If you’re a fan of the Canada Reads “battle of the books” debates, if you’re not a fan of them at all, or if you just can’t get enough of great book discussions with great people, head on over to the WriteReads blog (or download the WriteReads podcast) for the latest and greatest book battle: After Canada Reads.
After Canada Reads is a two-part podcast that does much of what Canada Reads does: it pits five Canadians against one another as they argue for and against some of our country’s greatest pieces of literature.
The big difference is that After Canada Reads features five people who actually know what they’re talking about.
Originally, I was asked to be a part of the program but declined due to some unforeseen circumstances. That doesn’t mean I’m any less invested, though! So I thought that, rather than participate in the show itself, I’d hang back and callously judge them all from the safety of my relative anonymity. Just like Canada Reads.
That being said, I decided to LiveBlog the show as I listened to it. It’s as close as I could come to being on the show itself. It also gives some of my yelling a bit of context.
0:32 – One of the first things our venerable narrator, Kirt Callahan, says is how After Canada Reads is “going to redeem our country and its honour for the fiasco that was the actual Canada Reads.” If you know Kirt at all, this is hysterical because, as promised, he’s coming out guns blazing. Kirt is one of Canada Reads’ most outspoken critics. He dislikes the show so much that he co-created After Canada Reads as a direct response to it. Will it live up to his presumptuous billing? We’ll see!
0:55 – We’re introduced to the five panelists: Rianne Nicolai, Laura Frey, Jason Purcell, Tania Gee, and Alexis Kienlen. The thing I love most about this group of people is that each represents a different aspect of reading culture. The panel includes a librarian (Rianne), a blogger (Laura), a writer (Alexis), a podcaster (Tania), and a booktuber (Jason).
1:22 – I’m a little taken aback here, when I learn that to be called a “librarian” one needs to have a Masters degree. Are you kidding me?
2:10 – Kirt mentions Laura Frey’s most recent video, “Book Blogs vs BookTube and is there a point?” I’m going to reserve my comments about this video for a separate post, but it’s a good discussion and you should check it out if you’re interested.
3:00 – You guys can’t tell when you’re listening, but Jason Purcell is the proud owner of Canada’s Greatest Hair®. I’d hate him for it, if he didn’t seem so gosh darn sweet.
4:35 – Kirt fills us in on the focus of the debate, which is “Who is the ‘best’ female character in Canadian Literature.” Right away, this feels problematic. How does a person even define ‘best’? Kirt tries to clarify things for us by defining best as the “most memorable, most influential, or most inspiring” character. Those are three different things. Already I’m getting a little anxious for the panelists. Five minutes in, I would have no idea what I’d be arguing for anymore.
5:00 – The character each person has chosen to defend:
- Rianne – Nao from Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale from the Time Being
- Laura – Our Mother from Anakana Schofield’s Malarky
- Alexis – Lou from Katherina Vermette’s The Break
- Tania – Liesel from Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business
- Jason – Murasaki from Hiromi Goto’s Chorus of Mushrooms
6:50 – We have another definition submitted for ‘best’: best written. I am legitimately terrified for these people.
8:40 – After Rianne, Laura, and Alexis deliver pretty strong off-the-cuff one-minute defenses of their characters/books, Jason launches into a previously written, perfectly timed, expertly delivered monologue like a fuckin’ super villain. Clearly the crew hadn’t discussed beforehand whether you could bring a prepared statement. Jason has them on their heels right away. The tension in the room is palpable. People are nervous. I’m laughing pretty hard.
9:55 – Tania’s brought a prepared statement as well. She delivers it with the polish of a radio ad. Her voice takes on a honed, professional veneer, her timing is exact. Alexis is clearly shaken by the last two minutes and wants to make it clear her statement was made up on the spot.
11:25 – Kirt throws the squad for a loop by starting the discussion with a curve ball they weren’t prepared for: “If you were choosing your favourite male character would your criteria be any different?”
The responses are universal: no.
“It’s about the writing for me, so it wouldn’t really change too much,” said Laura (Malarky).
