Terry Fallis muses on how non-fiction changes the Canada Reads 'ball game'

The big news in Canada Reads 2012 is that the spotlight shines on non-fiction books this year. This is a Canada Reads first, so no one really knows how it's going to change the dynamic, particularly when the debates begin in February.

When you're writing fiction, you own the story. You can write whatever you like. You can kill somebody off. You can have an affair or break up a long marriage (although the two often go together). You can bring down a government, build up a company, fight with bad guys, get the girl or get the boy, do whatever you want. I like writing fiction because it really means you hold a licence to make stuff up. Sure, the story has to be there, the pacing has to be right, the characters believable, the plot airtight and the words carefully chosen, ordered and polished. But even within those parameters, again I say, you get to make stuff up!


Which title will take it all? (Tanja-Tiziana Burdi/CBC)

But when you're writing non-fiction, the writer never truly owns the story. Sure, the writer tells the story, interprets the story, shades the story. But it's not quite the same as creating the story. I have to be a bit careful with these generalizations. After all, four of our five Canada Reads finalists have written their own stories, all of them deeply personal and powerful. But still, they aren't making it up. They're recounting their story, not creating it out of whole cloth. We're not used to that in Canada Reads.

So what will drive the debates? Well, the panelists have a number of options to consider when the bell sounds. They could focus on the actual stories themselves and make a case for the one that is most likely to capture and captivate Canadians. I think this approach has its challenges. All five of these tales are compelling, at times even heart-stopping. In my mind, and at any given time, I think I could advocate for any of the final five books and feel like I'd have a shot at winning. So what else?

The panelists could accept that each book can stand on its own as a top-notch story, and focus more on the writing. Again, I'm not sure this strategy will yield much in the way of competitive advantage. Beyond the great stories themselves, they are all very well told. Again, pick up any of the final five and you'll find beautiful writing that perfectly evokes the mood and message in each. I would not want to try to win this thing by suggesting that one book's writing outshines the others. Good luck with that. What else have they got to go on?

Well, it is Canada Reads, after all. I suppose we might see some panelists arguing that their story is more "Canadian" than the others. But then we descend into that deep and foreboding swamp of exactly what constitutes "Canadian" in the first place. I'm certainly not about to perform a triple-twisting, double pike position somersault cannonball into the middle of that debate but I will come back to this question in a future blog post.

Some panelist may well play the "important book" card, claiming that the story they are defending is of such societal significance that it, above the rest, warrants the broader audience Canada Reads inevitably brings. Thinking about some of the final five books, I expect we'll see this argument in the debates.

And if it's not about which book is most important, what about entertainment value? I know that many, if not most, Canadians read to be entertained. How do these books stack up on the entertain-o-meter? How broadly do we define the term "entertainment?" Should this even be a factor? Now I'm getting confused.

But wait, there's more. What about timeliness? Does it matter if the stories are current or at least recent like some of the final five? Or perhaps the books that may be a little older, are in fact timeless, and therefore just as compelling. For some readers, this might be a relevant consideration. Tough call.

So where does that leave us? How will these non-fiction tales shape the debates? How many of the gambits touched upon in this post will find their way into the panelists' playbooks? I wish I knew. I'm just glad I'm not one of the celeb defenders trying to map out my strategy. This year, with non-fiction, it's a whole new ball game.


Terry Fallis is the author of The Best Laid Plans, a satirical novel of Canadian politics that won the 2008 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour and the 2011 Canada Reads title. It's currently being adapted as a six-part mini-series for CBC Television. His follow-up novel, The High Road, was a finalist for the 2011 Leacock Medal. McClelland & Stewart will publish his third novel in September 2012.

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