A Turf War at the Book Club: Considering the Cultural Work of Canada Reads

February 8, 2013
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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.


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2 Responses to “ A Turf War at the Book Club: Considering the Cultural Work of Canada Reads

  1. Kyle Conway on February 10, 2013 at 7:53 AM

    Chris — this is a very interesting post that raises a number of questions for me. As you know, I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of policy as a tool for bringing about change in broadcasting systems in general (and in Canada more specifically). Some thoughts:

    You speak of the work performed by the show, but I think you’ve identified only half the work, the half that is directed toward and involves viewers individually and the “Canadian public” (a construct that includes viewers but is not coterminous with them) more broadly. The other half is directed toward the politicians who wrote the CBC’s mandate into the Broadcasting Act and the policymakers who work to ensure that it is implemented. Here, the work is not nation-building as such but a demonstration that the CBC is doing what it is supposed to do. In other words, the substance of “national consciousness and identity” is in some ways invented each time the term is invoked. It is not some inherent quality of a TV show but a piece evidence that justifies the show’s creation by demonstrating that it fulfills a mandate.

    If we shift perspectives to focus on this second type of work, it raises a new set of questions. What is the relationship of politicians and policymakers to program-makers themselves, and how is that relationship mediated by the CBC’s mandates? Is policy a good way of effecting change within a broadcasting system? Or, more to the point, in what ways is it effective or not? How does policy influence the program-makers’ decisions related to production?

    I suspect that answers to this new set of questions will also shape the answers we find to the questions you’re posing, although I’m still working through that process. But I’d be very interested to hear your take.

  2. Christopher Cwynar on February 11, 2013 at 1:59 PM

    Thanks for this comment, Kyle. You are correct to point out that I address only half of the dynamic; given the constraints associated with the post, I elected to focus on the reception of the program and its treatment by cultural intermediaries. I have lately been interested in the relationship between the normative dimensions of the CBC’s operations in relation to the potential for the institution’s various services and programs to provide opportunities to interrogate those values and ideologies. A related concern would be the potential limits on such activities in those contexts.

    Multiculturalism would evidently be an important vector there, and the orientation of the producers or programmers to the question of cultural difference would undoubtedly play a significant role in prefiguring the treatment of those issues. With that in mind, I take your point about the political dimensions of the mandate and its interpretation on the level of legislation and then production. This is not something to which I have given extensive consideration, but I will interested to see what insights your current projects can provide with respect to these matters. If we can put all this together in the mode of the circuit model, we might be able to get a better sense as to how all of these values and terms have functioned (or been made to function) at various levels in relation to the CBC and Canadian society more broadly during this period.

    I will say that is particularly interesting to contemplate that issue in light of the fact that it has now been more than twenty years since this mandate was drafted and implemented. If the pattern holds, we could be due for a new broadcasting act in the not so distant future. I wonder what that might look like and how the CBC’s mandate would be reconfigured in the current paradigm, which has seen us move more firmly into a less broadcasting centric media era.