“My criteria wouldn’t be different,” Jason (A Chorus of Mushrooms) agrees. “Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about narrative and the layers of mediation in the text so no matter what the gender of the character, that’s where my attention falls first and foremost.”
Alexis, Rianne, and Tania essentially echo this same sentiment, and so 14 minutes into the debate I am READY TO LOSE MY SHIT.
I am calling 100% bullshit on this answer.
Look, I get that we’re all humans and a lot of great work is being done to further the cause of equality, but if we’re going to sit here and say that male characters and female characters are the same and are judged on the same merits then what are any of us even doing here? Why are these five people gathered together to debate who the best female character is? If males and females are so similar, then why isn’t the topic, “Who is the best character, regardless of sex?”
Laura’s answer, that it’s about the quality of the writing, justifies her position, but muddies the topic a little. Is there a difference between best character and best written character? Personally, I think so. But she doesn’t, and that would be fine if she wasn’t supposed to be arguing against four other people who have definitions of their own.
When people talk about the greatest female characters of all time, they think of Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, Jo in Little Women, Janie Crawford in Their Eyes Were Watching God, etc. Their stories are inextricably tied to being female. That’s not a bad thing. Equality isn’t about saying we’re all the same, it’s about saying that despite our differences we’re all of equal value.
Look, I get that, as a man (and, perhaps worse, as a white straight man) my argument here probably doesn’t hold a lot of water. But given how the panel is made up of four extremely articulate and educated women, I was really excited to get their take on “woman-ness” in Canadian fiction. It’s such a hot topic, and so much stupidity surrounds it on places like Twitter, that I would have loved to hear their well reasoned, presumably cogent arguments.
14:15 – We’ve arrived at the first debate question: “Which character is the best written in terms of language, style, etc.”
14:45 – There is total silence. Laura mercifully jumps in, as she should since she just finished arguing that ‘best character’ meant ‘best written.’ LOL, amirite?
17:00 – Alexis, perhaps knowing that her character isn’t the most well written of the bunch, shrewdly steers the conversation a bit off topic (and in her favour) by talking about the virtue of Lou being just one viewpoint out of a chorus of viewpoints in The Break. The shifting viewpoints are part of the quality of the book, she contends, which is actually a pretty cagey way to position her book during this question. From what I know of these five novels–unfortunately, I haven’t read any of them–The Break probably has the reputation of being the least lyrical of the bunch.
19:00 – The group is enraptured by Jason Purcell. It’s quite hilarious. I totally get it. He’s one of the most well-spoken human beings I know. To the point where it almost makes it hard to relate to him. Also, that hair, you know? There is this inexplicable otherness to Jason that I’ve never been able to explain. If we all found out that Jason’s body was actually inhabited by an advanced alien posing as a human, it would take me a strangely short amount of time to come to terms with it.
19:45 – Rianne echoes a few of the panelists’ comments about how Our Mother from Laura’s Malarky is particularly well-written. I’m enjoying Rianne quite a bit. Very well spoken. She has some great points. I kinda wish she’d jump into the conversation a bit more. She feels a bit reserved until now. Almost everybody does, to be honest.
20:00 – That alien comment was meant with the utmost respect, Jason.
20:15 – I absolutely love the comment Tania makes here: “I’m somebody who really enjoys dialogue, so I enjoy the dialogue between her and Ramsey quite a bit. I think that even if it’s not realistic I just love reading it.”
Dialogue is such an underappreciated part of writing, in my opinion. So much of the term “well written” is wrapped up in metaphor and lyricism and grammatically unimpeachable prose. But dialogue is so, so, so important to me, so I’m overjoyed that Tania pointed this out. All of my favorite writers are geniuses when it comes to dialogue. This makes me want to read Fifth Business. She also co-signs A Tale for Time Being. Again, that scores a point for me.
20:55 – Kirt hilariously points out that, after round 1, “the consensus is that there is no consensus.” He then tells the group that, “you guys might have to be a little more …” before Tania finishes it for him, with “cutthroat.”
Kirt wants to tell them to be more cutthroat, but he himself isn’t cutthroat enough to even say the word. So wonderfully ironic.
21:18 – Yes! Our first negative comment! Shots fired!
