Today, Jonathan Jones at the Guardian set the internet on fire with his article about Terry Pratchett. I’m bored, so here are my thoughts…
“It does not matter to me if Terry Pratchett’s final novel is a worthy epitaph or not, or if he wanted it to be pulped by a steamroller. I have never read a single one of his books and I never plan to. Life’s too short.”
Life is indeed short. Many would argue that it’s too short, in fact, to read the facile and superficial observations of a supposedly professional arts critic opining on the works of an author that he hasn’t read. As we shall see.
“No offence, but Pratchett is so low on my list of books to read before I die that I would have to live a million years before getting round to him.”
Well, at the rate of reading one book a week, that means Jones considers there are 52,000,000 books that are superior to Pratchett’s output – or at least books that are preferable to read for his purposes. It is impossible to know for sure what percentage of published books that amounts to, but an estimate in 2010 suggests there were around 120,000,000 books available at that point, which I believe includes non-fiction. The number will have increased. Let’s say it’s currently 200,000,000 fictional books. Jones is still placing Pratchett’s output in the lower quarter of all published novels: a catalogue as a whole that includes a significant number of self-published novels about people having sex with dinosaurs. I suggest he thinks again.
And of course, I understand that the original quote is an example of rhetoric and hyperbole, but sometimes pedantry is the only appropriate response to such things. We’ll get more serious shortly.
“I did flick through a book by him in a shop, to see what the fuss is about, but the prose seemed very ordinary.”
Right. So. What exactly is ordinary prose? (Never mind very ordinary – if you’re going to criticise someone else’s prose, it’s probably a good idea not to use qualifiers that make little sense in context). Pratchett writes in sentences, presumably, with clear meanings and no obvious linguistic fireworks. But that is – of course – not necessarily a problem. Let’s take this example from Night Watch, describing an upcoming riot:
As soon as you saw people as things to be measured, they didn’t measure up. What would run through the streets soon enough wouldn’t be a revolution or a riot. It’d be people who were frightened and panicking. It was what happened when the machinery of city life faltered, the wheels stopped turning and all the little rules broke down. And when that happened, humans were worse than sheep. Sheep just ran; they didn’t try to bite the sheep next to them.
That is straightforward, simple language that delivers a punch of recognition at the end. There are a couple of metaphors in there, but they’re not laboured or elaborated on at length. It’s a get-in and get-out kind of paragraph, and it’s artistically sound. Just because you’re not purpling your language at length doesn’t mean that plain and relatively unadorned prose can’t lead to a clear and precise understanding of quite complicated issues.
We’ll come back to the “flicking through” in a moment or two.
“I don’t mean to pick on this particular author, except that the huge fuss attending and following his death this year is part of a very disturbing cultural phenomenon.”
“Very disturbing”. Really? I think there was a huge outcry of grief about Terry Pratchett’s death for a number of reasons. He was an extremely talented and much-loved author, who died before his time as we see it, and whose death was, to some extent, detailed in the public domain. He wrote eloquently, passionately and intelligently about death as he faced it. Those who saw him at later events observed a diminished man who, nevertheless, retained the same commitment to his fans and his community as they had when he was first starting out. People loved him for his writing, amongst other things, and they really loved it. It is hardly surprising that his death affected hundreds of thousands of people very deeply indeed.
“In the age of social media and ebooks, our concept of literary greatness is being blurred beyond recognition. A middlebrow cult of the popular is holding literature to ransom.”
These two sentences are basically offcuts from a better article with a coherent argument behind it. As they stand, they are meaningless and unsupported here. Let’s give them a pass.
“Thus, if you judge by the emotional outpourings over their deaths, the greatest writers of recent times were Pratchett and Ray Bradbury.”
No, it really just says that they were two much-loved writers who touched many lives. There have been others. There have actually been many others.
“There was far less of an internet splurge when Gabriel García Márquez died in 2014 and Günter Grass this spring. Yet they were true titans of the novel. Their books, like all great books, can change your life, your beliefs, your perceptions.”
Indeed, but there is an implied premise here that Pratchett’s works did not do those things, or at least did so in some lesser or less substantive manner than the authors mentioned. It may well be true, but it is an ambitious argument to attempt to make by someone who admits to not having read him, and indeed, does not then bother to make that argument in any meaningful manner anyway.
