Monday, 18 November 2013

These Rock Stars Are All the Celebrity You're Ever Going To Need

I've been thinking about this post for a while. Thinking about it, wondering when would be a good time to post, wondering whether it would be a good idea to post at all. Turning stories over in my head. Thinking about offending people, or not, or whether any of this matters.

Next week, the CBC will unveil the panelists and the top five books chosen for 2014's version of Canada Reads. If you follow books in this country, chances are you're excited about the announcement. Those three days of debates, after all, are the first big literary event of the year.

Before I say anything else, a disclaimer: I like Canada Reads. I really do. I've attended the debates for the past two years, and I've thoroughly enjoyed myself every time. I think anything that puts books at the front and centre of national conversation is the best kind of excellent. I like how passionate the panelists are. I like the fact that the show offers authors another chance to get their work out there in the world. And I particularly enjoy how the show manages to navigate the tricky ground of reality show schlock and intelligent conversation, and come out with something worthy every time.

My Bare it For Books partner in crime, Allegra Young, said it beautifully a few weeks ago: Think of how people are talking about Canadian literature who probably never do. People who don’t care even a half as much as I do are learning about new books, new authors, and, hopefully this year, talking about social change in Canada.

I can't say it better -- there's something about this darling CBC phenomenon that's had a wide-ranging, delicious impact on Canadian literature. We should all be thankful for that. We really should.



Having said all of that, I have some beefs.

First of all: the whole idea behind Canada Reads is inherently preposterous. What's the one book that Canadians should read this year? Seriously? In a country where there are upwards of two-hundred-plus books published every year, ranging from poetry to fiction to non-fiction to graphic novels to everything in between? In a country that's given the world such vastly different writers as Margaret Atwood and Terry Fallis and Sarah Leavitt and Ken Babstock and Alice Munro and Anakana Schofield and Kathleen Winter and Trevor Cole and Saleema Nawaz and Ayelet Tsabari AND AND AND???

Come on now. Picking one book out of all others that Canadians should read in a given year  -- or even just styling a program as such -- isn't just preposterous, it's unfair. It does a disservice to the great work that our writers produce, day in and out, to say that one book should be read above others. It really does.

Of course, I do realize that most people don't think this way. In its best form, as Allegra pointed out, Canada Reads inspires people to read a whole bunch. Not just one book. A whole whack of them. The program does an excellent job of gathering input from bloggers, writers, and book lovers across the country, and continues to add a wide variety of books to the conversation even outwith the actual time of the competition. Still, though. I think it's time that we dropped the "one book" idea. I get that it's a competition, and that the nature of competition is to have a winner at the end of the day. But I think there's room for Canada Reads to creatively approach that concept. I have nothing against awards. I do have everything against awards culture, and the kind of uneasy environment that that can foster. I think the show can do better than to play to this dynamic. While I admire the fact that the show looks to do something different every year -- non-fiction one year, a search for books that might represent different regions in another, a focus on books that inspire social change this coming next -- I think it's time that the fabric of the show itself underwent a little change. It's been on for twelve years. It has a dedicated audience.

There's more room to grow, is what I'm saying.

Here's one way that the show could grow: let's have a look at that "celebrity panelist" idea.

(Disclaimer #2: I understand that the celebrity panelists have already been chosen for 2014. I'm sure they'll do a wonderful job. This post is not in any way meant to reflect on them. I am just, you know, lobbing questions out into the air. Please stay with me.)

One of the interesting things about Canada Reads, as I've said, is the way that the show walks the path between reality TV schmaltz and intelligent debate. You have the ridiculous game show music. You have the let's-pause-for-dramatic-effect-and-let-Mr. Velvety-Radio-Voice-announce-the-winner cliffhanger. (I enjoy Jian Ghomeshi a great deal, guys. I really freaking do. I just find the whole suspense thing -- in any reality show -- funny. This isn't life or death, people. Let's get real.) And now, increasingly in these past few years, you have the draw and allure of celebrity panelists: people who add something different--star power, alternative perspectives, a little more glam--to the book debate. I know that there have always been celebrity panelists on the show, but it does seem as though the past few years in particular have had a dedicated focus on this star power, and the oomph that it brings.