Alexis tells Tania that, while she wouldn’t call it a “weak book,” she didn’t like Fifth Business. Now we’re cooking with fire. I’m craving a bit of drama in this debate. Until now, everyone is being very respectful and accommodating. How Canadian.
21:47 – Laura talks about how she had to read Fifth Business in high school and hated it. But now that she re-read it as an adult she loved it. This is such a terrific comment about every book we were told to read in school. By and large, we weren’t ready for them. The timing wasn’t right. Do yourself a favour and re-read a few of the books that didn’t work for you. I think you’ll be surprised. (Says the guy who failed his first test ever because he didn’t bother reading To Kill a Mockingbird and got a 33.)
22:00 – Second debate issue: “Which character do you most identify with, and is that important to being ‘best’?”
22:10 – Something I’m appreciating so far is how the panelists are speaking well of the books they’re competing against. Tania straight up picks Jason’s Chorus of Mushrooms as the answer for this question. That would never happen on Canada Reads, so this is great. The worst part of that show is watching people try to contort themselves into positions that make absolutely no sense, because they’re too afraid to give props to any book but the one they are defending.
23:40 – Alexis calls Chorus of Mushrooms a game-changer for Asian Canadians.
24:20 – Laura also chooses Chorus of Mushrooms. I’m all for enjoying the other books, folks, but this is starting to get funny.
25:30 – Rianne chooses her own character, Nao. Yay! What a rebel.
26:13 – Rianne makes a wonderful comment about Nao and her relatability: in A Tale for the Time Being: “I could feel these same conflicts. These conflicting things inside of you: the person you want to be, the person you that you’re currently being, and the person you find yourself being despite your best intentions.”
26:48 – Jason pokes a hole in the question itself. He doesn’t think that relatability should play a huge role in determining the viability or quality of a character.
“There were times when I really bristled at that word–relatable–because I find that with some readers, not all, it gives permission to not see outside your worldview.”
27:00 – Again, a chorus of profound mmhmms as Jason makes a point. I do the same.
27:50 – Kirt pipes up to say that “relatability and readability are bandied about too often.” Dude, you asked the question! LOL
I love Kirt.
28:10 – Rianne provides another important argument in favour of relatability, how characters don’t have to be like the reader in order to be relatable: “I found all of these characters relatable. To me that isn’t experiential. To me that’s the reason that I read. I’m not going to get these experiences in my life. All characters are relatable in their humanness, and their realness and their ability to look at the world with some reflection. That’s my working definition of relatable when it comes to literature.”
She also points out that relatability is perhaps a bit too subjective to play much of a role in determining who the best character is. But it’s still important to discuss.
29:15 – Tania makes a point that hearkens back to the male/female debate near the start of the podcast, and if the criteria for those characters should be the same. In speaking about Liesel, Tania says, “For me, she made female characters more human for the first time, and that’s what she did for me as a reader.”
This is the kind of comment I expected to hear going into the debate. Thus far, there haven’t been a lot of comments like it. So maybe the panelists were telling the truth when they said their criteria for male/female characters is the same? I’ll admit, they’re mostly sticking to their guns on this one.
IMPORTANT NOTE: If you happen to be reading this before listening to the podcast, this is the part where I’m going to spoil the votes and talk about the books getting booted out. You’ve been warned.
30:30 – Three straight votes for Fifth Business, with Rianne, Laura, and Alexis all voting. With that, Fifth Business becomes the first book voted off. Liesel, you didn’t even get a chance.
I was pretty surprised to hear Laura vote off Fifth Business, given how lovingly she spoke of the novel. But it’s a good reminder that the panelists aren’t voting for the best novel, they’re voting for the best character.
31:10 – It seems that Liesel is the Viola Davis of Canadian Literature. It seems that Liesel’s biggest flaw is that she isn’t in the book for very long (Alexis points out that she isn’t even in the first 200 pages). But Viola Davis was nominated for an Oscar for eight minutes of screen time in the movie Doubt, so…
Personally, I think Liesel sounds extraordinary. I mean, she’s a bearded lady from a circus. I’m a bit surprised that no one talked about Liesel as a female character who is so obviously not present for her sexuality (I presume? Again, I haven’t read the book.) That’s a really interesting aspect of the character, and somehow this didn’t come up. Strange.
