Thursday, February 10, 2011

A live celebrity competitive literary reality TV show ... from Canada!

I have never watched anyone voted off of an island. Never seen a whole season of contestants sing their hearts out under Simon Callow's withering smirk. Competitive chefs and wannabe fashion moguls, televised spouse and house swappers: I missed all that.

But for the past few days, my idle hours have been spent under the spell of a competitive reality TV show -- produced in Canada, of all places. In fact, it is all about Canada, and more particularly, Canada's novels. To be very precise, it was a competitive reality TV show to select "the most essential Canadian novel" published in the last decade. Welcome to Canada Reads.

This was not a show with random people voting each other off an exotic island; it was five of Canada's most recognizable celebrities voting each other's books off the table -- called a "shelf" on the show, which ran for an hour a day on three successive days, concluding yesterday.

These five very different celebrities -- a CNN anchor, an actor, a designer, a former NHL enforcer and an indie rock star -- did not vote for and against books they had written themselves. This is what starts to set this show far apart from the narcissistic, self-promotional cultural trend in which it has emerged.

For each of the five celebrities had chosen to represent a novel written by a fellow Canadian within the past ten years. The five novels were chosen from a list of forty that had evolved from a collective curatorial process that included public input and (apparently; this was before I came along) involved its own spats and controversies.

The CNN business anchor selected a political novel about an outsider who ends up serving in Parliament, almost by accident. The actor represented an introspective novel about an introspective novelist. The designer defended an historical novel about a midwife. The former NHL enforcer advocated for a jock novel about two Olympians training for the Summer Games. The indie rocker did her best to get the other panelists to admit that a graphic novel about life in rural Ontario was, in fact, a novel, and not a comic book.

The celebrities were as diverse as the books they chose, and in equally fascinating ways. The CNN anchor, Ali Velshi, is a Canadian of Indian descent who was born in Kenya. The actor, Lorne Cardinal, is Sucker Creek Cree, a First Nations (i.e., Native Canadian) people. The designer, Debbie Travis, is a ravishing blonde from the British Midlands. The former NHL enforcer, Georges Laraque, is a hulking vegan of Haitian descent. The indie rocker, Sara Quin, is a pixiesh young white woman with bangs in her eyes like a kid.

As their jockeying to get the other four books voted out of the competition played out over three days on live radio and streaming video, each of these five celebrities evolved as genuine, compelling and eloquent human beings. An especially magical touch was added by the fact that they were being passionate and eloquent about that least telegenic undertaking: the act of reading.

The Indian-Canadian CNN anchor -- practiced at making a case before the camera -- had even his fellow celebrity panelists wanting to run away and join a political campaign. The First Nations actor described his author's eloquence in pearls of language equal to the very best literary criticism. The ravishing blonde Brit designer made an unforgettable case for the kitchen table as the most important stage in history. The hulking black hockey jock casually described weeping while reading his book. The pixiesh indie rock chick delivered perhaps the most compelling and extended defense of the legitimacy of the graphic novel as a genre ever before presented in the mass media.

Yet there were dramas; even scandals.

Indie hipster Sara Quin could not get her older, more traditional colleagues -- not one single one of them -- to accept the graphic novel she supported, Essex County by Jeff Lemire, as an example of a novel, let alone an "essential" one.

Hulking enforcer Georges Laraque abruptly revealed that he and the designer had cut a mutual support deal that she had betrayed by voting against his novel, The Bone Cage by Angie Abdou, and that he was exacting revenge by throwing his support behind a rival novel.

The beautiful blonde designer, Debbie Travis, shocked everyone at the table and in the studio by admitting that she had not been able to finish one of the five books under consideration -- though this had not stopped her from twice keeping it on the table as she helped to vote out two other books she had been able to finish.

The Cree actor, Lorne Cardinal, in a roundtable discussion of the lack of diversity among the authors whose books made the final five, said plainly that they were all white, yes; but then confidently defended his choice of Unless by Carol Shields over a book by a First Nations writer on the long list by arguing that her prose and sense of form were better.

The CNN anchor, Ali Velshi, maintained a Machiavellian vibe throughout the competition and was the guy most obviously casting his votes in each round with political calculation, successfully building the coalition that eventually led his novel, The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis, to vanquish The Birth House by Ami McKay, defended by Debbie Travis.

The evolving political intrigues lent yet another mesmerizing dimension to this crazy and adorable show. Here you had famous people passionately defending the art of novels while cutting secret deals and rather openly playing tricks on each other. It was high-minded and low-minded, high-brow and low-brow, highfalutin and crassly pop -- and utterly, unforgettably absorbing.

Making the trains run on time and keeping all the contestants on their toes was host Jian Ghomeshi. A former rocker born in England of Iranian descent, he has quirky good looks, a razor wit, and as much star power as the most famous person sitting around his roundtable. It would be very difficult to imagine this bizarre conception of a live celebrity literary competition coming off quite right without him conducting it.

St. Louis Reads St. Louis?

Therein lies a major problem in trying to figure out how to adapt this concept to St. Louis, as I immediately wanted to do. If the host were slightly pompous or pretentious, overly deferential to the celebrities and/or anything other than funny, the whole thing would fall flat.

And then, there is the problem of finding a genre where a significant number of St. Louisians produced really good books every year. That becomes a lot easier if you broaden the category to include St. Louis-connected writers who no longer live in St. Louis, but that becomes too soupy for me. I instantly lose interest with the depressing image of Jonathan Franzen winning every year, or any year.

The project becomes instantly doable if you permit books of any genre written by a person living in St. Louis, rather than just novels, but for the obvious problem of comparing apples to oranges and pears -- poems to novels to plays and histories. The comparisons would become meaningless, though the show could still be fun if we could round up the right roster of celebrities who were not writers (very important, this idea of having people who are not primarily writers defending the books).

If I brainstorm about five St. Louis celebrities I would try to empanel for St. Louis Reads St. Louis, I come up with Loop developer Joe Edwards, burlesque star Lola Van Ella, maestro David Robertson, radio anchor Carol Daniel and an eloquent black or Hispanic athlete (I don't know our local star jocks). This list makes me want to cast an Asian (subarhar and sitar legend Imrat Khan?) and a Jew (Rabbi Susan Talve?).

More and more interesting local celebrities come to mind, now that I think of it: former state Senator Jeff Smith, Police Chief Daniel Isom, former Fire Chief Sherman George, the Rev. Larry Rice, state Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal, Emily Rauh Pulitzer, Supreme Court Justice Mike Wolff, indie rocker Jay Farrar, Mayor Francis G. Slay (not a personal favorite, but certainly a literate celebrity), activist Jamala Rogers ...

Who knows?

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