"Writing isn't a contest." So I was told by none other than Carol Shields, just before she encouraged me to enter a contest. This was a few years before The Stone Diaries (A) won her a heap of prizes, including the Pulitzer. My contact with her was brief, but the impression she left me with was of someone averse to contesting the value of one literary work over another. On the other hand, she never held back when it came to publicly encouraging, praising, lauding someone's work. "Contests" were a shifty platform for this, but weren't to be avoided because of it.
Still, paying attention to literary contests makes me a little batty. I often disagree with the announced winner and gnash my teeth to think of how the "losers" are faring the morning after. The really big prizes are especially political, presided as they are by people with really big egos. The Nobel windbag who recently dismissed all of American Literature is just one very public example of the sort of "conversation" that takes place behind closed doors. Feh. A pox on all contests.
When it first aired in 2002, CBC's "battle of the books" Canada Reads fell decidedly into the pox-worthy camp. The "vote it off the island" format dovetailed in an ungainly fashion with the Reality shows that had taken over television. And every one of the contested titles was already required reading in Canadian universities. Feh.
Canada Reads gradually changed -- the "advocates" and their book selections became more colorful. The wiki reveals some surprisingly off-beat choices and nearly unrecognizable names. And 2008 brought about the unprecedented feat of getting Paul Quarrington's King Leary back into print and onto the national best-seller list (wp). I started paying attention.
I listened to a few episodes of this year's contest. The process of opening the chamber doors was actually quite interesting. The advocates were mostly likable, doing what they could to acknowledge the strengths of their opponents. As for the works in question, I thought three of the titles were already too widely read to be of interest, two of them absurdly so. I hadn't yet read Marina Endicott's Good To A Fault (A), and had never even heard of Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner (A). As the show progressed, I decided I was going to pick up a copy of the latter, regardless of who won.
I'm half-finished Nikolski, and show no signs of speeding up because I am savoring the experience. Dickner's story beguiles with a sense of restlessness, yearning and travel that is, I think, uniquely Canadian (if any non-Canuckle-head readers are game, I'd be curious to hear their reactions to the book). And while most of our writers sink into gloom when they explore the landscape, Dickner remains unapologetically jolly. I am, at the moment, completely smitten.
We'll see how it all pans out. If you're curious about Canada Reads, go here and stream or download the podcasts. The Canada Reads website (with insider blog) is here.