My question is this: why are the panels weighted overwhelmingly in favour of people who are not, themselves, authors of books? I understand that everyone engages with the world of books in their own unique way. I also understand -- and champion, make no mistake about it -- the fact that every panelist on the show clearly has loved and fought for the books that they've all chosen. They've all argued well, and I am not here today, in turn, to argue that any of them have failed.

But I think it's telling that other reality shows which feature some type of competition around art have judges who might be celebrities but are also, quite clearly, practitioners in the field.

The Voice: past and current judges include Cee Lo Green (singer), Adam Levine (singer), Shakira (singer and shaker of hips that don't lie!), Blake Shelton (singer), Usher (singer), Christina Aguilera (singer).

So You Think You Can Dance: past and current judges include Nigel Lithgoe (former dancer and choreographer), Mary Murphy (ballroom dance champion, accredited judge), Adam Shankman (dancer, director, choreographer), and Mia Michaels (choreographer).

Hell's Kitchen: Gordon Ramsay. Duh.

American Idol: Past and current judges include: Randy Jackson (musician and singer), Paula Abdul (singer), Simon Cowell (not a singer, obviously, but overseer of enough talent competitions to effectively warrant some clout!)

The point here is that even the schmaltzy stuff that happens elsewhere -- the stuff and shows wherein all of the glorious competition reality TV tropes are born and bred -- recognize, on some level, that it's good to have judges who can offer a unique insight into the art form that's being discussed. The kind of insight and perspective that comes from having spent some of your own time, as it were, in the trenches. The kind of perspective that says yes, I understand what you were trying to do with your technique, and here's where it worked, or didn't work, for me. 

I realize that I am in danger of sounding elitist here, but please believe me when I say that that isn't my intention. Again, as above -- I think the panelists that have previously been on Canada Reads have all done an excellent job. They've all responded to the discussed books in exciting (and in some cases, controversial!) ways. They've all done their part to keep the conversation going, which is great. And I'm one hundred percent sure that this will continue.

But I think what we're missing here is the fact that writing is as much a craft as it is an art. Writers apprentice to their work over many long and difficult years, in much the same way as a dancer spends thousands of hours at the barre before making that first trip out onstage. During that apprenticeship, a writer learns a hell of a lot about technique -- about grammar, about sentence structure, about voice and the million ways that you might use it. You learn about flashback. You learn about how point-of-view, and the choices you make around it, might better get across the story that you want to tell. You learn about how cliches will make or break (see what I did there? See?) a story. You learn all of the rules in order that you might find a way to break them, and break them hard.

This discussion of technique, of structure and narrative choice and word choice examination, doesn't seem to have been much a part of the Canada Reads debates in the last few years. And as a writer (yes, I am biased, I'll admit), I find this discouraging. In a weird way, I think it actually enforces the (incorrect) notion of writing as an elite art, because no one is talking about the bricks-and-mortar that go into making a story what it is. We're taking about the emotional result and heft of a story, which is immensely valuable, but we spend comparatively little time looking at what the author has done to get there. We leave the talk of craft to the book reviews that no one bothers to read anymore. And in so doing, we bypass the very real, humble details of what writing actually IS and perpetuate the idea that writing and art is some kind of magical, ethereal thing, created by people who live in ivory towers (subsidized by government dole) and attend lots of ritzy galas.

There are, of course, any number of rebuttals you could make to this claim, chief among them being the idea that the writer puts all of that work into a piece beforehand precisely so that it might seem effortless and magical. If the bricks-and-mortar part of writing is done the way it should be, it fades into the background so that a reader might be swept up into the world of a book. If a book is done well, in other words, the reader will lose themselves in it so totally that focusing on technique is the last thing on their mind. Sure. This is absolutely true.

You could also say, of course, that talk of diction and sentence structure and gerund verbs and all of that jazz is, in fact, not jazzy at all but downright boring. I'm sure plenty of people would agree with this. Isn't that what we all escaped those English classes for?

