It’s 11 p.m. on a Sunday and four women are gossiping around a coffee table on the set of Mary Walsh: Open Book, a half-hour show launched in July 2002.Walsh and her guests, poet Susan Musgrave, columnist Jan Wong, and singer/songwriter Jann Arden, are having a hard time focusing on Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club: A Memoir. Their conversation soon shifts from Karr’s acclaimed story about her difficult childhood in a dysfunctional, alcoholic family. At one point Arden says, “There are people who literally glide through their youth without any kind of sexual weird things. I, however, was not one of those people.” Walsh then confesses, “I would still be a virgin today if it wasn’t for booze.” Musgrave eventually comments, “This is turning into The Jerry Springer Show.”
Several nights later, Tina Srebotnjak is hosting TVOntario’s Imprint, a half-hour weekly show in its 14th season-the longest running book program in North America. Tonight she is interviewing author and poet Molly Peacock about her book Cornucopia: New and Selected Poems. Peacock’s cherry red lipstick emphasizes her broad smile as she bounces in her seat talking about her love poems. Srebotnjak mentions Peacock’s poem “Couple Sharing a Peach.” Then the camera cuts away and Peacock reappears fondling a peach and reciting: “It’s not the first time we’ve bitten into a peach / But now at the same time it splits-half for each / Our ‘then’ is inside its ‘now,’ its halved pit unfleshed-what was refreshed.” The interview ends with Srebotnjak telling Peacock, “You are a peach.”
Sour grapes are the fruit that Srebotnjak’s next guest brings to mind. Stephen Henighan, an associate professor of Spanish in the School of Languages and Literatures at the University of Guelph, talks about his latest book, a collection of controversial essays called When Words Deny the World: The Reshaping of Canadian Writing. In it he argues that CanLit has been affected-and not for the better-by free trade and globalization.
The Imprint interview takes place in Henighan’s apartment, but he seems ill at ease, talking fast and punctuating each statement with a nod, his eyes darting away from the camera. His comments are mostly put-downs of some of Canada’s best-known authors: “Writers, I find, tend to be overblown and overrated, including the saintly Carol Shields.” “Ondaatje is a brilliant writer, but a mediocre novelist.” The interview lasted well over two hours and explores the arguments in his book in considerable depth. What viewers got, though, was what he terms “sound bites about well-known personalities.” Henighan is not criticizing Imprintspecifically, but, as he observes, “It does give you pause when you think whether it is possible to discuss books in a serious way on television.”
Toronto Star book columnist and reviewer Philip Marchand shares Henighan’s reservations. “TV is not really a forum for thoughtful expression of views,” he says. “There is something almost laughable about giving a critical opinion on television about a book. Because it is TV, it really does have to be so punched up that the subtle, intelligent discussion gets shoved aside.”
If Henighan and Marchand are right, then why are there more book-based Canadian talk shows than there are solvent publishers? In addition to Imprint and Mary Walsh: Open Book, there’s CBC Newsworld’s Hot Typeand over on Book Television, the first (and only) 24-hour literary digital channel in the world, is Daniel Richler’s Richler, Ink. Members of the two million households that subscribe to Rogers Cable in Ontario and parts of Atlantic Canada can also catch Carolyn Weaver’s Fine Print and its spin-offs, Bio Library and Tech Books, which run every day of the week, morning, noon and night, except Thursday.
All of these shows, except Imprint, were launched after 1996, the year Oprah Winfrey introduced the monthly book club segment into her hugely popular daily talk show. A mention on the show, with its 20 million weekly viewers, could raise the print run of a book from 10,000 to one million copies. In 2000, Cynthia Good, then publisher and co-president of Penguin Canada, the country’s largest publishing house, described the Oprah effect this way: “I get goose bumps and teary-eyed when I talk about what Oprah has done.” Forty-five books were accorded the circle of approval, Oprah’s corporate logo, including Anne-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, before Oprah announced in April 2002 that she was writing the club out of her show.
