Thursday, 16 February 2012

Canada Reads and the middle-brow CBC

Dave Bidini was in town last night, and I missed the chance to see him play – and more importantly to hear my friend Robyn Cunningham open for him. Check her out here.

Bidini seems to be everywhere lately, including having one of his books both feted and destroyed on the latest instalment of CBC’s Canada Reads. I listened to most of the debates over the books – non-fiction this year for the first time. And then I heard Jian Ghomeshi respond, when it was all over, to what were clearly some pretty critical reviews of the show. The critics were upset by the low-calibre of the discussion and the fact that the show was dominated by celebrities. Ghomeshi, unsurprisingly, defended the show’s credibility.

But in listening to this debate over the dumbing down of the CBC, I couldn’t help but have a sense of déjà vu. It’s a perennial question, as is the place of the CBC within the national media landscape.

One of the best books I’ve read on this is Len Kuffert’s A Great Duty: Canadian Responses to Modern Life and  Mass Culture, 1939-1967 (which you can buy here). Now, Kuffert’s book is about much more than the CBC but one of the great things he shows in this book is how the various debates about the intellectual and aesthetic level of the CBC ended up creating a middle-brow compromise. Vincent Massey, the figure head for those who wanted the CBC to be all opera all the time (or something like it) clearly wasn’t going to get his way. But there remained enough sense amongst critics, politicians and bureaucrats about the value of broadcasting (in terms not only of nationalism but of citizenship) that this middle-brow alternative won out.

Kuffert’s book isn’t new but it’s well worth a read.

At the very least it gives me slight pause  - but only slight - when I agree with the critics of Canada Reads that it really was too dumbed down this year.

But I won't go too far in sympathy. After all, why were most of the books either memoirs or about individuals (and if not an individual, then a Tiger!)? Don’t we have the ability to talk about issues? Margaret Macmillan’s book, 1919, was on the long list. I would have liked to listen to Alan Thicke stumble his way through that!

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