33:30 – Tania is extremely gracious in defeat, saying that she understands why people voted the way they did (given that Liesel is only in the last 20 pages of the book). I was kind of hoping she’d dig her heels in a bit here, haha. I know that we’re all a bit annoyed with the drama that happens on Canada Reads, but is it wrong of me to kind of miss it at this point? I’d love some confrontation right about now!
33:50 – I’ve just noticed that the votes were not written down and handed to Kirt, like they are on Canada Reads. I’m sure this is a mini-rebellion on Kirt’s part. But that means that people can change their vote at the last second, using other panelists’ votes to sway their decision. Not sure I prefer it this way. Feels a bit greasy.
35:25 – Tania (Fifth Business) suddenly realizes that she can drink her white wine spritzer, now that she is eliminated. I’m shocked that Kirt didn’t feed them booze beforehand. No wonder there’s no drama yet. These people are much too sober to yell at one another.
35:31 – After Tania votes for The Break, and Jason votes for Fifth Business, Tania’s book is officially eliminated.
Voting off a book at this point, much like Canada Reads, felt a bit too soon. The first vote came after a few rounds of cordial chatter. I definitely wouldn’t call it “debate.” After thirty minutes, we only got one negative comment about any of the books, and even then, it was apologized for directly after. Not to make this thing too political, but I’d like to see a few arguments made against other books, instead of arguments made in favor of books.
Why? It makes for better radio.
36:15 – Our third debate question: Which character is the strongest (non-physically) and is that important to being ‘best’?
38:00 – I find it very interesting that everyone is choosing their own character for this question. For the others, there was some “trading” going on, but for this question everyone wants to put forth their character as the strongest one.
It sounds to me that this question played a large role when the panelists decided who to defend.
40:15 – Alexis (The Break), after saying that she felt drawn to the older characters in A Tale for the Time Being and A Chorus of Mushrooms, draws a lengthy “mmmm” from the group. This seems to be the group’s way of expressing overwhelming support.
42:00 – Laura starts to deconstruct the concept of the strong female character: “Often when I hear ‘strong female characters’ I hear ‘long suffering characters who have horrible things happen to them’ and that’s all it means. It doesn’t necessarily make for a great character.”
43:00 – Tania makes a comparison between Malarky and the Sinclair Ross book As For Me and My House. Jason agrees, finishing her sentence along with her. Nice little bonding moment. Meanwhile, I’m over hear trying to nod in a seemingly sincere way, not having a sweet clue what As For Me and My House is.
Is there an easier way to make a person feel stupid than to make an obviously astute literary reference said person doesn’t understand? And yet this is how we all choose to spend our time, haha.
43:37 – Jason makes a great point here about the slippery slope that is the “strong woman.”
“I wonder if saying ‘strong woman’ is another way of compartmentalizing types of women. That invalidates other ways of going through the world.”
He then finishes by saying, “Why is that the only quality worth bestowing upon them?”
That’s the real problem with a lot of these words we’re using, though. They all have different connotations to different people. ‘Strong’ might mean physical strength to one person, emotional strength to another, durability to another, etc.
Earlier I wrote that I didn’t feel like there was a whole lot of debate going on. Now, I’m realizing that there is, but it just feels like everyone is debating different things.
44:55 – In probably the most defiant (and telling) moment of After Canada Reads, Laura ultimately responds to the question of which character is the strongest with, “I don’t care.”
Funniest moment of the podcast, by far.
Kirt, you’re letting the inmates run the asylum here!
45:25 – Kirt, as if in response to me, says, “We’re deconstructing all these questions. This is wonderful.”
But is it?
It feels a bit like a group of people got together to play a sport, and then decided what the rules were while the game was going on. That might make things fun for the participants, but it’s a bit frustrating as a fan.
It’s funny, though. All of this stuff is really interesting. All of these discussions are important. I love the back and forth, I love the different perspectives. I’m just not sure if this was the right forum for them. The deconstruction kind of gets in the way of the competition. Mostly because it doesn’t feel like a competition at this point.
