Terry Pratchett and the Question of Literature

The Librarian of the Unseen University in Terry Pratchett's Discworld. (OOK! by Paul Kidby).
The Librarian of the Unseen University in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. (OOK! by Paul Kidby).

As you may already have heard, the internet was livid with rage on Monday, after Guardian columnist  accused Terry Pratchett of being a mediocre writer who pens ‘ordinary potboilers’. Perhaps the most prominently featured response came from Sam Jordison. Crucially, Jones casually admits that he has never read Pratchett himself, and Jordison chides Jones for this admission, arguing that ‘[t]he moral weight that Jonathan Jones says is missing from the Discworld novels is very much there – but to know this, you do actually have to read them’.


The Literature Problem

Much ink has already been spilt by others in response to Jones’s article, but I’m interested in the discussion for what might be a different reason than most. For me, the debate over whether or not Terry Pratchett is guilty of literature is moot. The answer will invariably be either yes or no, depending on the individual reader’s perspective. This is fine. I personally adore the Discworld series, and think it has merit on many levels, but I’m not really bothered about whether it’s literature or not. What interests me is how we (both the highly educated and the popular readers) can still talk about what makes ‘literature’ and not first answer one immediately important question: when we say that a work is moving, or artful, or can ‘enrich the very fabric of reality’, who is it effecting in this way? With which group of people does a text need to be popular in order to be considered ‘literature’, and where does this group exist in relation to other groups in the cultural spectrum? There are literatures and there are literatures, and, as a Facebook friend of mine aptly put it:

Resolving the conundrum by implying that you somehow just “know” which works are classics – let’s get real, let’s not fool ourselves – takes us back to New Criticism’s obsession with discovering the intrinsic value of works.
I’ll have my criticism 21st century, thank you very much.

This is where Jones goes most wrong, though to be fair his 500-word article is more clickbait than criticism. Provoked by the public response to Pratchett’s recent death, Jones argues that  ‘middlebrow’ writers like Pratchett are drawing the attention from where it belongs – with ‘real literature’:

Thus, if you judge by the emotional outpourings over their deaths, the greatest writers of recent times were Pratchett and Ray Bradbury. 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. 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.

Like many champions of the traditional Western canon, Jones buys into the concept of creative genius. He also invests literature with that special je ne sais quoi that is paradoxically both transcendent and timeless, and down-to-earth, or quintessentially human. Even more problematically, Jones equates literature with a particular kind of pleasure, where only a particular kind of intellectual investment can offer real rewards:

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.

As Damien Walter (who also happens to be a Guardian columnist) points out, even if the ‘difference between serious and light reading’ isn’t entirely arbitrary, shifting from decade to decade, the real issue lies with the fact that the power to decide what belongs in each category rests in the hands of an unjust and undeserving elite:

Because let’s not forget that the literary and cultural structures Jinathan [sic] Jones rides out to defend originate from one of the most unequal and unjust cultures in human history. The Victorian Britain that derided the readers of penny dreadfuls was the same one profiting from their sweat and labour in the nation’s factories. The white, Anglo-Saxon, upper class literary and cultural elite deciding what should be classified as “great art” were simultaneously pillaging the cultural heritage of India, China and a quarter of the planet. The fortunes that paid for the exclusive university educations of Victorian Britain’s artists, writers and critics came in large part from the profits of brutal industry, murderous colonialism and, of course, the vast reparations paid to British slave owners. It’s in no way surprising that Imperial Britain defined art and culture as it defined all things, in such a way as to exclude the poor and keep the oppressed in their place. The values of British culture that Jonathan Jones takes such joy in defending are, in large part, indefensible.

When we discuss ‘literature’ as a category or as an institution, we need to be wary of the very terms of the conversation. If we’re honest, the indefensible values Jones defends still dominate Western culture as a whole. Literature in particular is still built on the repression and exploitation of poor, female, and minority voices. Who do the texts Jones champions empower, and who is empowered by Pratchett’s work? At the end of the day, that is the most important question, although the answer is rarely so straightforward.


Small Gods

280c1ec663044eaf277683d2a139666bThe ongoing debate about ‘literature’ and literariness actually reminds me of a Terry Pratchett novel. Like Walter, one of my favourite Discworld instalments is Small Gods (1992). It tells the story of Brutha, eighth prophet of a once-great god named Om. Most of Om’s followers don’t really believe in him anymore, but they keep his institutions around because they represent a useful way to hang on to their power. Brutha is quite possibly Om’s last believer. Though Om is fading away, and only has enough strength to manifest himself as a turtle, Brutha persists in believing that his god’s actions are driven by careful consideration and divine knowledge rather than necessity. You can find a nice analysis of the plot here.

In addition to being incredibly funny, the novel is at once a wry satire of organised religion, and an honest exploration of belief. I could draw quotes from any number of Discworld novels to defend Terry Pratchett’s ‘literariness’ (in whatever sense), but if Small Gods weren’t overtly addressing religion, it could easily be read as a metaphor for the literary establishment rather than a religious one. Likewise, you can interpret this metaphor as coming down either for or against Jones’s defence of ‘real literature’.

Like Om, Pratchett may not always be driven by divine forces, or by the particular brand of aesthetics to which Jones subscribes, but this clearly does not diminish the impact he has had on a vast group of people. They continue to believe in power of Pratchett’s work, and for me, this makes all the difference. As poet and critic Ian Darda points out in an excellent article on contemporary conceptual writing (which exists at another focal point in the ‘literature’ debate), power over a text’s meaning has always resided with context, not with the author, the reader, or even the text itself.

I won’t spoil Small Gods for you – provided you promise to go (re-)read it! – but it feels appropriate to let Pratchett’s work and parables speak for themselves. So without further ado, in the light of this discussion here are some of my favourite Small Gods quotes:

“There’s no point in believing in things that exist.”

(Terry Pratchett. Small Gods. London: Corgi, 2013, p.287)

Their listening was like a huge pit waiting for his words to fill it. The trouble was that he was talking in philosophy, but they were listening in gibberish.


“Take it from me, whenever you see a bunch of buggers puttering around talking about truth and beauty and the best way of attacking Ethics, you can bet your sandals it’s all because dozens of other poor buggers are doing all the real work around the place.”


“Life in this world,” he said, “is, as it were, a sojourn in a cave. What can we know of reality? For all we see of the true nature of existence is, shall we say, no more than bewildering and amusing shadows cast upon the inner wall of the cave by the unseen blinding light of absolute truth, from which we may or may not deduce some glimmer of veracity, and we as troglodyte seekers of wisdom can only lift our voices to the unseen and say, humbly, ‘Go on, do Deformed Rabbit…it’s my favorite.”


And finally:

You Shall Not Submit Your God to Market Forces!


RIP Terry Pratchett: Where the Falling Angel Met the Rising Ape

Terry Pratchett’s publisher just announced that 85610the Discworld author, who spent many years struggling with Alzheimer’s, has passed away. He was only 66.

I have no words at the moment to express the loss that I – or that many other fans – will feel at this moment. I can only offer my heartfelt thanks for the many wonderful stories he gave us. Terry Pratchett, you will be sorely missed. Thank you for your insight, your sarcasm, and most of all, your wit.

“Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.” –Terry Pratchett, Hogfather (London: Corgi, 1997), p. 422