Did the Oprah phenomenon inspire the producers of our homegrown book shows? Not according to the station manager at Rogers Cable, Charles Wechsler, who says, “I wouldn’t say it was influential.” Instead, he points to such regular Toronto events as the Harbourfront Reading Series, the International Festival of Authors, and Word on the Street, the one-day alfresco book and magazine fair that last year attracted more than 160,000 people, as proof of books’ popularity. He also points out that since 2000, Margaret Atwood, Rohinton Mistry, Carol Shields, and Yann Martel have all been shortlisted for or have won the prestigious Man Booker Prize. “There was a growing awareness of Canadian fiction among our viewers,” he explains, “and there are no studies that can tell me what contributed to that increase in awareness, but it was apparent to us that there was an audience of people interested in reading books.” In January 2001, when viewer Carolyn Weaver pitched the concept for Fine Print, Wechsler says the reaction at Rogers was: “This city, the region and beyond contain some excellent writing, and what a great way to provide extra exposure to those authors, and to not just speak to the people who were already interested in reading and books, but to also capture a new audience.”
Salter Street Films’ Michael Donovan, the producer of Mary Walsh: Open Book, also denies that Oprah’s book club was an inspiration for the show that he and Walsh developed. A book club member since 1988, he says producing some sort of book show had been on his mental to-do list for years. As he explains, “It seemed to me to be an interesting and creative challenge to mix two things that are theoretically impossible to mix: books and television. I knew I would run against the conventional thinking and that’s what made it interesting to me.”
Daniel Richler has a slightly different take on the recent boom in book shows. “If you look at the people who actually created these shows-Evan Solomon, Mary Walsh, Carolyn Weaver-it would be wrong to accuse them of copycatting because it is clear that they have always loved books. But for a program to make it to the air, you have to have the corporate will as well, and I cannot believe that the perception of a book show wasn’t refreshed by the Oprah example.” Richler feels that up until Oprah’s book club, people imagined there was nothing duller than a book show. “And then, suddenly, there was this zeitgeist shift and people could talk about books with pizzazz and fun and without all kinds of intellectual bafflegab. I can’t believe that Oprah didn’t play a part in the willingness of Rogers and the CBC to launch shows.” (Wechsler admits that “Rohinton Mistry’s book being on Oprah” may have been a factor in boosting the profile of Canadian fiction.)
Richler himself was ahead of the Oprah phenomenon. As the chief arts correspondent for The Journal in 1987, he became excited about the combination of books and television that blossomed during his interviews with authors like Alice Munro. He couldn’t help but ask, “Why does this country not have a book show?” Coincidentally, the then chairman of TVO, Bernard Ostry, was having the same thought, and in 1989Imprint hit the airwaves with Richler as the creative head of arts at TVO. In the second season, he became the show’s host. In 1995, Richler moved to the United States to work on the Salon TV series, but returned to Canada to find Moses Znaimer, the executive producer and president of Citytv, producing Book Television: The Program. Richler knew the show was destined to become a channel because that was the way Znaimer worked. Znaimer agreed to let Richler run the channel and in June 1999, Richler secured the licence for it.
One source of inspiration for Richler has been the book show Apostrophes, which aired throughout Europe from 1975 to 1990 and drew a diverse audience, from the taxi driver to the academic. Richler, who attended a taping of the show in Paris as part of the lead-up to the launch of Imprint, attributes the show’s success to several factors: “First, [host] Bernard Pivot was an affable man. Second, the French appreciated intelligent television. Third, at the time, they were not distracted by a lot of other television.” Returning home, Richler decided not to pursue a “tea cozy” format on Imprint. Instead, he says,”We mixed different types of literature, relishing the encounter between ivory tower academics and punks with ice tongs in their noses. We really did succeed in introducing people to what a literary conversation can be.”
From the perspective of the beleaguered publishers, whatever the quality of the literary conversation, the exposure their authors get is welcome. As Laura Cameron, director of marketing and publicity at McClelland & Stewart, remarks, “The market for bringing attention to books can seem to be shrinking in some quarters.” The amount of space newspapers devote to books has declined in the past five years (see “Out of Print,”Ryerson Review, Summer 2002); meanwhile, traditional daily talk shows like Jane Hawtin Live, The Dini Petty Show, and Bynon, which would squeeze an author in between a sword juggler and a French gourmet chef, are being cancelled. Even CBC Radio’s This Morning, the daily three-hour current-affairs show well known for showcasing the finest Canadian writers, has been chopped into two programs; only the second, the two-hour-long Sounds Like Canada, covers books. It has a biweekly half-hour segment called Talking Books (producer Jacqueline Kirk admits, “It’s not quite what it used to be like back in the days of Peter Gzowski”) plus one 15-minute interview per week with an author. According to Cameron, these shows at least “allow a fuller discussion of ideas and allow an author’s personality to come through.”
