Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

So many masterpieces!

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I'm not going to post the video, because it's so Not Safe For Work I feel like your boss might fire me for linking to it, but there's a nice bit in Louis CK's recent stand-up special, "Hilarious," about the way we overuse certain words.

Describing comedy is stupid, so I'll give you the gist: he starts with "hilarious," then talks about "amazing" (describe a basket of chicken wings as "amazing" and "you've limited yourself to a shit life") and "genius," which "you used to have to invent a number" to be called.

Add "masterpiece" to this list.

Recently the Globe & Mail has decreed the Stratford Festival's production of Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker and Vincent Lam's new novel to be masterpieces. A quick putz around the internet reveals other recent masterpieces to include the video game Max Payne 3, Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, which I didn't like that much, and that new British movie with a bunch of OAPs having spiritual awakenings in India.

If you can sense skepticism here, you're an amazing genius. But what, really, is a masterpiece? Weirdly, when I think of the word "masterpiece" my mind goes straight to painting -- Caravaggio, in particular. But that's not news: it's pretty much consensus that his work, as with other great painters of his era, include bona fide masterpieces. And the same can be said of the most famous works of the great composers.

But what about books? Things seem to get a little trickier. Is Ulysses a masterpiece, even though most people can't get through it? What about The Odyssey, which, though attributed to Homer, is the result of generations of oral epic storytelling? (Something about "masterpiece," to me, implies a singular, divine genius who crafted it.) Never mind contemporary stuff, which no one can ever seem to agree on. E.g.: Anita Brookner has called Kazuo Ishiguro's Unconsoled “almost certainly a masterpiece,” while James Wood argues “it invents its own category of badness.”

How can a work of art be a masterpiece to some people and insufferable to others? Maybe only posterity decides. So, in two hundred years, will the vampire-robots who inherit the earth have venerated Max Payne to the status of masterpiece -- and launched all their copies of Beowulf into the trash-ring that will be orbiting the earth?

Maybe we should ban the word masterpiece to refer to anything made in the past fifty years. (This frees up the movie version of Dr. No, Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook and The Best of Sam Cooke for masterpiece candidacy, so I'm going to nominate those three, right now.) But can we go a little easy on throwing the term around? Because, as Louis CK points out, if everything is "a genius's amazing masterpiece," when something truly amazing happens, we won't know what to call it.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Pasha Malla

Pasha Malla’s first collection of short stories, The Withdrawal Method, a Globe and Mail and National Post book of the year, won the Danuta Gleed Literary Award and the Trillum Book Award and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize and longlisted for the Giller Prize. His latest book, People Park, is forthcoming from Anansi in July 2012.

Go to Pasha Malla’s Author Page