Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Canada Reads, Baby!

Canada Reads Top 40 titles - All great choices
I was delighted to hear of the Canada Reads effect in a recent short article in the National Post.

According to the article by Mark Medley, sales of the winning title this year (as reported by BookNet Canada), The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis, jumped by 695%.

But that's not all, because according to the article, sales of the other 4 short-listed titles in this year's contest: The Birth House, The Bone Cage, Essex County and Unless rose an average of 170%.

Evidence, I suppose, that Canada does read. I'm wondering if this year's more open format (ie, soliciting open entries to arrive at the top 100, then top 40 and top 10 short-lists from average Canadians rather than a "closed-door" selection process) had something to do with that? Was it a good idea for CBC to allow the average person to feel more a part of it? Je pense que oui.

My friend Steph posted a very thoughtful and detailed commentary on this year's proceedings on her Bellas Bookshelves Blog called This Is Not About Canada Reads, and she raises some fantastic and insightful reasons why this year's format, being more open to the masses, was disappointing to her. I see exactly where Steph is coming from and her concerns with the program and proceedings being "dumbed down" for the masses.

I suppose I understand that the moment you take intricate and detailed discussion away from a group of close-knit experts who are happy to dive into the details of a novel, and out into the general public, particularly in a mass media format, you almost always have to "dumb it down" in order to appeal to a broader audience -- and by "dumbing it down" I don't mean to be insulting, but I've been in and quoted in the media (Radio, TV and newspaper) enough in the past half dozen years to know that every story being told through mass media is truncated and abbreviated in order to be digested. Sometimes that truncation removes the context, sometimes it makes what you said look idiotic. But that's just one side-effect of our "fast food" society's impatience with detail and desire to skip through to read just the headlines.

For my own book-nerdish tendencies, there are many podcasts I can listen to that delve deeper into the thoughtful and introspective discussions about writing and about books. And I'm delighted to have them. But I'm also glad there are places in the larger media that still discuss books and authors. So I understand that the grander, larger audience inspiring Canada Reads has no choice but to paint with much broader strokes.

I'm also delighted that people had the opportunity to tune into Canada Reads debates on their radios, online and via television, offering them much higher brow options than watching some yahoo get their fifteen minutes of fame via another spin-off reality television program.

And again, I'm happy to see more average Canadians, folks who normally wouldn't even have known about the short-listed titles or authors, venturing into bookstores and libraries to look for the titles (or, of course, finding them online - it's just hard to witness the "finding it online" thing) simply because they've heard so much media coverage and discussion about them.

It warms my heart to see people pick up a new author they might never have heard of rather than another novel by Dan Brown. (Again, not trying to be a snob, because I still love the fact that authors like Dan Brown get people reading in incredible masses, and in my opinion, folks reading books, any books, is a good thing)

There is, admittedly, a huge part of me that is absolutely delighted to see MORE people talking about books by Canadian authors, and to see more sales of the top 5 listed titles. (Globe and Mail's recent "Canadian Bestsellers" lists show both The Best Laid Plans (Terry Fallis) and The Birth House (Ami McKay) as being in the top 10)

I love to see people reading, love to hear people talking about books. Perhaps it's because I perhaps don't have much to offer in the realm of speaking about or properly critiquing books (I just like to enjoy them and talk about them and share my enthusiasm for them) -- yes, I have a major in English Language and Literature, but I always felt like the dumb one in my university classes, that I wasn't able to appreciate or understand the novels the way the rest of my classmates were. To that end, I'm always pleased when discussions can be more inclusive, more open.

Speaking of open and inclusive, I was pleased to see a graphic novel make the short-list this year. Although, that being said, I think that there's much more openness that can and should be explored. Sure, William Gibson's science fiction novel Pattern Recognition made the Top 10 list, but so many other great speculative works by Canadian authors were simply overlooked.

I'm a firm believer that Canada Reads should continue to be open to embracing new and more open forms of literature. I love the fact that Essex County was debated far and wide by people who loved and hated things about it, or hated the fact it was eliminated first. At the end of the day, they were talking about a graphic novel, something I've never seen happen in discussions associated with literature (at least outside my regular circle of friends, who read graphic novels and speculative fiction, two of the "ghettos" of the literary landscape)

So, at the end of the day, I'm pleased with this year's CBC Canada Reads events and the sideline discussions in bookstores, in newspapers, on blogs and twitter, but mostly because I'm pretty delighted to see Canada reading.


Laura said...

Awesome! Thank you for writing this! I get so sick of all of the negativity and elitism surrounding Canada Reads. This is coming from another avid reader and graduate of English Lit.

steph said...

Thanks for linking to my post, Mark!

I need to add, as I have elsewhere, that I don't think I was being elitist. All I was asking for, in effect, was more discussion of the actual content and less strategy, so the voting made sense, for one, but also to respect the authors. I've talked to many authors who express what they want people to get from their novel; they've not written only for the sake of entertaining, not simply to win a popularity contest. Had we that kind of discussion, more content focused, Essex County might have had a fairer chance.

And I'm not the only one who observed this desire for more. When it's just a game in the end, something important in terms of cultural and literary contribution is lost.

Again, I'm not saying we need to have literary theses presented in these debates, but like others, I wanted more, so it was actually a discussion of the differences and similarities of the stories. I don't think this would turn people off so long as the panelists kept it real.

I like many of the points you brought up, Mark, and I agree. It's great that people bought these books in order to participate, and the sales were definitely up. But another thing I wonder about is that those numbers indicate sales only, not necessarily how many people are reading or finishing the books.

You said you're delighted to see Canada reading, as am I. But I don't think there's an issue with Canada reading; I don't think Canadians don't read. It's not a trend and it's certainly not driven solely by programs like Canada Reads. Take a look at BookMadam's Seen Reading project, where people post or tweet who and where and what they see people reading. It's all over the place and often, and I haven't seen one Canada Reads title on there (though that's not to say there aren't any). My point is, there's no shortage of readers in this country. It's just that CR offers another platform for their voices. And that's a good thing, as Martha would say! But Larsson's books, for example, sold like crazy, too, without a program, just effective marketing.

It's what they read, and what they do with that experience that's important, I think. It's great they're reading CanLit, for sure. But I also wonder if those people who normally read Dan Brown and the like are the buyers, are the participators in Canada Reads, because those who bought the titles from our store are those who already read this type of literature (most of them had already read two of the titles), who would normally follow such a program as well as read the Globe and other reviews and stats of books, or were those who were buying the titles as gifts. So are we actually converting people or getting more people to read and talk or are the people who are already out there reading these types of books and discussing them simply becoming exposed because of the program?

Depending on what angle you take, sales are all that count, I guess. But even as a bookseller I'd like to think that there's more to literature than sales. There may be more talk, too, but I'd personally like to hear talk that's actually beyond like or dislike, which was my original point.

I don't think you need special skills or smarts to be able to compare books or process a book you've read. It's not elitist or highbrow to be able to enhance your reading experience (instead of just reading and putting aside) by thinking about and discussing elements of a story.

Did any of this make sense?

Mark Leslie said...

@Laura - thanks for the comment. Always nice to meet another avid reader/English grad.

@Steph - it makes complete sense. For the record, I don't think you're an elistist and I completely understand the discussion about content that you were desiring.

And definitely an interesting thought about buying vs reading the book. Not always a guaranteed direct relationship, is there?

Yes, there's a whack of us book-nerds who are already in the game, but I'd like to believe that the proceedings ended up converting a least a percentage of folks who might never have read or heard of most of the authors in the Top 5 short-list before.

In any case, thanks for adding your thoughts here.

sr said...
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