Truth & Pettiness on Canada Reads

I tuned in all week to the CBC’s Canada Reads series, as four Canadian pseudo-celebrities and Alan Thicke debated the merits of five books of non-fiction in a Survivor-like competition. I believe the winner, Carmen Aguirre for Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter, received a dinner with Margaret Atwood, or a window display at Chapters or something. I’m not sure. I don’t think it was important. The week’s broadcasts, acutely moderated by Jian Ghomeshi, were at once entertaining, informative, combative, and funny. So, you know, everything that Canadian Literature tends not to be. For the most part, I’d rather stab myself in the eye with Margaret Atwood’s Long Pen than listen to a debate about CanLit. As you can imagine, my MA in English Literature was torturous, which is why I developed a dependency on bourbon and NeoCitran. It’s not that I don’t love Canadian writing, because I do. It’s not that I don’t like the Canadian writing community, because I have found it warm and accepting. It’s mostly because these debates tend to illuminate Canadian literature’s tendency to be insulated, precious, and protectionist. Also, there’s too many poems about wheat.

The highlight of the week on Canada Reads was Anne-France Goldwater, a Quebec judge who garnered attention on day one for accusing eventual winner Aguirre (who, incidentally, Goldwater ultimately voted for) of being a “bloody terrorist” to which panelist Shad replied: “If you consider her a terrorist, you have to consider Nelson Mandela a terrorist.” Goldwater agreed with the hip hop artist: “Damn straight. Blood on his hands,” to which the rest of us replied: who’s Shad? Goldwater also accused the author of another one of the Canada Reads books, Marina Nemat, of lying in her memoir Prisoner of Tehran about her time in an Iranian jail: “Marina Nemat – and it’s known to other prisoners; other prisoners who shared her experience – tells a story that’s not true and you can tell it’s not true when you read it.” Did Goldwater believe in what she was arguing? Probably. Is there truth to her claims? Maybe, but to me that’s not important. Good debate relies on half-truths, strong opinions, and passionate advocates and that’s what Goldwater provided.

Predictably, the CanLit mob were outraged. This is what happens in Canada. Any discussion that travels outside the norm, that dares to engage and challenge an informed and intelligent readership, is viciously attacked. They want to wrap CanLit in a Hudson’s Bay blanket and tell it everything’s going to be alright. It’s insulting to both writers and readers, and it’s all too common. Nemat herself went on the offensive, demanding an apology from Goldwater, and claiming on Facebook that Goldwater’s comments were “bullying and it’s a crime.” I don’t doubt for a moment that Nemat was hurt, and I don’t doubt the veracity of her writings but bullying isn’t a crime, rather possibly an actionable offense, and she certainly has the right to engage Goldwater in a civil suit. Though Goldwater is a successful lawyer and I imagine she knows the line between actionable and argumentative.

Nemat took her argument to the pages of The Globe and Mail, perpetuating the notion that no press is bad press. What Nemat went through in prison is an abomination, acts that reflect the worst of humanity, and her strength in writing of her experiences is both admirable and inspirational. But she chose to do so, and that opened up her experience to public discourse. In her closing paragraph of the Globe piece, she appeals directly to Goldwater: “Dear Ms. Goldwater: The witness is the cornerstone of the justice system. If we throw stones at her, we have taken a step toward burying freedom and democracy. Canada and Canadians deserve better than this.” Arguably, truth is the cornerstone of the justice system, and witness requires corroboration. But any witness must face confrontation, and in writing the book, Nemat has opened herself up to cross examination.

What seems to have been lost in this week’s discussion is that these five Canadian works of non-fiction (which in addition to Nemat’s Prisoner of Tehran and Aguirre’s Something Fierce  also included Ken Dryden’s The Game, Dave Bidini’s On a Cold Road, and John Vaillant’s The Tiger) are books written by individuals. They have been written from one point of view, and as such their veracity is debatable. There is no way to prove these books are indeed empirically true from start to finish. They are an interpretation of events. Call it the James Frey Effect, but a book claiming to be non-fiction or a memoir is still an attempt at literature, and still open to discussion on merit by the mere fact that it is a published entity. No one forces you at gun point to write and publish a book. You’ve done so by free will, and have been compensated to do so. Once the book is out there anyone who is kind enough to read it has the right to voice any opinion they choose about the work. If you’re not prepared for that, then don’t publish the book. Everyone’s precious feelings will be kept in tact.

Unfortunately, this sentiment seems to have been lost in the discussion of Canadian literature. We tend to coddle it, and stroke its ego. This is why reviews are rarely negative, leaning more often towards ad copy, and why dissenting opinions or controversial statements are met with shock and soon after, the CanLit mob sharpens their pitchforks, pitchforks carved from strong adjectives, with sharp tips hardened by maple syrup. BC writer Derrick O’Keefe wrote on Rabble.ca:

“The attack on the integrity and honesty of torture survivor Nemat is disgusting. So is the attack on Aguirre, and it carries other serious and alarming aspects that should not be dismissed as mere “controversy” or soap opera/reality TV drama.”

What, exactly, is disgusting? Goldwater was stating her opinions on the books. She didn’t believe Prisoner of Tehran. She had strong feelings about Something Fierce, which she voiced, as she was asked to do by the CBC. Agree with her, disagree with her, I don’t care. But Goldwater wasn’t attacking Nemat, she was attacking the text and not realizing the difference is in and of itself disgusting. Nemat’s own whining and pettiness made her look small, and is an unfortunate reflection on what I trust is an engaging text, and that pettiness is disgusting. I do agree with O’Keefe that calling Aguirre a terrorist was perhaps irresponsible, and her comment about immigration was more silly than anything else, but as part of a passionate and engaging argument I found it a refreshing change from the typically polite discussion of CanLit.

Admittedly, the only book of the five I’ve read is Dryden’s The Game, though after this week I am encouraged to read them all, which at the end of the day is the whole point of Canada Reads. It was an admirable decision on the part of the CBC to open the competition up to non-fiction, a genre whose popularity grows exponentially with the publication of every new best seller list. The controversy, and interest that developed as result, has been good for Canadian literature and I hope that Canada Reads continues to expand the breadth of the competition. I’d like to see international books brought into the discussion. Ultimately, conversations about Canadian literature are steered towards questions of national identity and spirit, which though important I believe to be tired tropes of the discipline. CanLit loves to make claims of its international standing, and it would be interesting to see that put to the test in a forum like Canada Reads.

The attention paid to the program this week proves that there is a thirst for challenging literature in this country, and the CBC would do well to increase the frequency of the competition. Why not a small press competition? first book? and for the love of Al Purdy, call me when the Canada Reads poetry edition begins. In the meantime, this year’s Canada Reads should be celebrated for the efforts of its judges, and Ghomeshi for his admirable job of wrangling them. To the writers, especially those who have chosen to be petty in a moment that provided an opportunity to be great, celebrate the fact that these books are being discussed on a big stage, that all five currently sit atop the bestseller list. Some of us have never, and will never, know that privilege.