebrating Canada’s best books. This type of debate can trivialize good books and also, a 30 second recap to explain why a book is worth reading, seems useless, and, as a friend mentioned “If the idea is to engage with a literary text, why are we adopting the infomercial model?” So, yeah, sometimes the debaters rise above the format, but sometimes the judges do the books a disservice and sometimes they fall so, so low.

PRO: Watch those numbers spike!

Similar to the Oprah Effect (on a much different scale), the Canada Reads selections get a boost in sales. This is great for Canada’s book publishers and great for the authors. No question.

CON: Demand increases library waitlists

This isn’t really a problem, more of an annoyance (and I like consistent formatting). And, authors and publishers getting a much need spike in sales does outweigh the long waitlists. I think everyone is all for writers and publishing houses making a few extra bucks! So, moving on…

PRO: Canada Readers are really invested

Personal anecdote: I participated in the online chats last year (both on twitter and CBC) and became quickly addicted to Canada Reads. The community there was pretty lovely; most were passionate, articulate and open to discussion. It was really fun. There were ups and downs when books were voted off or when they continued on. The CBC did a good job allowing discussion to flow and community to grow. (I also had an excellent conversation on babble, with a lot more sarcasm and swearing.)

CON: Canada readers’ votes aren’t taken into consideration

Isn’t this strange? The readers are pretty much left out of the picture. There is an online poll, but it doesn’t have any actual effect on what happens.

I’m sure Canada Reads looked into this idea and there is probably a good reason (maybe?) why readers’ votes weren’t incorporated … but there’s still a disconnect between the aim of the show and the actual show.

This argument can go a few ways: (1) reader votes would skew results due to favouritism for celebrities or books that have been read versus ones that haven’t or (2) judges would have to appeal to a larger audiences, not just the other judges and it could ruin the debate or (3) judges have biases too that can easily affect who they vote off, for example, they could oust the projected winner.

PRO: It’s the only literary program on tv!

Yeah it may be manufactured as a reality show style format, but hey!, at least we’re discussing Canadian books in the mainstream right?

CON: It’s the only literary program on tv!

It’s a manufactured reality show style format, and the only exposure of Canadian books on tv?! We need something more and something different.

PRO: The net benefits outweigh any flaws

Sure, there a flaws, and the competition format isn’t the best, but the exposure and financial benefits outweigh any of those things. We can argue all day long about “what is best,” but at the end of the day, more people are being exposed to more books and Canada Reads, it can be argued, has renewed and established an interest in Canadian literature in the mainstream. This presence is invaluable and definitely outweighs any minor complaints.

CON: The flaws are too glaring to ignore

This program is inherently flawed and the format doesn’t promote a culture of support and cohesion that the Canadian publishing and writing world seems to have. The people in CanLit seem, for the most part, very supportive of each other and this battle of the books doesn’t reflect that scene.

Regardless, judging art is inherently flawed and other than a few off the cuff comments, the CBC doesn’t make an attempt to acknowledge that idea. Picking a “winner” denotes the others as losers, or less than, and that just isn’t correct. The style of debate doesn’t promote good discussion because rapid fire conversation isn’t enough. The show may create exposure and generate revenue, but is it worth it if we’re not fostering readership of Canadian books?


So, did that make it any clearer? I didn’t think so…

Look, Canada Reads isn’t going away, and people, on both sides, don’t want it to — it’s good for publishers and authors, fun for some readers and fills a hole in tv programming. But, there seems to be a divide on opinion, especially on the overall representation of the show, begging the question: Is there a way to make Canada Reads less of a grudge match and more of a love bout?

Imagine if, instead of being built around “the battle of the books” and ousting each other, the competition were restructured as well less of a competition. Books could be voted “for” instead of “against” or there wasn’t a definitive winner. That show could potentially have the same effects as the current Canada Reads incarncation without all the subtext of “a battle.”

But who’s watching that show?

Kaitlin McNabb is rabble’s books coordinator and tweets at @kaitlinmcnabb.

Photo: flickr/snow0810