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In which I shoot at certain marine mammals

February 1, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

I was looking forward to reading Jeet Heer’s Walrus piece, “The Life Raft,” regarding Canada Reads and the general mess that is CanLit’s lottery economy. In fact, I intended to read it on my flight down to Dartmouth, where now I languish, but did not. Instead of buying a copy of The Walrus, I re-read The Bushwhacked Piano, which I think would always be a sound decision. But now, the magazine has put the thing online and put me into my misery.

I am immoderately disappointed. Jeet Heer is a smart guy and a sharp writer, but not this time.

Let us not dwell too long on the word “middlebrow,” which he uses more times than I care to count; suffice to say that I feel this word is too often substituted for argument. It is easy to sneer at something once you have slapped that label on it, but the fact is that the number of things that cannot be called “middlebrow” is vanishingly small. The word is therefore meaningless, and henceforth I intend to discourage its use by carrying an electric cattle prod at all times and administering a corrective jolt to the sorry ass of any person who I catch using it. You have been warned.

More disappointing is Heer’s surprising claim that what is most deplorable about Canada Reads is its exclusion of short stories and poetry – and especially, he soon makes clear, of short stories.

But rather than rant about Standard CanLit Complaint #4 (Short Stories Get No Respect)* let me simply propose this thought experiment: if, next year, Canada Reads picks Wilderness Tips, Friend of My Youth, Play the Monster Blind, Blackouts and What Boys Like, will all be forgiven? Will Canada Reads suddenly cease to be “middlebrow?” Will the boom-or-bust “Canada Reads effect” and its pernicious effects cease to exist?

Let’s not insult each other’s intelligence by discussing that any further.

Heer neatly labels the big problem with Canada Reads as our “lottery economy”: the few books that get a Canada Reads nod sell like hotcakes. It is a career maker. And it makes careers by entirely arbitrary means. Without dwelling on this year’s vote-in process, we can simply say that the mere fact of a Canada Reads nod doesn’t guarantee that any given Canadian reader will like the book, or even that the book is good, but it does mean it will sell.

We see the same thing with the GGs, of course, and the Writers’ Trust awards, and most of all with the Giller Prize. The Sentimentalists is seeing a mixed reception from readers, he said diplomatically; this is partially because it is not everyone’s cup of overwrought tea, and partially because it is a structurally flawed, ill-conceived piece of shit. It is, however, the big book in Canadian literary fiction. This is because it won the prize that gives the most money. The prize where people are on TV. The prize that’s televised by the Globe & Mail’s sister network and, not coincidentally, pimped more extensively by the Globe than any other.

Yes, gentle reader, we really are that shallow. The problem here is not Canada Reads; it is Canada itself. For a supposedly literate nation, we’re simply not very good at talking about books. We prefer hype to engagement. And that’s a fault that including short stories and poetry will hardly correct.


* which complaint, gentle reader, I reserve for future dissection

Categories: canada reads, canlit
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