Well, this is where writers come in. Because writers get impossibly, irrevocably, intoxicatingly excited about this very stuff. And you know what? As word people, they can tell you exactly why it's exciting. Gerund verbs? Let me tell you why they might not work. Let me tell you what might work better. Or, let me tell you why they do work in this particular instance. Let me show you how the use of this technique makes for a brilliant chapter in Book X, or a brilliant ending in Book Y. Let me show you -- and jump up and down to prove it! -- why the sentence structure in Malarky is so very important, so very integral to what this book is about. Let me show you why it couldn't possibly have been written any other way.

It isn't life or death, sure. But for writers, this stuff comes pretty frigging close. There's a reason why Oscar Wilde put a comma in a sentence all those years ago and then spent an entire day agonizing over it, only to take it out in the afternoon and call that a good day's work. These tiny little details -- this is what makes one's work endure. It is extremely important that we continue to look at the larger issues that a book might examine -- the bigger questions, the overall canvas, the kinds of reactions that this elicits from people the world over. But it's the tiny little details -- the struggle over language, the choices that a writer might make, and how this, in turn, helps to lay the basis for those larger questions -- that make a book what it is. Without the technique behind them, these larger questions are just questions. The larger questions, plus technique? That's what makes the story.

Here's one way to look at it. My father is a builder, and over the years, he's built a number of custom houses for our family. They've all been beautiful. I can -- and have, many a time -- walk through these houses and know that they are beautiful, that they're well made, that they're works of art in their own way. This is evident to me just by walking through the house. But when my father finished his last house -- the one that he and my mother live in now -- the building inspector who went through the house on completion proclaimed it one of the finest houses he'd ever seen. And he told my dad exactly how and what he loved about the house, and why. He had a lifetime's worth of insight into why things were working so well. Hearing that, in turn, made me look at the house differently. Because now I understand exactly what it is about the house that makes it so great. I had some inkling of that beforehand -- but now I know for sure, because someone who lives and breathes this kind of stuff took time to point it out.

I would love to see a Canada Reads panel look at books in this way, and I think our writers are exactly the people to do it. And here's my last and final point about this: these writers, folks, are all the celebrity any show like this might ever need.

Jian Ghomeshi said it himself two weeks ago, just before the Giller. "I'm proud to live in a country where authors are rock stars."

Damn straight, sir. This country is teeming with writerly rock stars. I mean, Margaret Atwood is recognized the world over as a literary pioneer! Sure, certain people might not recognize her on the street, but this is a whole other kind of fame, isn't it. The kind that goes beyond paparazzi. (And, you know, crack scandals. But I digress.) If what you want is a celebrity panel, then you can't get much more celebrity-esque than Ms. Atwood herself. COME ON.

Well sure, someone might say. But Margaret Atwood -- and Alice Munro, say -- are exceptions to the rule. No one else in the world of Canadian books approaches that kind of fame.

Friend, I beg to differ. There's a whole world of literary celebrity (and dare I say it, scandal) right here in this country. You don't have to look that far.

You want someone funny on staff, someone who's quick with the banter and can channel the Alan Thicke vibe? Why not ask Trevor Cole? Why not ask Terry Fallis, Mr. Canada Reads Alumni himself? Why not look to someone like Lynn Coady, who is funny as hell and has the Giller chops and the Twitter persona to prove it?

Want someone with super smarts AND a TV presence? How about asking Linden MacIntyre to join the game?

Want a sports enthusiast in there to shake things up a little? Angie Abdou. Stacey May Fowles. Natalie Zina Walschots. Mike Spry. Or ALL FOUR OF THEM, AT ONCE. 

Is it controversy you're looking for? Put Jan Zwicky and Michael Lista in that CBC studio together, and let's just see what happens.

Want someone with international notoriety? Let's put David Gilmour in one of those chairs. (For an added dose of extra fun, let's see if Alice Munro would also deign to take a seat. With her Nobel.)

Want a face that we all know and love? A golden boy, or golden girl? Joseph Boyden. Ami McKay.

Culture expert? Zoe Whittall.

Want someone with Hollywood-esque good looks and a mean poet's pen? FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, GET STEVEN HEIGHTON ON THAT PANEL. GET HIM ON THERE NOW.

