Terry Fallis on reading, writing...and tweeting

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Last year, for the first time in its history, Canada Reads gave book lovers a say in which titles would be considered for the debates. In light of Canadians' participation in the world of social media, this seemed like a reasonable, sensible, and even overdue evolution in what has become a very popular annual literary version of Survivor. Yet including the public in this way was not universally applauded. In fact, there was some controversy about it throughout the campaign. But I'm pleased that the folks who run Canada Reads stuck with the same approach this year. It was the right call.

In last year's competition, there was some concern, angst and even teeth-gnashing that employing social media to solicit public votes would turn Canada Reads into a popularity contest. Some accurately suggested that there are many writers of very worthy books who were not active on Facebook or Twitter, or who had never even tried to cultivate an online following. The argument continued that this would give those writers who were spending time online a distinct advantage, turning Canada Reads into a contest about which authors could muster the most online support rather than about the merits of the books themselves.

This is not an unreasonable view. But if the public campaigns of last year and this year are any indication, I don't think this fear has been realized. Rather, book lovers themselves stepped up and took control by arguing passionately for their favourite books, some of which were not really on the public's radar. Sure, we authors snuck in a few plugs — but I truly believe the outcome ultimately rests with readers, not writers. After all, the late Carol Shields was a finalist last year. And looking at this year's Top 10, you can't tell me that these books are not worthy aspirants for the Canada Reads crown.

What made the debate possible in the first place has been the meteoric rise in popularity of social media and the platforms it has created for community-building. Few would dispute that social media have irrevocably transformed the communications landscape. When blogging platforms emerged in the early years of the new millennium, only the most prescient could have forecast what social media has now become. MySpace, Twitter, YouTube, podcasting, Facebook, Tumblr, Foursquare, Google+, LinkedIn... I could list many more but you might think I'm merely trying to pad my word count with an endless list of social media applications. The point is, Canadians can now connect with one another in countless ways that simply weren't even contemplated 10 years ago. The ground has shifted beneath our feet.

For writers, the social media revolution has meant new opportunities, new choices and new challenges. In the old days, and by that I mean about a decade ago, authors would attend their own book launches, perhaps travel a bit if they were lucky enough to have a book tour, give a few library readings and perhaps sign books at a local bookstore. Then, it was back to their garrets to pump out their next books.

But now, as we hurtle towards 2012, writers have more decisions to make. Some have embraced social media and welcomed new opportunities to engage with their readers. Others have lamented the new world and consider Twitter, blogging, Facebook and YouTube to be major distractions, time-hogs, an invasion of their privacy and even an unwelcome draw on their creativity. Both positions have merit. In the end, writers will decide what works for them.

On the other side of the pen, avid readers, and I'm certainly one of them, have latched onto social media as a way to connect with their favourite writers and learn more about them. I don't know about you, but I'm fascinated by the authors who write the books I love to read. I'm endlessly curious about how they came up with their stories, what their writing routines might be and what kind of people they are to have created such memorable and compelling works. As a reader, I need to know more about the author than the four sentences dutifully provided on the back cover. That's just how I read. If authors choose to engage, social media brings readers closer to the writers they love.

Yes, the emergence of social media has certainly changed the literary landscape, including Canada Reads. But in the end, it's the books themselves that really change us.




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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. 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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