Wednesday, 2 September 2015

"Stories of imagination tend to upset those without one" - why the cultural elite doesn't get Terry Pratchett

I did flick through a book by him in a shop, to see what the fuss is about, but the prose seemed very ordinary. 
Such is the basis for Guardian writer Jonathan Jones dismissing the entirety of Terry Pratchett's writing. For me this sums up the sheer ignorance of the self-appointed literary elite. It would seem that the sin Terry Pratchett committed was the sin of being accessible. Or as I would put it, actually readable.

The literary elite are conning you into trying to read those books they hold up as paragons of genius. Books like the witty but incredibly (and indulgently) overwritten Ulysses or the dull as ditchwater eighteenth and nineteenth century novels written by women - mostly about a world entirely foreign to us in which they describe the gossip, gold-digging and backbiting of fellow women in what might as well be a fairy tale environment for all that is relevant to today's reader.

These books are hard work. I've flicked through a few of them in shops and the prose is impenetrable, elaborate and complicated. Almost designed - in a showy way - to exclude anyone who prefers crunch, pace and intelligence. Us mere mortals who think the purpose of a novel is to take us into a story, release from the bounds of the mundane and, above all, entertain us. None of the novels pushed - in that ghastly English teacher manner - by the likes of Jonathan Jones achieves that aim. Instead - and let's use Jon's world since they will be so much better than mine - the novels are designed to exclude:

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.

The real problem with Terry Pratchett isn't that he's a bad writer for he was far from that, but that he committed a terrible sin - one beyond writing prose that the average 13 year old boy could access. Terry Pratchett wrote fantasy. Just as that other - now dead - target of Jonathan Jones' dismissal, Ray Bradbury, wrote science fiction. This is, of course, entirely unforgivable if you want the cultural elite to consider you a serious writer. You see, dear reader, science fiction is just (using Jon's word again) "ordinary potboilers" not proper writing.

It is my considered view that Pratchett and Bradbury are far better writers than Jane Austen. Or, to put it another way, they wrote prose that works for today's reader, set in contexts that reflect today's society and which tell a story that works as a story but where there's a message if we want to take it. Austen's books are no doubt pertinent if you want to study the social mores of Georgian England's elite but that society is so far removed from ours that it might as well be fantasy. And a boring fantasy too.

The word 'genius' is overused - I'm sure that like many professional writers Terry Pratchett considered himself a craftsman storyteller rather than an artist but there's no doubt that, in the position he adopted, Pratchett was close to the greatest. Writing comedy is hard - you have to be light (which is why Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake fail despite their undoubted humour) while maintaining the integrity of the story. It's no surprise that very few of the authors feted by the likes of Jonathan Jones wrote comedy - such gentleness of spirit is beyond the ken of someone planning on literary genius rather than good storytelling.

I still consider that the story is lost in so much of our literary fiction. Too much sweat is expended on getting the wonderful prose - all those well-turned phrases spilled onto the page - meaning there's little left for the dull old job of creating the wonder, excitement and escape of a great story. It's as if Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams had lost sight of their plot in the urge to tell a few more jokes. I'm just like Jonathan Jones - there's an awful lot of books I haven't read and a good lot (mostly written in the genre often called 'literary fiction') that I have no intention of ever reading. I may continue to flick through some of them in shops though. Just so I can write about them with knowledge and understanding!

Reading is, for most people, a way to leave the everyday world behind for a while. For some people this is about exploring history or philosophy, for others the pleasure comes from the joy of fine prose or livid poetry, but for most - the 'middlebrow' as Jon dismissively describes them - the joy is in a well-crafted story, a dash of adventure, a splash of humour and an escape into another brighter and sharper place. To dismiss literature that does this last job so wonderfully - and Terry Pratchett definitely does this - as something other than genius is to display selectivity. The sort of arrogant ignorance only our self-appointed cultural elite can muster.

And, since Jonathan Jones doesn't like Ray Bradbury (it's not clear whether he flicked through Bradbury's books or has actually read one) let's finish with a quotation from what I think is his greatest book, The October Country:

“And what, you ask, does writing teach us?

First and foremost, it reminds us that we are alive and that it is gift and a privilege, not a right. We must earn life once it has been awarded us. Life asks for rewards back because it has favored us with animation.

So while our art cannot, as we wish it could, save us from wars, privation, envy, greed, old age, or death, it can revitalize us amidst it all.”

I'm sure Jonathan Jones will have flicked to that page?


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