A Turf War at the Book Club: Considering the Cultural Work of Canada Reads
This coming Monday, the 2013 edition of Canada Reads will kick off with its first roundtable discussion program. For five consecutive nights, five notable Canadians will convene to debate the merits of one of the five nominated books, voting one book off in the process. By week’s end, only one book will remain standing and that will be the title that ‘Canada reads’ this year.
Now in its 12th season, Canada Reads has been described as a national book club, a multi-platform media event, and a reality program, among other descriptors. Inspired in part by the rise of competition-based reality programs like Survivor and in part by book clubs like that of Oprah, the phenomenon is a reflection of the CBC’s middlebrow compromise position between the industrialized popular culture to which its audience often gravitates and the higher brow arts and literature material that this same audience typically holds in high regard, albeit often at a distance. Of course, literature has historically had a particularly close connection to nations and nationalism and the CBC has long been an ardent supporter of CanLit. In all of these respects, Canada Reads stands as a contemporary point in a much longer timeline.
The program seeks to both associate particular works of fiction with the national project and to draw Canadians into a national conversation about those works is consistent with the CBC’s mandate. This mandate calls, in part, for the institution to facilitate inter-regional conversation, ‘reflect the multicultural and multi-racial nature of Canada,’ and ‘contribute to shared national consciousness and identity.’ A lot of this is about making Canada ‘small’; it is a bit of an enigma as a settler society with a massive landmass and a sparse population. The CBC is often lauded for its ability to bind the Canadian across that space, effectively reducing the size of the national community. CBC Radio, in particular, is often discussed in terms recurring tropes of smallness, whether it is considered to be a forum for the nation as a virtual village, conversation, or, in the case of Canada Reads, book club.
These notions are useful to many, but also potentially problematic. Questions concerning the precise nature of the cultural work performed by the program have attracted increased attention from scholars in recent years. For example, Danielle Fuller and DeNel Rehberg Sedo conceive of the program as a ‘reading spectacle’ that favors major Canadian publishers and dominant conceptions of Canadian literature and national identity. Although they acknowledge that the program presents opportunities for resistant readings and interjections, they contend that the program’s cultural work is essentially conservative in its limited vision of Canada as a diverse and multicultural country.
This argument, and the questions that precipitated it, suggest the need to revisit the question of ‘national consciousness and identity’. The CBC surely contributes to this, but for whom and on whose terms? The CBC’s radio services attract a dedicated audience that is interested in content framed in terms of the Canadian ‘nation’. For these listeners, this radio programming provides an opportunity to tap into a sort of shared national consciousness that exists in the space created by the radio, the culture this space supports, and the mythological material that has accrued around the CBC itself. Clearly, this ‘national consciousness and identity’ extends beyond the CBC’s airwaves, but to what extent is it shared? On the other hand, what about those who listen with hyphenated identities or social positions that preclude straightforward identification with normative values and ideologies? It has been suggested by many that agonistic debate over the nature of Canadian national identity might be the basis of the national culture in this settler society. With that in mind, to what extent might the CBC provide a space for the negotiation and contestation of values through its explicit orientation towards the Canadian nation-state and its myriad issues and themes? Conventional scholarly wisdom about the CBC allows for the potential for resistant readings of texts like Canada Reads, but too often seems to downplay the role or place of resistance within those programs and the discourse surrounding them. I want to consider the extent to which the CBC serves as a site of negotiation and contestation of the norms in Canadian society.
Canada Reads provides opportunities for its participants and listeners to meditate upon the issues that characterize debates about Canadian national identity. For example, this year’s theme is ‘Turf Wars’, a combative spin on the regional fissures that have themselves become something of a defining national quality. The five books and their advocates hail from five West-East regions: British Columbia and the Yukon, The Prairies and the North, Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes. The regional designations are themselves indicative: They reflect the influence of central Canada and the tendency to flatten the vast North into the more extensively-populated South. Having said all that, the notion of a literary turf war along regional lines seems likely to bring certain key questions pertaining to the intersectional nature of Canadian identity to the forefront of a widely-attended conversation. If the CBC can be said to reflect a broader Canadian ‘public’ in any meaningful way, it is surely through the sort of agonistic national deliberations that result from this sort of setup and the inevitable debates and pieces of commentary that will endeavor to make sense of it once it passes.
While one would need to do extensive ethnographic work in order to assess the actual cultural work performed by these programs, this year’s theme boasts the potential for a reflexive and meaningful conversation about Canada, albeit one that has been had before under similar circumstances. Regardless of how the conversation plays out, this ‘Turf Wars’ edition of Canada Reads is a timely reminder that the recent history of CBC Radio merits increased scholarly investigation if we are to develop a nuanced perspective on the cultural work performed by this national institution.