Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Shopping for knowledge

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I was talking to someone who works in the movie/TV business last night, and at one point he offered an opinion that rankled me a bit: "People go to the movies to learn something." And then we drank.

An innocuous enough thing to say, sure. And this movie-man qualified it by adding, "Even about themselves," which, again, probably seems fair enough. But it bugged me because it smacks of the expectation of the consumer: movies are for something, they serve a purpose, and we can judge them on how well they fulfill or fail to fulfil this purpose.

Lately it seems more and more that we need to ascribe some use-value to the arts -- storytelling in particular. In this schematic, one ceases to be a reader or moviegoer, but a shopper: we pay for something with expectations for a tangible return -- "to learn something," etc. -- and if the book or movie doesn't deliver, we feel ripped off.

I'll avoid going on too much of a rant about neoliberalism's relationship to the arts; besides, there are much better things to read online than whatever half-informed nonsense I might write.

But I do worry about a culture that requires everything to have a certain type of measurable worth. The work of a novel is not to inform us about anything, even ourselves; each novel must be read and judged on its own merits, and no catch-all, blanket statement need apply to literature as a whole.

I'd like to think the novel is one of few things that inhabit that uncommodifiable space free from the market: the space inside your head.

Of course, this is fanciful thinking. Many if not most of our desires are dictated to us through the broader culture's various systems of distribution and control. But I do have faith that novels -- and movies, though Hollywood's preoccupation with box office numbers seems counterintuitive to this idea -- can exist somewhere beyond the expectations of the consumer. And if we learn something while reading, that's great too.

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.

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