Guys, I could go on and on. Okay, so maybe these aren't faces that we see every day on TV. But these faces ARE in bookstores across the country. Every single Canadian city has a slice of the work that these people have put out into the world. Besides -- these are all people who know their stuff. They've been a part of Canadian literary conversation for years, and it's time that we put them front and centre in these debates. Forgive me, but I don't think populism is enough. You have the chance to do something really great with this show -- it is not just about ratings. It is also not a coincidence that some of the most memorable moments of Canada Reads -- like, say, that time that Lisa Moore accused Dave Bidini of being a lazy reader, or that time that John K. Samson won the show with his debating skillz two years in a row (and yes, I get that this was because the 2nd year was an all-star cast, but still, the guy's got chops!) -- came about as a result of writers getting fired up about what they love.

In his wonderful Walrus essay about Canada Reads, the journalist Jeet Heer said the following: "CanLit is like a decaying, deindustrialized city with half the downtown buildings boarded up or caged." This may be true -- and I'd argue that on some level, publishing in its entirety is something like this -- but the secret here is that it's a decaying city filled with people who have nonetheless managed to find magic in these decrepit buildings. If our literature is a decaying city, then our writers are the ones living in these forgotten homes -- shedding light on what's abandoned, taking details of the empty streets, finding beauty in what everyone assumes to be lost. This is important. You do not save literature by giving up this city and focusing instead on the more comfortable, more accessible suburbs. You go down deep. You spend your time in the city--in the trenches!--and find out what works.

It's all still there. We're riding out the end of a spectacular year in CanLit -- a Nobel Prize for one of our beloved, a Giller gone to someone much deserving, and even a Booker win if you like to stretch the facts a lot (I don't, but that's just me). And every single writer in this country, in some way, shape, or form, has had a part to play in the culture that's seeing Canadian literature so often on the world stage now. People who have had only a surface relationship with Canadian novels and stories and poetry are, thanks to the fruits of this year, suddenly delving back into the words that our writers have been producing. Having five writers on a Canada Reads panel would only serve to enrich the scope of what's available to these readers.

So, dear old Ceeb -- what say you? I'm not saying that I think this should be a full change, no more non-writer celebrities forever and ever AMEN. But why not try a year of it? What have you got to lose? Let's have a writer-only panel in 2015, and see what happens. I promise you that it won't be boring. I promise you that our writers are more than up to the task of showing exactly how our literature is exciting, relevant, and even downright sexy. Our writers are funny. They're engaging. They will all, given the right amount of coaxing, get out of their pyjamas and get prettied up for the camera. And if controversy's what you want to put bums in seats (or ears to the radio, whatever), then I promise: we have controversy in spades.

You've got nothing to lose, Canada Reads. You have everything to gain. I look forward to this year's debates. I'm sure that they'll be loads of fun, and will bring more deserving books to the eyes and ears of the Canadian reading public.

But there's room to grow. And there are plenty of writers across this country who would be game to help you try. Why not ask them? Why not take that chance?


  1. Love it! You've got me all riled up for a Tuesday morning!

  2. I love this in part because you know so much about contemporary Canadian lit! Seriously: I'm amazed.

  3. This is brilliant, Amanda. I have seldom seen criticism delivered so hand-in-hand with celebration.

  4. Thanks so much, ladies! :)


  5. Thank you for the lovely shout outs! You've written a well-researched piece that's backed up by some strong statements and passion. And celebration! What a champion you are for other writers.

    I think you're obviously right about the reason celebrities are used; in this day and age, that's the culture we live in, whether we like it or not. Celebrity sells. And hey - the CBC isn't exactly flooded with audience these days and I'm sure they have to keep their numbers up so some celebs won't hurt.

    What I disagree with, however, is that we *need* someone with a deep knowledge of the field, like another writer, to champion the books. You totally didn't sound elitist, but I think that "Joe the Plumber" (shout out on American Thanksgiving!) wouldn't connect with a writer as a panelist. Hey might, however, connect with a hockey broadcaster or a politician. Since this book is dubbed the book "every Canadian should read this year," (which, I agree, itself is ridiculous but there you have it) it makes sense to have panelists that might not write beautiful prose, read 50 books a year, or even one at all. These "sometimes readers" are really the everyman. If I see someone that doesn't normally read get really passionate about a book, maybe I'll be more likely to pick it up if I'm not a reader.

