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'Getting it' with Canada Reads

An Argentinian Woodcut

Image by Caitlinator. Licensed via Creative Commons

"I didn't get it."

"Did you get that?"

"I totally got that."

"What was I supposed to get?"

The question of "getting it" is unavoidable in life, especially when it comes to forms of artistic expression. Behind every book, film, song, play, dance performance, photograph or painting, there's a message or vision that an artist is trying to convey. How successfully that message comes across — or how it doesn't come across — can create some heated discussions among critics and the public at large.

Listening to people's opinions about books fascinates me. I did a lot of book club meetings during the 2009 Canada Reads time frame, and I always enjoyed hearing a group's uncensored discussion about a book. The same questions would come up: Did they like it? Did they hate it? Did they understand what the book was about? In short, did they "get it"?

(One side note: If you read something and don't "get it," don't immediately blame yourself. I used to do that, until I realized that "getting it" was a two-way street. You can't "get it" if the writer isn't "giving it.")

Writers work alone. There are fellow writers or friends who read drafts, and, of course, an editor will come in at the publishing stage. But for the most part, it's just the writer and the keyboard. Or pen. Or quill, if you're the old-fashioned type. Writing is in itself a solitary experience, not unlike the reading experience. Readers can't collaboratively read together (well, I suppose they could, but it doesn't sound like much fun) nor can writers create that way.

I often write into a perceived void. In other words, I write into a space or territory where no story currently exists. This isn't to say that I think my stuff is that unique (let's face it — every story worth telling has already been told) or that another writer hasn't written something similar. But each writer's unique perspective can make a familiar story feel fresh again.

Beyond that, there's also the hope that, by having written into that perceived void, I'll reach other people who have also sensed that same void.

At their best, books, like most art forms, communicate things that defy language. My favourite books aren't based on how well the author described the sunset or how interesting the characters were or its riveting plot. What made these books so impactful, so personal to me, was a connection that moved beyond words and entered the realm of the inarticulate.

In other words, I got it.

I recently started teaching my first creative-writing class. It's been interesting — and daunting — to strip down the craft of writing in a way that seems almost mathematical. How do you write good dialogue? What role does setting play in your story? What is your main character's primary hope and fear?

One of the topics covered in an upcoming class is "subtext" and I've been struggling with it. Specifically, how do I speak about the unspoken; the story that swims beneath the words on the page? How does a writer create that? How does a writer ensure a reader "gets it"?

Problem is, a writer can't.

"Getting it" involves a bit of magic. Yes, there are ways a writer can engage a reader, but really, the "getting it" part, that deeper sense of connection, can't be manufactured or anticipated or prescribed. It's the most genuine and sincerest aspect of writing. And it makes all those lonely moments with the keyboard (or the quill) worth it.

Right now, five panelists are deciding which of the 10 books they're going to defend. Much, if not all, of those decisions will rest on the "getting it" factor. What has made this year unique for Canada Reads is that the public is seeing the titles before the decisions are made. It's an interesting dynamic because it makes me incredibly curious about the panelists. Who will these people be? What choices will they make? Which of these books will compel them, draw them in?

Who will "get" what?


Brian FrancisBrian Francis is Canada Reads' resident blogger. His debut novel, Fruit, was the runner-up in the Canada Reads 2009 debates. His second novel, The Natural Order, will be published next year.

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