Canada Reads 2014 offers insight to CanLit

The 13th annual CBC Canada Reads competition began in early October, and host Jian Ghomeshi announced the top 40 books chosen by Canadians on Oct. 24. Public voting for the top 10 came to a close this Sunday. And in a matter of weeks five panellists will be revealed and each will choose a novel to defend.

Conversation about the competition has taken place largely on Twitter, where Canadians recommended their top 40 pick in October with the hashtag #CanadaReads2014. Any published Canadian author can participate in the competition. Younger authors, who are more savvy with social media promotion, eagerly took advantage of the Twitter platform.

This year’s top 40 list revolves around the theme of novels that can inspire social change in our nation. Veteran authors are noticeable for their absence from the list. Michael Ondaatje, Joseph Boyden and Margaret Atwood each appear only once. Alice Munro, the first Canadian woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature, isn’t on it.

The competition has stirred up controversy in the past, mainly stemming from the panel of the five celebrities. These panellists are not always literary types, as a 2005 Globe and Mail article titled “The Great Canadian Book Brawl” by Rebecca Caldwell points out. These personalities have been politicians, musicians, and actors — individuals who may not be qualified to delve into the complexities of a novel at a literary debate.

Some have criticized the competition for its “lowbrow” content, with the debates never really touching on the intricacies of the plot, Caldwell writes in the Globe and Mail. The competition attempts to appeal to the general public, making Canada Reads unlike most literary awards around the world, and for this reason it can lose its “highbrow” appeal. But as Caldwell notes at the end of her piece, Canada Reads is responsible for stimulating a debate that didn’t exist 20 years ago in Canadian literature, mainly because Canadian literature itself wasn’t recognized.

Ryerson professor Kamal Al-Solaylee, author of Intolerable, the memoir that recently won the Toronto Book Award, chose his top five picks from Canada Reads for The Ryersonian.

The Orenda


I was blown away by this book when I reviewed it for Quill & Quire in the summer. It’s an intensely violent and morally complex novel about the beginnings of what we now call Canada. The fact that it didn’t make the Giller Prize short list suggests to me that what The Orenda and Boyden say about the native-colonial encounter was too controversial.

Six Metres of Pavement


What I love most about this book is the way Doctor captured the Toronto we live in now. This story of a man who has made a fatal mistake and learns to live and love again is set in the west end of Toronto, and captures both its vibrancy and sorrow.

Sweetness in the Belly


Although this was first published in 2005, I only just read it this summer. Why did it take me so long? What a triumph of storytelling and imagination. Set between Ethiopia and England of the 1970s and ’80s and tracing the life of an extraordinary young woman, this novel is truly an intimate epic.

The Headmaster’s Wager


Lam may have won the Giller Prize for his first book Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures, but this is his finest work to date. It captures the colonial history of Saigon/Vietnam through a resilient and loveable main character. A work of great humanity, historical sweep and impeccable style.

Sub Rosa


I was on the jury for a literary award for mid-career gay/lesbian writers in 2012 and we were all in agreement: Amber Dawn deserved it largely on the strength of this magical, weird and riveting novel about a young runaway woman discovering the world and her sexuality in the same breath.

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