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Bestseller bias

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One novel to change our nation. Such is the prized label of this year’s Canada Reads winner, designated the novel that speaks most to what Canadians care about.

Now in its 13th year, this competition pits book against book, with each novel endorsed by a prominent Canadian celebrity. During the four-day debate in the first week of March, a novel is eliminated from contention each day by a vote until only one is left standing.

In line with this year’s theme, the competition calls for not just great stories, but ones that tackle prominent social issues facing Canadians. And, as such, this year’s debate teeters uncomfortably between casual discussion about literary merit and panellists merely fighting for the primacy of their cause.

What cause is most important to Canadians? Is it the racism highlighted in Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues, issues of gender identity tackled in Kathleen Winter’s Annabel, the immigrant integration of Rawi Hage’s Cockroach, the environmental destruction showcased in Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, or the long-standing effects of colonization at play in Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda?

I’d hazard to say that the answer isn’t so clear, yet when host Jian Ghomeshi proclaims “we’re looking for the one novel that could change Canada,” it’s strange to see each novel—as well as the social issues within—quickly debated and voted off Survivor-style within an hour, leaving a single golden winner.

Previous iterations of the competition have faced similar criticisms around the reality-show format that seems to only allow superficial discussion, strategic voting and the occasional personal attack. 2012’s competition saw a panellist deem author Carmen Aguirre “a bloody terrorist” for writing a memoir of her young revolutionary days in Pinochet-era Chile.

Perhaps the competition’s rapid-fire format is simply too short and combative to prevent novels, novelists and themes from being quickly and crudely reduced to simplistic ideas, augmented by the absence of said authors and the rare presence of any professional writer.

Add germane societal issues to the mix and suddenly even those are at odds with one another.

Quite simply, Canada Reads has always been an exercise in marketing; another bid to position one novel at the top. Make no mistake, the competition’s fame certainly leads to more sales for all novels in play, but, as Ghomeshi repeats, “one of these books will be a bestseller.” For that one winner, which will undoubtedly get shiny standalone displays in big-box bookstore locations nationwide, the message will be clear: “Here, Canada. This is what you should be talking about.”

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