Again. Canadians. *insert eye-roll emoji*
Important Note: I am also Canadian. *drinks maple syrup while stick-handling*
45:45 – Tania literally just said, in relation to the strength question, “just like the relatable question, none of it’s important.”
Kirt’s response is perfect: “That is a consensus in itself.”
46:30 – The panelists vote to eliminate a second book.
- Rianne – The Break
- Laura – A Tale for the Time Being
- Alexis – A Tale for the Time Being
- Tania – The Break
- Jason – A Tale for the Time Being
52:00 – I want to make a note of an earlier comment Tania made about Liesel. (I didn’t time-stamp it at the time, so I don’t remember where it fits in the timeline.) When discussing how important Liesel is to her, she said that Liesel taught “a 14-year-old about breaking gender and orientation stereotypes, and non-binary thought.”
This was such a wonderful comment. I wish she had elaborated on it (although I understand why she didn’t). It seems like no one else really valued this in the character, which I found strange. At the very least, they didn’t value it enough to make significant mention of it.
52:55 – This is such an affable group of people. Everyone came in with well articulated arguments and insightful observations. I know there’s still another hour to go, but I’m already wishing I got to spend more time with them.
That being said, on to Episode 2!
It’s occurred to me that the enemy of debate, in the case of After Canada Reads, is the word “most.”
Who’s the most well written? Who’s the most relatable? Which character is most strong? (That last one is clunky, but you get my point.)
When the questions are framed this way it puts one character firmly above the others. There’s a clear winner and loser to every question. So what happens? No one wants to lose, so no one participates.
I’m wondering how things would have gone had the questions been posed more directly to each panelist:
- Why do you consider your character to be well written?
- What is the most relatable aspect of your character? Did this factor into your definition of ‘best’?
- What is your character’s greatest strength? How does it compare to the other characters?
Obviously it’s too late for this now, but it’s interesting how different the debate would have been with just a subtle shift in phrasing. Or maybe it wouldn’t have? I dunno. I might be wrong.
0:05 – Can we just stop for a second and give Kirt a hand for his Grade A Trolling effort with this theme song? It is so accurately, ridiculously reminiscent of the dumb Canada Reads song. I love it.
1:30 – If Kirt and Tania decide to do an After Canada Reads II, I would love for them to spend a few minutes off the top getting the panelists to summarize their books. I found that the discussion assumed prior knowledge of the books. And let’s face it, odds are most of us haven’t read these books. At least not all of them. I get the feeling that if the listeners understood a bit more about the books, they’d find the panelists’ arguments more persuasive. It’s hard to get behind, say, Lou from The Break when I don’t really know what her arc was, or what she’s fighting for.
It’s actually really impressive that After Canada Reads was as compelling and understandable as it was. Kudos to all the panelists.
5:00 – The second episode starts much like the first, with each remaining panelist giving a one minute monologue about why their character should win. While this is great, it’s exactly like Canada Reads. At this point I’m kind of wishing the format involved a few different things in an effort to distance itself from that show.
I would have loved it if Kirt asked each remaining panelist a question specific to their book. Something to address their character and their story specifically without having to worry whether or not that question also applied to each of the other characters.
I actually think Kirt has been too in-the-background this whole time. He’s super entertaining, and is a pretty insightful guy. I would have loved for him to probe people a bit more. #stayhumblekirt
5:25 – Fourth debate question: “Which character is the most Canadian and is that important?”
I really don’t want to say too much about the next ten minutes of the show, because I’d love for you to listen to it yourself. Let’s just say the panel kind of goes off the rails and has a pretty interesting discussion on the nature of CanLit, its merits, and some of the funny literary politics that go into it. Really, really good stuff. I can’t say this enough, but this is a smart group of people.
That being said…
The fourth question, much like the three debate questions before it, was NOT EVEN ANSWERED lol.
No one thought this was a valid question so they didn’t both talking about it. Instead it turned into a 10 minute discussion on the baggage behind the question.
Again, I think the problem with he question lies in the word “most.” If Kirt had said, “What about your character speaks to being Canadian? How does that compare with the rest of the characters?” I think you have a whole different discussion.