    Having said that, I completely see your point behind the idea of having a panel of writers. What FUN that would be! I agree that compared with other reality shows it makes total sense to have people on the panel who are masters of the craft they're debating. Do I think numbers would go down? Yes, I do. But I think that the people who have voices in the Canlit world might come back to Canada Reads for a year.

    Great post, great way to spark a conversation. Let's celebrate the writers as much as we can! I, for one, would LOVE to see Iain Reid passionately defending "Come Thou Tortoise." Or Steven Heighton channeling "Afterlands" and telling Canada why we should read "Above All Things."

    ... but I'm also pretty jazzed about hearing Stephen Lewis talking about how one day a plague will wipe out humanity and pigs will grow human organs for transplants.

    But maybe that's just me :)

  6. Great piece. A lot to think about. But remember Canada Reads is only three days long. That in itself is a pity. If you had more authors and industry people evaluating the books a la American Idol, it would make a great show, but a much different show. First it couldn't be done in the meager three days the CBC devotes to this project. Second, although you could count me as a dedicated listener, you may also droves of uninterested listeners. Some people honestly do listen (and read the book) just because Donovan Bailey or some such non-literary person says so. The picking of the panelists does seem a little formulaic: an intellectual, an athlete, someone funny, an actress and a journalist. But it this is what brings a diverse audience of listeners and book buyers in, then go for it. As long as more people are reading more that is a good thing.

    And don't even get me started on the whole issue of what is the one book all Canadians should read. Ridiculous.

  7. Aw thanks, ladies! All true, as you say. Though I don't know that the writer is necessarily someone that wouldn't connect with the everyman. (But again, biased, so maybe my opinion doesn't count as much here.) Writers watch hockey and TV and follow politics just like everyone else; they also have "average working Joe" jobs just like everyone else. (In fact, you could argue that most writers in this country are more familiar with the "everyman's" existence than, say, Alan Thicke or Shad, considering that most of them have to keep up those "real jobs".) They might love language or write beautiful prose -- and not every writer in this country is into high-falutin' language pyrotechnics! -- but this doesn't necessarily mean that they're going to frame the discussion in a way that leaves the ordinary man out of it. Instead of bowing to that assumption, I'd love to see Canada Reads try and change the way that writers are viewed -- to make it so that the average person WOULD look to a writer as a go-to person for book recommendations.

    I just worry, I suppose, because I think the format of the show at times entrenches the high/low culture divide (Giller Prize = all about writers and therefore books for literary snobs, and Canada Reads = celebrity panelists and therefore books for everyone else!) and I just think there are better ways to approach the idea. Obviously I don't ACTUALLY think that Canada Reads books are somehow indicative of "low culture" (I mean, hello, Atwood! Boyden! Winter! Yay!), and obviously people DO use both the Giller (and heck, lots of other exciting things throughout the year) and CR as ways to find out more about the great books in this country. I just think it sad that it takes someone who might not be all that much of a reader -- and obviously plenty of the panelists ARE heavy readers so this doesn't apply to them all -- to ultimately get Joe the Plumber interested in books. I wish that was different.

    But obviously that points to a deeper issue, one about reading in general, I suppose, that itself is separate from CR...let's get Patsy Aldana of the Get Reading Campaign in on the conversation! :)

    A xo

    As you say -- let's celebrate our writers in all the ways we can!

    Having said all that -- I am ALSO stoked about seeing Stephen Lewis get his game on. Yay for that!


  8. Hi Amanda, I think maybe we could benefit from both shows. One where celebs champion books, one where writers debate/evaluate/champion books. I wouldn't, however, want to see Canada Reads become an insular, "writers on writers" show. It smacks of the elitist navel gazing you mention. As a teaching tool in clasrooms, it would lose its effectiveness as showing reader role models like Donovan Bailey. And, yes, any time I can see Stephen Lewis, I'll be excited beyond words!