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A how-to manual for future Canada Reads panellists
(or, 5 simple rules to make sure your book isn't KO'd in Round 2)
By Zsuzsi Gartner | February 20, 2004

In 1972, Margaret Atwood published Survival, in which she identified the preoccupations of CanLit as "survival and victims." In 2002, CBC Radio One debuted Canada Reads, an annual WWF-style wingding during which five panellists - including politicians, sons of politicians, home-reno gurus, singers and the occasional writer - throw books to the mat and fake stomp each other's heads in order to determine the one book all of Canada should read.

Vancouver writer Zsuzsi Gartner championed Mordecai Richler's Barney's Version.
Thirty years on, it's still all about victims and survival.

Now, there are a finite number of things all Canadians should do: reuse, return & recycle; stop crowding the baggage carousels at major airports; visit Winnipeg once before they die to see what all the fuss is about; and, mainly, lighten up. But for most of us the idea that there exists a work of Canadian fiction out there that all of us should read is a notion that no doubt triggers acid-worthy flashbacks to Grade 5 book reports on Who Has Seen the Wind or Women's Studies 101 projects on The Edible Woman.

Happily, the dangerously prescriptive, cod-liver-oil theory of CanLit - it'll put hair on your chest, solve Western Alienation, appease Quebec and cure what ails our health-care system - was in little evidence during this year's battle of the books. In fact, the novel I was defending, Mordecai Richler's masterpiece, Barney's Version, although guaranteed to put hair on your chest, sets East-West relations and Quebec appeasement back three decades, not to mention the effect of all that smoking, drinking and double-fat smoked-meat on our health-care system.

Canada Reads audiences seemed a bit confused, though, about the mandate - or lack of mandate - of the program. "The one book all Canadians should read? It's my understanding that it's something that improves our understanding of Canada and Canadians," one listener posted on the discussion forum after the second debate, perhaps confusing our panel with the Spicer Commission. And this after two days of passionate jousting and acerbic banter during which the hoary spectre of nation-building was barely raised.

For those who've groused, "why should I care what the mayor of Winnipeg or Jim Cuddy (or - last year - Justin Trudeau) say I should read?" I have to point out what an odd pleasure it was debating books with non-writers. There was passion without pretension, and conviction without condescension.

2004 panellists (standing, from left): Winnipeg Mayor Glen Murray, Blue Rodeo's Jim Cuddy, journalist and filmmaker Francine Pelletier, (sitting, from left) opera singer Measha Brueggergosman, writer Zsuzsi Gartner.
I was once on an onerous jury for a major short fiction prize with two well-known Toronto writers who said things like, "The grimness of their lives was well conveyed," and, in response to my comment about liking the pyrotechnic prose style of one writer, came a heavy sigh and this aper´┐Żu I've yet to decipher: "It's so easy to paint a little red canoe at the bottom of the picture."

The ranking of fiction is a mug's game - ask any Governor General's or Giller Prize jury. Stories of squabbling and compromise are legendary and yet the jurors are largely unaccountable. They deliberate behind closed doors and maintain a Masonic secrecy, unlike the Brits who relish a good bun fight after each Booker Prize announcement, with judges breaking ranks to voice their unhappiness. The very public cut and thrust of Canada Reads is an anomaly in this country.

Being the sole writer on this year's panel, it's fallen to me to briefly post-mortem Canada Reads while the others head back to more productive lives where they don't have to give books another thought. Glen Murray (Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water) returns to do his crusading mayor thing in Winnipeg; Measha Brueggergosman, (Alice Munro's The Love of a Good Woman) flew off - first-class, no less - to hit high Cs somewhere; Francine Pelletier (Monique Proulx's The Heart is an Involuntary Muscle) is making a documentary about women's G-spots; and Blue Rodeo's Jim Cuddy (Guy Vanderhaeghe's The Last Crossing) rides high in the saddle on Queen Street.

Gartner ponders over the comments tossed across the table.
Since licking your wounds in public is unseemly and smacks of borderline personality disorder, I'll instead offer a few simple rules to future panellists to make sure your book isn't KO'd in Round 2:

1.) Beware of Politicians: Hizzoner the Mayor may wink at you from across the table, implying complicity, and over lunch offer whispered assurances that in his opinion your book is the best. But when it comes time to vote, he's as Machiavellian as Paul Martin. He knows the Diva and the Documentarian hate Barney, so he votes strategically, rather than with his heart, in order to clear the decks of competition. Et tu, Brutus!

2.) Beware of Politics: This one is a no-brainer. If a French Canadian feminist is on the panel, avoid books by Mordecai Richler.

3.) Practise Your Defence: You may be able to unleash an impressive inner-Cujo when it comes to delineating why, for example, Proulx's novel is drowning in purple prose, or King's folksy touch renders his book Native Lite, but unless you mount an equally impressive defence, your book will go down in flames. You will kick yourself for not vigorously countering the Documentarian's (and Diva's) comments that Richler's structurally brilliant novel is just "newspaper writing" (!?!?). As for the Documentarian's assertions that fiction that's an extension of the author's own experiences and opinions can't be great, well, that's telling you, Philip Roth! And Henry Miller, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Tolstoy, Bukowski, Kerouac, Simone de Beauvoir, et cetera.

4.) Don't Be Afraid of the "M" Words: The Diva may threaten to break your water glass, but don't shy away from terms like metaphor, mimetic and metafiction. If you have the literary vocabulary, wield it. (Then you could've applauded the triumph of Barney's Version's metafictive construction.) Do not be afraid to intimidate your fellow panellists. This is not an Anthony Robbins seminar.

5.) Avoid Humour: All three winning Canada Reads books (In the Skin of a Lion, Next Episode, and The Last Crossing) lack a funny bone. The unwritten rule in Canadian literary competitions is that if a book has plenty of yuks it lacks gravitas. (We've got the Leacock Award for books considered funny and thus insignificant.)

Bonus: Here's one for the conspiracy theorists: Two of the three winners have been championed by hip singer/songwriters (This year, Blue Rodeo's Jim Cuddy with The Last Crossing and the first year, the Barenaked Ladies's Steven Page with In the Skin of a Lion). Coincidence, or another one of those insidious CBC plots to win over younger listeners?

Vancouver writer Zsuzsi Gartner is the author of the story collection All the Anxious Girls on Earth.

FROM FEB. 20, 2004:
'Last Crossing' wins Canada Reads 2004

CBC Canada Reads

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