Actually that’s not true. I think the nature of CanLit was bound to come up, because it’s a pretty hot button topic up here. However, I think there would have at least been some attempts at answering it.
17:30 – At this point, any preconceived notion of After Canada Reads being a “battle of the books” is squashed. After Canada Reads is more a round table discussion that happens to have a “winner” at the end of it. The group is now off on a totally unrelated tangent about how funny a book Malarky is. Everyone is laughing and having a great time, and it sounds like they’re all just talking about books in a pub. It’s delightful. But it’s not what I expected.
Like I said about Episode 1, no one is making any arguments about why the other books shouldn’t win. Everyone is super friendly and every issue is spoken about with community and togetherness. On the one hand, it’s beautiful. On the other, it can be boring.
20:00 – The one thing I’ll say about the CanLit issue–whether an author has to be born in Canada, or whether the story has to take place in Canada–is that to disregard these authors and these stories is to disregard the one thing that separates Canada from basically every other country on Earth.
We might be the most genuinely multicultural nation on the planet. We’re literally a country of immigrants. Our literature, and the establishment that supports it, should be as inclusive as possible in regards to the immigrant experience.
32:30 – Amazingly, the third elimination vote of the competition takes more than 12 minutes to complete. Some naps don’t even last that long.
The Break by Katherina Vermette gets the boot.
I really think I’m going to have to read The Break. Given how people talk about it, I get the feeling that it’s more of an “issue” book than simply a great book that stands on its own merit. Maybe I’m wrong. I hope I am. I probably am, considering that it has a 4.4 rating on Goodreads. But I always hear people talk about it being “important” and I don’t often hear people talk about it passionately from a craft perspective.
32:45 – I’m genuinely surprised that Malarky is still standing. Not because Laura hasn’t been a great panelist (in truth, she may have been my favourite) but it sounds like the weirdest book of the bunch.
33:50 – Final debate question: “Which character has stood, or will stand, the test of time?”
36:00 – I should point out that I’m purposely writing less about the actual content of Episode 2 because I want to encourage people to actually listen to the episodes. The content is great, even if it’s a bit mutinous.
37:00 – Jason says, “I wonder whether or not the test of time is something that we should be judging books by.” It’s a great point because there’s certainly value in books that illuminate a very specific time and place.
38:00 – Laura makes an outstanding point about how A Chorus of Mushrooms exists today because it’s taught in schools. This is important because it speaks to how a book can stand the test of time simply because the literary establishment decides that it should.
39:00 – Some books aren’t defined by their readership, or, as Jason puts it, “To what extent does it go beyond the gatekeepers of the academy?” (I really quite liked how on board Jason was with Laura’s point here. He completely agreed. You would never see a reaction like that on Canada Reads.)
39:10 – We learn that Kirt has a Masters Degree. Great. I will officially feel smaller the next time I see him.
42:00 – Mercifully, the panelists actually consider the question about standing the test of time worth answering. LOL.
46:20 – Tons of respect for Rianne here, who says that Malarky gets her vote to win because Our Woman is the best character, even though A Chorus of Mushrooms was her favourite of the five books. Well done!
48:00 – The final and deciding vote comes down to Alexis! This is awesome. And our winner is…!
As if I’m going to spoil that here. Go listen to it to find out.
48:40 – Know that right after the winner is revealed, the funniest line of the whole competition happens. Hint: it’s what Laura says right after the winner is revealed.
56:45 – Actually scratch that. Rianne’s joke about authors getting their friends to blurb their books–“Can you call my book a tour de force?”–was the best moment of the competition. That’s a 10/10 joke.
And with that, we’re done! Two hours (and 5000 words) later.
Seriously, guys, go and listen to the two-part podcast that is After Canada Reads. If you haven’t read any of the books yet, you can still enjoy the podcast. If you have read them, that’s even better.
These five people put a ton of time and effort into this (as did Kirt, our lovely narrator). They made me want to read a number of these novels, for sure.
Thanks to Kirt, Tania, Alexis, Rianne, Laura, and Jason! Such a good show, such a fun time. Please do this again. It was an absolute blast.