“Everyone reads trash sometimes, but why are we now pretending, as a culture, that it is the same thing as literature? The two are utterly different.”
Yes, indeed. But significantly lacking here is any attempt to differentiate the two. The question of what counts as “literature” (distinct from “literary) is not settled.
What do we value in artistic works? There are numerous possible answers. We value entertainment of some kind; we value an emotional connection; we value being moved; we value seeing the world anew as a result of experiencing the text in whatever form it takes. The latter seems most important to me, although opinions vary. Regardless, all are true with regard to Pratchett’s work.
People often assume that literary judgements are either objective (ie there are qualities that are somehow measurable) or entirely subjective (ie anything you like must be good), but while there are elements of both that are correct the real truth lies somewhere in between. As a society, we establish our touchstone texts intersubjectively, based on the cumulative and conflicting judgements of readers, reviewers, critical assessments, sales, cultural dialogue, academic discourse, cross-referencing with other work, and so on. It’s an ongoing discussion. But the fact that an apparently professional arts critic is writing an admittedly piss-weak article on an author, following a lengthy review and analysis of his last novel by A. S. Byatt, in itself suggests that the writer in question warrants a little more than simply writing off.
And what on earth does “trash” mean here? Trash. Seriously. However much you might differentiate between higher and lower works in the arts, is that an appropriate word to use? Roll it around your mouth. Trash. It’s a harsh word to use about anything somebody has spent a year of their life working on, and which other people have enjoyed. There are many books I haven’t enjoyed. I’d never call them trash.
“Actual literature may be harder to get to grips with than a Discworld novel, but it is more worth the effort. By dissolving the difference between serious and light reading, our culture is justifying mental laziness and robbing readers of the true delights of ambitious fiction.”
There is a great deal to unpack and potentially argue with in these two sentences. There are some underlying assumptions to untangle and make plain and shine a harsh light on. I won’t do that today. Again, they belong in a better article, probably written by somebody else.
“Because life really is too short to waste on ordinary potboilers. I am not saying this as a complacent book snob who claims to have read everything. On the contrary, I am crushed by how many books I have not read. This summer I finally finished Mansfield Park. How had I managed not to read it up to now? It’s shameful. But at least now it’s part of my life. The structure of Jane Austen’s morally sombre plot, the restrained irony of her style, the sudden opening up of the book as it moves from Mansfield Park to Portsmouth and takes in the complex real social world of regency England – all that’s in me now.”
Well, here we return to the initial criticism Jones made of Terry Pratchett. He “flicked through” one of his novels in a bookshop and found the prose “very ordinary”. You wonder if he would find a comparable level of criticism of Mansfield Park convincing. Leaving aside all other possible criticisms, you certainly won’t understand the virtues he recognises and appreciates in the novel if you take such a lacklustre approach to the text itself. Structure, style, progression, plot. You don’t get those by skimming. How astonishing that when you read whole books you find yourself in a position to appreciate them as a whole and understand what they have to offer? It’s not astonishing at all, of course. It’s blindingly, teeth-grindingly obvious.
“Great books become part of your experience. They enrich the very fabric of reality. I don’t just mean 19th-century classics, either.”
Well, that’s a relief. Because, to be honest, the reality depicted in Mansfield Park represents my lived experience about as much as a world similar to our own that is balanced on top of four enormous elephants, in turn balanced on the back of a gigantic turtle. Which is to say: potentially, quite a lot. People are people, after all.
“I also read Post Office by Charles Bukowski this summer. My God, what a writer. Bukowski is a voice from hell with the talent of an angel. I must read every word by him.”
I will make no judgements on Bukowski, beyond the fact that it seems weird to me that Jones is just getting into him now. And that “a voice from hell with the talent of an angel” is a terrible sentence, and either a self-censor or an external one should have intervened.
“But Terry Pratchett? Get real. It’s time we stopped this pretence that mediocrity is equal to genius.”
We should abandon that pretence when it comes to literary criticism too. I suspect, after today, we won’t have to when it comes to Jonathan Jones.