Canada Reads – A Seriously Messed Up Premise


2011-10-21 2011-12-18 001 002 - Copy (470x640)One of the most heartbreaking events I ever participated in was Georgian Bay Reads, our local version of Canada Reads. When I was invited to represent Collingwood in 2011, I was delighted, but admitted I knew very little about “the game” since I had never followed Canada Reads (insert sheepish grin). That was my first mistake: going in blind.

Foolishly, I assumed the premise was to argue a book’s merits in front of the audience who would then vote on the winning book based on the best argument. Very close to the date of the event I began to understand that choosing a winner had nothing to do with the audience. The panelists were to argue the merits of their choice and *the panelists* voted which book leaves the island. Huh?! Surely you have this backwards, I thought, isn’t the object of the game to “win” for your book? Yes, it is, they told me. But it’s the other panelists who choose the winner.

You have got to be kidding me. That’s like putting Stephen Harper, Tom Mulcair and [yet unnamed Liberal leader] together, each arguing their political platforms and expecting them to reach consensus on a winner! Does anyone else see the complete absence of logic here?

If the object is to win, strategy is the only way to get there. A Canada Reads panelist doesn’t care how good their rivals’ arguments are, they must ELIMINATE the competition—that is: the book most likely to win.

In our case, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi was the first to be voted off. Was it because it had the least merit? Hardly! In fact, Life of Pi’s champion voted it off himself because, as he so rightly pointed out, it didn’t matter what his argument was, his book was a front runner and therefore destined for elimination. “Hence,” he announced, “I’ll do it for you.” Thus, right out of the gate, Life of Pi was unanimously voted off the table.

In the end, the book that won Georgian Bay Reads that year was thought to be the least likely, even by its champion, because of its (ahem) adult themes. She chose a brilliant strategy—celebrate its naughtiness, but as superb as her delivery was, it was not her argument that won the title in the end. It was the fact that the other panelists saw her book as the least likely to win. In the end, when it came down to a vote by a rival panelist for which book would go toe-to-toe with hers, guess which one she chose? Ironically, her strategy backfired.

Panelists are up there to WIN for the book of their choice. How does this make sense? This was brought home painfully clearly in the car crash we witnessed in Canada Reads 2012, where I felt the pain of Anne-France Goldwater, who cut and thrust her way to the goal—and was immediately vilified by listeners around the country. It’s a game, people. She was told the object was to win, and she knew how it was supposed to be done: eliminate your opponent! No one said to be nice. (Interestingly, her negative comments sent sales of the rival books soaring.)

In my case, I learned later, behind the scenes the idea was to get us arguing, “get some blood on the table.” Suddenly, I was no longer a booklover, I was a gladiator. I was dismayed when another panelist, in a last ditch effort to rescue her book from the chopping block said, “I don’t recommend either of these [other] books. I didn’t like them.” Great way to get people reading Canadian books!

I can’t bear to see brilliant, beautifully written books torn apart by people who know better. All the books on the Canada Reads table are great books, otherwise they wouldn’t have made it so far. It’s the premise of Canada Reads that needs to change. Let the audience decide the winner based on which argument is most compelling.

Am I the only one who gets this?

4 Responses to Canada Reads – A Seriously Messed Up Premise
  1. Diane Holmlund
    February 12, 2013 | 7:20 pm

    Canada Reads is SO Canadian in the bad old convoluted way. Just too unhipster for the heart and soul to show through?

    • Christine Cowley
      February 12, 2013 | 8:55 pm

      I don’t know about the unhipster part. I thought maybe I wasn’t hipster enough to get the point of the exercise. Why not let the audience decide?

  2. Vaughn
    February 14, 2013 | 3:56 pm

    Very nicely written piece, Christine. Indeed the shift to turn the panelist into gladiators is a terrible attempt to mimic what some believe is the popular trend towards violence and real world bickering. However, people that spend a lot of time reading have a different mindset that the television crowd, at least I hope. Thus, I would prefer the crowd voting on the best book based on the merits of the book and the thoughtful insights of the authors and panelists.
    Hope more people speak up about it.
    Cheers,

    • Christine Cowley
      February 14, 2013 | 6:58 pm

      Thank-you so much for your thoughtful comment. I am glad to think that we readers are not the blood-lusting types CBC would have us think we should be. Happy reading!

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