Monday, August 31, 2015

Nugget of Pratchettology

A funny little article popped up in The Guardian today to say, "I haven't read any Terry Pratchett, but I know he's mediocre, not a genius. Everyone stop liking him!"

I don't think it's deliberate clickbait, really. It's more a sign of how saturated we are with clickbait: clickbait becomes a form through which you can channel a little temper-tantrum, whose shape would otherwise have been a harrumph, or going to wait in the car.

Anyway, if The Shepherd's Crown is one of the columnist's least favourite books he's never read, I thought I should share a listicle of my Top Ten Favourite Books I've Never Read:

1) Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain
2) John Crowley, Little, Big
3) Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities
4) Stevie Smith, Novel on Yellow Paper
5) Flaubert, Bouvard et Pécuchet
6) Lydia Davis, The Collected Stories
7) Shea and Wilson, The Illuminatus! Trilogy
8) M. John Harrison, Nova Swing
9) Terry Pratchett, Going Postal
10) Hope Mirrlees, Lud-in-the-Mist

I can recommend them all unreservedly. Really unreservedly. I know you'd love them and I know I would too.

If we read them, they would change our lives. Everything does.

I want to be fair to Jonathan Jones. For reasons I won't frighten you with now, I actually think there's a lot to be said for exceptionally-fleeting engagements with books. There is an art of not-reading, just as there is an art of reading. Maybe there should be poetics, polemic and literary criticism of not-reading too.

But the article's silliest assumption (and Jones knows he's being a doofus) is its broad-brush division between "mediocre" and "genius," as if most people wouldn't want to place Pratchett somewhere in the middle.

And even if we do place him somewhere in the middle, that's only as a shorthand. Because literary value doesn't exist on some kind of spectrum or leader-board. There isn't a top spot. There isn't really any such thing as "genius." (Except maybe getting a double-headed blackbird to live on your hat: that's pure genius).

In 2005 Pratchett declined a Hugo nomination for Going Postal. Maybe it was because he wanted the Hugo Awards to be run as efficiently as Ankh-Morpork's postal service. Pratchett loved a well-run institution, and he didn't need that Hugo.

Literally a knight?

Pratchett also didn't really need literary criticism, but literary criticism does need him. It's worth talking about Pratchett's writing in an academic mode and/or in a fannish mode -- just not in a pontificating arbiter-of-taste mode. It's important to go beyond merely evaluating, and to really explore and interpret Pratchett's writing qualitatively. So with that in mind, here are some pointers to finish with, suggestions for both Further Reading and maybe even Further Writing.

The Pratchett meta-text is enormous, and bits of it are watchable, wearable, playable, etc. I have been a little surprised by how scant the core academic literature on Pratchett actually is, although I bet that's going to change. A lot of what's out there so far is also a bit . . . odd, idiosyncratic, rough-around-the-edges, though I really don't mean that pejoratively. I think this has to do with: (a) an oddness which always crops up in any literary criticism on comic writing; (b) academics who aren't primarily literary scholars, but who are Pratchett fans and manage to find a bridge to his work; (c) quite a lot of theses put online rather than adapted for publication, and quite a lot of undergraduate work.

L-Space maintains a link list of essays and analysis (and the L-Space wiki is itself an unremittingly dope apparatus criticus. I think these people have read the books). Discworld and the Disciplines: Critical Approaches to the Terry Pratchett Works, ed. Alton and Spruiell (2014) is a recent edited collection where you could also go to for a fairly comprehensive bibliography. Terry Pratchett: Guilty of Literature (2008) ed. Andrew Butler seems to be currently the only other literary-critical collection on Pratchett, although there are useful books I think aimed at slightly more general audiences, including The Folklore of Discworld (2008) by Pratchett and Jacqueline Simpson, The New Discworld Companion (2008) by Pratchett and Stephen Briggs, An Unofficial Companion to the Novels of Terry Pratchett (2007) by Andrew Butler, Philosophy and Terry Pratchett (2014) ed. Held and South, and Pratchett’s Women: The Unauthorized Essays, by Tansy Rayner Roberts (from these blog posts). There's also the excellent Science of the Discworld series (1999-2013) by Pratchett, Ian Stewart, and Jack Cohen.  Pratchett's own 2000 article, "Imaginary Worlds, Real Stories," on the relationship of his writing to folklore, has some interesting critical reflection. Dorota Guttfeld's chapter in Ideological Battlegrounds: Constructions of Us and Them Before and After 9/11, ed. Joanna Witkowska and Uwe Zagratzki, feels like a much-needed examination of the politics of Pratchett's Ankh-Morpork strand. I don't think Discworld 'does' 9/11, does it? I also liked Janet Croft’s ‘The Golempunk Manifesto: Ownership of the Means of Production in Pratchett’s Discworld’ (2014), which you can read all of on All these people are actually just getting on and having a conversation about Pratchett, not blustering about whether or not it's worthwhile having a conversation.

Any other suggestions, recommendations? If I don't find a proper sympathetic-but-critical overview of race throughout the Discworld series soonish, I may just have REF up my own QED-bike. I pray to all the spirits (but not too hard) that nobody ever feels it necessary to write about the relation of Pratchett's narrativium to Baudrillard's hyperreal.

Finally, here's one big, blunt question. Pratchett is a satirist and a moralist, whose villains are usually fundamentalists, and whose heroes often show devotion to the rule of law. So are the politics of his work simply classical liberalism, perhaps with a special love for civil society? Does anything complicate that label -- "Pratchett is a classical liberal"?

*   *   *

Mansfield Park is my favourite Jane Austen. "Sir Thomas in the house!"

Earlier: posts about Pratchett.


In Response to Jonathan Jones and his Bullshit Article about Terry Pratchett
Sorry, Jonesy, But I Can Write for The Guardian and Love Terry Pratchett
Get Real. Jonathan Jones Is Just A Professional Troll
Terry Pratchett's books are the opposite of 'ordinary potboilers'
Jonathan Jones is a sneering priggish snob shocka
On Terry Pratchett and the art of comedy
Despite What Ignorant People Say, Terry Pratchett Is Destined For Enduring Fame

Where to start:

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