24 July 2020

Canada Reads 2020: "Shouts Out to Tara!"

After much delay, Canada Reads 2020 has come and gone. Congrats to Samra Habib, whose memoir We Have Always Been Here won the game show and was crowned "The One Book to Bring Canada Into Focus."

I listened with as much interest as ever, and was surprised to hear from people asking my opinion. This may have had something to do with "No Country for Old Books," an article I wrote last year for Canadian Notes & Queries. If so, the head doth swell.

As in other years, my thoughts take the form of complaints, like the 2014 decision to focus on the new.

Canadian Notes & Queries #104, Spring 2019

For those keeping track, all but one of the titles in this year's competition was published in 2019, the outlier being Eden Robinson's Son of a Trickster, which appeared in bookstores in 2017. The average age of a Canada Reads 2020 title was 13.5 months.

Canada Reads' preference for the front list was something I discovered through a letter CBC Books sent to publishers. An eye-opener, you can read it in "No Country for Old Books." In researching the game show, I've found CBC Books to be less than forthcoming. Imagine my interest when host Ali Hassan revealed, just yesterday, that Canada Reads has a style consultant named Tara Williams.

I remind that Canada Reads is a radio show.

My main quibble with Canada Reads remains. In its early years, panellists chose the books they wished to promote. In 2002, Leon Rooke, argued on behalf of The Stone Angel, a novel he'd read many times. The same can be said for Denise Bombardier, who in 2007 championed an old favourite in Gabrielle Roy's Children of My Heart.

This year, each of the "defenders" revealed that they had not read their respective books before being asked to participate.

We Have Always Been Here was a national bestseller before it made Canada Reads. It had won a Lambda and had been longlisted of the RBC Charles Taylor Award. The memoir was the subject of a Globe & Mail feature and a subsequent review. It was a 2019 "Globe 100" title. Published internationally, We Have Always Been Here was featured on The Next Chapter, and in the pages of  the Toronto StarNOW, Stylist, and something so distant as the Tampa Bay Times. CBC Books had been pushing We Have Always Been Here for more than a year, beginning with its excited 3 June 2019 article "10 Canadian books coming out in June we can't wait to read."

And yet... and yet, in making her case, Amanda Brugel, its defender, stated: "I wouldn't have been aware of this book until it had been brought to my attention via this competition."

Isn't this a sad state of affairs?

One last thing:

Ali, "The One Book to Bring Canada Into Focus"?

In 2020.

You're a comedian.

Was it too obvious?

Full disclosure: I wanted Eden Robinson's Son of a Trickster to win.

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  1. "I wanted Eden Robinson's Son of a Trickster to win."
    Really liked those books. Can't wait for the 3rd though I totally understand the delay. I remember a time when it felt like I could keep up with Can Lit. I can't even keep up with my own shelves anymore. I'd read all the books they had on the show.

    1. You'd read all the books, Beau? I wonder how many listeners could've said the same? To be frank, after listening to the show, I'm not evenconvinced that all the defenders read all the books.

      Out of curiosity, because you read 'em all, which of the five did you think worthy of the win?

      A second disclosure: Back in 1996, when we were living in Vancouver, I organized an event for Eden Robinson's Traplines. Even then, I knew she was the real deal. The evening ended with me driving her from Richmond, into Vancouver, through Stanley Park, and over the Lion's Gate Bridge to her North Vancouver condo. A long trip, it passed in a flash. Any evening with Eden is over too soon.

  2. 'Would read them all' - I mean they all look interesting. So far I've only read the Robinson. I'm plowing through a huge backlog. My most recent can lit pickup was the relatively new "Chasing Painted Horses" (not counting a couple speculative fiction books from this year). I feel like there are 'recent' books on my list going back a good 20 years now. Never catching up.

    1. I understand. I can't help but consider Arcade Fire's The Suburbs a favourite "recent" album.

      Somehow, despite stores being closed for months, the pile of newly acquired titles on my bedside table has only grown. The latest addition: PeeVee by Fred Jacob (Toronto: Macmillan, 1928). I like to think I'll get to it this year.

  3. I've lost interest in Canada Reads as it is only new books, and talked about by people who are not bookish people at all. It's more a marketing exercise than a bookish one, to me; I see enough book marketing in my job, so I don't need this too.

    1. Well said.

      Your comment got me thinking. Not one of this year's panelists referred to any other writing by the writer whose book they were championing. Cory Doctorow is the author of fifteen books, though you'd never know it from the show. If memory serves, Son of a Trickster was recognized as being the first volume in a yet to be completed trilogy, but the title of the second volume, Trickster Drift, was not so much as mentioned. In fact, there was no mention of books other than the five in competition. I don't think this was at all unusual. As you say, these are not bookish people. They claim to be, but are not. Again, Amanda Brugel, stated that she was selected to appear on the show, she had not been aware of Samra Habib's We Have Always Been Here.