There’s a smell in the room, hard to identify, but definitely there, in the Royal Conservatory’s gorgeously appointed Koerner Hall, all undulating wood and warm lighting and, as the website says, “spectacular glass lobbies.” At the main entrance, thronged with people waiting for their dates and checking their cellphones, a young man, tanned and sockless—brave in this brisk fall weather—sprints up the sloping hallway ahead and waves to one of the high-heeled women taking tickets. He flashes a white-toothed celebrity smile.
This is Between the Pages: the pre-Giller hybrid that’s neither a reading nor an interview, but a kind of sacrificial altar/beauty pageant for six Canadian authors tonight: David Bezmozgis, Frances Itani, Sean Michaels, Heather O’Neill, Miriam Toews, Padma Viswanathan. We’re drenched in soothing luxury and elegance, complete with a blues trio, tasteful onstage flower arrangements and an atmosphere that’s celebratory but also, well… a little weird.
Tonight’s agenda is simple: six celebrity presenters will read excerpts from the shortlisted books, to be followed by onstage questions for the authors from Carol Off, host of As It Happens on CBC Radio One. She greets each presenter with a kiss; including the tanned sprinter, who turns out, fittingly, to be an Olympic athlete, kayaker Adam van Koeverden. The other five are media and film people and Edward Greenspan, who gets a bonus hug from our host. Eddie, Carol Off says, and they purr together like cats over a bowl of cream. These effusions are part of the performance, like the musical flourishes introducing each “guest”: reminders that the evening is about surface more than content. On the Cover, rather than Between the Pages. The chumminess between host and presenters has another effect, maybe unintended: it reinforces a conspiratorial, incestuous vibe. And here comes that smell again.
Once the writers come onstage, the tone changes: less talk show, more genteel Hunger Games. They sit facing the glowing hall and looking slightly uneasy. Many of the questions come in pairs, drawing tenuous parallels between two disparate books; having been assigned reviews like this I know it’s an unforgiving job, trying to corral and tether unrelated works of art; Carol Off has her work cut out. Even so, I’m struck by how prescriptive tonight’s questions are; how rigidly tailored to elicit a desired response. Anyone who’s watched 60 Minutes will recognize the technique. Q: “So the drone assault was a fiasco, wasn’t it?” A: “It was a complete fiasco!”
Since we’re talking books here, not drone strikes, the questions are less sensational: “You both feature very strong women in your work, don’t you?” or “You use your main characters to embody political events. Tell us about that.” There’s an implicit assertion of a common ethos to the works, a common idea of what constitutes art: socially meaningful, with historically accurate details and dollops of humour and pathos, and a kind of cozy, we-all-share-the-same-values Canadianness. The flattening of all these books into one mega-book, not too sharp-edged, appropriately right-minded, does a disservice to the individual effort and imagination of each writer. Am I overstating it? Isn’t this just the nature of this kind of media event, not to be taken too seriously? Maybe. But why does it feel so particularly dodgy tonight?
The question-and-answer setup is enough like a student council election to induce high school flashbacks, and I’m not the only one squirming on the authors’ behalf. None of them (none of us, as writers) can afford not to care about a life-changing award, and it’s impossible, perhaps, for them to resist the homogenizing effect of their host’s questions, though there are moments (“I’m trying to hear a question in there,” Miriam Toews says, genially, at one point). My favourite exchange is when Carol Off says to David Bezmozgis: “So your main character [an Israeli politician] supports the Settlements. That’s kind of an unusual view, isn’t it?” Bezmozgis deadpans, a little testily: “Not in Israel.”
The excerpt read by Deepa Mehta from Padma Viswanathan’s book, The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, turns on its head the kind of assumptions embedded in a question like this, as an apparent incident of racism turns out to be a shy woman’s expression of deeply felt sympathy for a stranger’s violent loss. And there’s Frances Itani’s response to the suggestion that she intends her characters to personify political history. She’s kept a stoic mask for most of the evening; now she looks irritated, briefly, before reminding us that she’s invented these characters and their stories, tried to make them real, not symbolic.
There’s something unavoidably gladiatorial about the spectacle of six authors vying for one enormous prize that does provide a queasy kind of entertainment, but also raises serious questions: about why we write—rarely for prizes—and how authors are expected to jump through all these hoops for just a little attention and the shot at a ridiculously huge purse that, to appropriate the hyperbolic caps of texting, ONLY ONE OF THEM will get! Sure, they may enjoy some of the hoopla, however ridiculous or embarrassing, and OK, they get free drinks and a few good meals, but they’re also co-opted, like it or not, into a story about what it means to write a book, and what that book itself is supposed to mean in the wider culture. Near the end, Carol Off says to the authors with arch mock-seriousness: “So I have one very profound question for you all and I want you to give it your most considered attention.” (David Bezmozgis’s eyes begin to roll back in his head. The others look glassy-eyed.) Dramatic pause. “Who’s going to win?” Once again, Bezmozgis plays it straight-faced: “The book with the strongest woman, of course.”
And how ironic. Because looking at the glossy program, it hits me like a slap—the thing that’s given the evening at least some of its gamey flavour. On the back page is a familiar face: Rick Mercer, the hastily assigned replacement host for the award presentation to take place a week from now. Only days ago I would have been looking at a photograph of Jian Ghomeshi. He would have been among the white-toothed media people here tonight, exchanging air-kisses and downing sparkly drinks in one of those spectacular lobbies. Did they have to reprint the programs? How much would that cost? The drama of Ghomeshi’s downfall in the past few weeks, its overt and submerged notes of accusation and complicity, lies and pain and chaos—and satire, with the Soviet-style replacement of icons at CBC—has been carefully purged from tonight. There’s no doubt we should be focusing on the writers and their books: David Bezmozgis: The Betrayers; Frances Itani: Tell; Sean Michaels: Us Conductors; Heather O’Neill: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night; Miriam Toews: All My Puny Sorrows; Padma Viswanathan: The Ever After of Ashwin Rao. But in these books, I’ll bet, will be found heat and ugliness and trauma, beauty and generosity. Comedy as well. Something, anyway, closer to the vividness of scandal than all this geniality. Hard to get a sense of that tonight, and maybe that’s unavoidable. This event is more about glamour than blood, sweat and tears. But I think I’ve identified that smell, finally: corpse, still warmish.