For cash-strapped publishers, the shows have the advantage of being a cheaper promotional tool than the traditional author tour. Writers also prefer the convenience of dropping into a studio rather than schlepping around the countryside. Journalist and author Stevie Cameron puts the appeal this way: “It’s better than going to Pickering Mall with Mr. Dressup.”
Even though Marchand has reservations about the suitability of the medium to cover books, on a Saturday last November, he appeared on Richler, Ink., which reaches approximately 250,000 digital channel subscribers. The set could easily be mistaken for a den in a middle-class home. There is a coffee table, a full bookcase, a pedestal lamp casting warm light, and plenty of furniture in relaxing mahogany tones. Marchand, looking appropriately literary in a button-down shirt, striped tie, and dark sports jacket, knows how to give good sound bites, declaiming, “David Lodge said the Booker Prize has introduced one more way for a novelist to fail.” Marchand is frank about why he’s there: “As a media person, it does me good to be on television. It builds recognition. It is good for my career.”
Book shows are also affordable programming. Richler confesses that the Book Television channel has one edit suite and operates with a staff of four, the same number of people that usually produce a single program. And when Fine Print launched, early episodes were shot on location at a Chapter’s bookstore and then at Ridpath’s Fine Furniture in downtown Toronto. According to Wechsler, Carolyn Weaver even absorbs some of the below the line costs like research and show preparation. The remainder-bin price tag of the shows also makes them an inexpensive way for stations to meet their CanCon commitments to the CRTC.
Not that economy is necessarily the motivation of the creators and hosts of the shows. For example, Hot Type’s Evan Solomon, like Richler, thrives on looking at the world through literature to learn about life and people. Each week on his half-hour show, Solomon investigates the world of ideas in print with big thinkers, academics, and authors of both fiction and non-fiction. One measure of the success of this approach is Hot Type’s several Gemini nominations for “Best Talk/General Information Series” and “Best Host.” The show’s nomination-worthy style is in evidence one night in October, when Solomon’s sole guest is Wayne Johnston. Solomon and the Newfoundland-born author are talking about Johnston’s epic novel, The Navigator of New York, a tale about a race for the North Pole, a quest for identity and a search for truth. In creating the book, Johnston blended real-life characters and events with fictional ones, and in his introductory voice-over, Solomon throws out the question, “In a mix of history and fiction, does Johnston finally discover who really reached the top of the world first?” The two men explore the relationship between history, fact and fiction. The conversation ranges from what is actually known about the 1909 polar expeditions to how much research an author should do. Solomon comments, “Proust sat in a cork-lined room and invented worlds. Do we require the writer to even go anywhere?” Johnston responds, “No. The journey is in the mind. The readers’ journey is in the mind’. Emily Dickinson said that in a poem, she said: ‘I’ve never seen the sea but that doesn’t stop me from writing about it.'” Altogether, the tone of the half hour is literate and wide-ranging-something of a contrast with the Mary Walsh gabfest about sex and booze.
True, Hot Type, Richler, Ink.,Imprint, Fine Print, and the rest are an integral part of the promotional machinery for books. Johnston’s publisher had to be delighted, for example, that Solomon ended the show by saying, “The Navigator of New York is an absolutely fabulous book, a literary page turner from start to finish.” And it’s also likely that The Globe and Mail‘s senior arts writer Sandra Martin is right when she says, “Television is a lot less work.”
On the other hand, the shows may help change a practice that upsets Steve Henighan almost as much as Canadian writing becoming a commercial enterprise: “What has disappeared from our culture is sitting around talking about books. These shows, to some extent, replace that and may stimulate a bit of interest.”