The Carnival Barkers of CanadaReads!
Image from here.
It was with a feeling of pride and some sense of dread that I saw my book, The Girls Who Saw Everything, listed last Thursday on the top 40 list for CanadaReads 2011.
I'd been thrilled to open my Twitter page a couple of weeks before and read that my name had been put forward by book blogger Kerry Clare in her Pickle Me This, not so much as 'an essential book' from the last decade but rather as a little known story that might be accessible to a wider audience and fun to read.
It was exciting. I'd been prepared to ignore the storm among better known writers and here I was being swept up into it. The writer's life is shall we say prosaic and so these little thrills are few and far between.
But then, during that first poll, I was vaguely accused of essentially sitting by my computer and clicking 'vote, vote, vote' over and over again, all by my self, in a little room somewhere. What brow-furrowing troubles lay ahead?
They're not so bad, in the grand scheme of things. Someone complained that the list order was incorrect with respect to titles that began with 'the'. Authors' names have been overlooked (of course), great authors' names. Corey Redekop left me off his own top ten list, along with himself and his book Shelf Monkey (thematically similar to my own, I've heard). I thought, 'Sir, you're too modest! Surely you're not against having one comic novel on the theme of reading lives? If not mine, please, let it be yours! If not yours, please, why not mine?'
There were accusations of mobilizing friends and 'gaming' the vote. Again, not so bad, but it was all making me shrink away a bit. I thought, isn't it just my luck that I should be considered for the one edition of CanadaReads that everyone is going to love to hate!
But then Steven W. Beattie weighed in with an essay on why he thought the whole thing was a bad idea, expressing sympathy for the lot of the writer as carnival barker and performing monkey.
I can be mistrustful and combative with critics at times. But my introduction to Beattie's blog had been his 2007 defense of the value of the comic novel, underrated, he felt, in Canadian literature, using my own novel as an example (an essay which I cannot link to since Beattie lost several years of archived material when trying to retool his website in 2009, goddamn it.)
So even though he himself put forth another book in this fray, and even though he seemed to be casting aspersions on the indignity of writers who might dance along "to the tune of Mr. Ghomeshi’s hurdy-gurdy", I was not particularly offended.
I was inspired, in fact.
Beattie was worried that we writers would all be rendered carnival barkers. But I've already been a carnival barker. I've been a street performer, I play the bugle (badly) and the concertina (very badly) and the banjo (reasonably well). Dignity and mystique have never been my strong suits.
I thought: 'Carvival Barker, c'est moi.' Honestly, I even have a purple jacket with red stripes. I don it on Hallowe'en with a gorgeous (if I may say so) Venetian bird mask and a hat and bow tie, white shirt (cotton/lycra blend, for stretching) and big black pants stuffed with pillows, whereupon I endeavor to stop all the cars on my street. The neighbours call me 'Mister Bump'. As in speed bump. Many of them don't even know it's me.
For a while, as a young man, I was an actor in a theatre company in Winnipeg, Primus, modeled after the famous Odin Teatret in Holstebro, Denmark, where part of the actor's job was to get out in the street and make sure the townspeople knew you were coming with your shows. The shows were challenging and very serious. The parade, though, was celebratory, inclusive, social, larger-than-life.
That meant learning an instrument, that meant acrobatics and stilts. And barking. Lots of barking.
You might argue that literature has no place in the street. But Cervantes and Alexandre Dumas would probably disagree with you. If, as some people say, literature is dying, then my response is: Join the club: They've been saying that about theatre for a thousand years. Welcome to the fresh air.
Having reached the end of my argument and looked it over, I'm compelled to add the caveat that I don't really believe this approach is appropriate for everyone. Anne Carson, for example, brings a scholarly delicacy to her work, exposing passion through tiny brushstrokes like a paleontologist revealing the Archaeopteryx, feathers and all. She'd be no great fan of all this moreness (though she'd probably look great in theatrical face paint, like Diana Rigg).
But it's not so bad for me. And, going by some of the exchanges I've been having on Twitter with Christy Ann Conlin, Angie Abdou and Zoe Whittall, it seems to be okay with some of my fellow top40ers. We all got busy discussing handstands, headstands, hurdy-gurdies, carnival costumes, and the Old English term for a boastful bard.
As a postscript (drum roll please), my favourite post from the comments section of the CanadaReads top 40 announcement, written by one 'Pooker' from Winnipeg:
I'm usually not one to eat crow, but I was wrong when I snarked at the "self-promoters". I've had a chance over many hours to follow their tweets and visit their websites and I've discovered a whole lot of grace and creativity, as well as support for their fellow artists (from Angie Abdou's video in support of Steven Heighton's Every Lost Country to Leo McKay's reason #17 for voting for his book). I hang my head and say I am sorry.
Please continue to promote yourselves and each other. There are about half a dozen books that I would not have heard of but for your exuberant cries of "vote for this book". And, while I have but one vote to spend to get one of you in that "top" ten, I do have a "book budget" that I'll happily spend to keep as many of you as I can in what?...probably not pen and paper, but whatever you need to keep on writing. So your clever little scheme worked with me - keep it up! Thank you to you all for your chutzpa and self confidence and to CBC/Canada Reads for the venue.