Hello, internet!

Let me start today’s post by telling you about a man called Dagobert D. Runes.

He had a delightful name, like something out of an urban fantasy novel, but he was every bit as real as you and me.

He was born in a part of Austro-Hungary that is now a part of Ukraine. He was a philosopher, and a writer, and he spent most of his life writing dictionaries of philosophy full of radical opinions about the art of thinking and the history of thought. In 1941 he founded a publishing company called The Philosophical Library, which exists to this day, and has published more than 2,000 titles.

There’s some controversy about Runes. In 1959, he published the first English translation of a text by Karl Marx, entitled “On the Jewish Question”, which was either a defence of the rights of Jews in Prussia or an early piece of anti-Semitism, depending upon which historians you listen to. Runes’ translation was published under the title of “A World without Jews”, and this choice of title did not bode well for him. Although he’d only translated the book, the title sounded distinctly anti-Semitic, and Runes’ reputation suffered extremely. Runes wrote an introduction to the translation that gives historians reason to believe that he was not himself an extreme Marxist, nor an anti-Semite – but this doesn’t seem to have saved his reputation.

I’m a little cynical of Runes and his opinions, but this post isn’t really about him.

I only mention him because, in 1955, he published a book called The Treasury of Thought, a kind of dictionary containing subversive definitions of many common words. One of the entries was for the word CRITIC.

His definition reads:

“A eunuch judging a man’s lovemaking. A skydreaming Eagle without wings. Pygmies with poison darts in the valley of the sleeping giants”

Even if we disregard everything else that Runes ever wrote, these definitions seem to ring true today. And perhaps it proves that people with objectionable opinions can still sometimes give us valuable insights into the human condition.

Let me get to my point. I don’t know how many of you are fans of the late, great, Sir Terry Pratchett, but I certainly count myself among their number.

A week or two ago, shortly after the publication of Pratchett’s posthumous final novel, The Shepherd’s Crown, a literary critic called Jonathan Jones wrote an article that even he himself has now described as “a snort of contempt”, calling Terry Pratchett an “ordinary potboiler”, accusing him of “mental laziness” and “robbing readers of the true delights of ambitious fiction.”

Jones’ logic seems to have been that the kind of people who spend their free time reading Pratchett – and, by implication, all fantasy novels in general – are wasting their time. Jones feels that people should instead be dedicating their time to reading great works of literature by the likes of Jane Austen and Charles Bukowski. Jones openly admitted at the beginning of his derisive review that he’d never condescended to even reading a single Discworld novel before he formed such a negative opinion of their author. In his own words, “life is too short.”

I have to dispute this.

In the week that Mister Pratchett shuffled off his mortal coil, I was cooped up in a little room in Bristol where I was doing a residential internship at a publishing company. I’d bought a couple of books from a stall down by the harbourside and I was reading them in the evenings. One of them was Farewell to Arms by Ernst Hemingway. The other was Post Office by none other than Charles Bukowski, the profane and gutter-mouthed and utterly brilliant American everyman who Jonathan Jones thinks that we ought to be reading instead of Mister Pratchett. I was halfway through Post Office when somebody else in the office looked up from their computer and said, “oh, Terry Pratchett’s dead”, in the kind of tones that one would use to remark upon the death of a minor television personality or a B-List Olympian. I was crushed.  When I returned to my room that evening, I wrote a tearful blog post, then downloaded an e-book of my favourite Discworld book (Guards! Guards!) and read it in one sitting whilst enjoying some Bristol cider apple brandy that I’d bought during one of my excursions.

Guards! Guards!
Guards! Guards!

Then the day afterwards, I went back to reading Bukowski. Then I read Hemingway. And I’d finished all three books by the end of the week.

So the first thing I have to say to Jonathan Jones is this: if he thinks that people don’t have time to read Terry Pratchett and read Charles Bukowski, clearly he isn’t spending enough of his time reading. As a full-time literary critic, I find it a little disturbing that he spends less of his time reading than an overworked, underpaid publishing intern.

I enjoyed Bukowski just as much as I enjoyed Hemingway, and I also enjoy Austen – but enjoyment can take many different forms. And whilst I appreciate Bukowski’s dirty everyman humour, and Hemingway’s frank “no-frills” depiction of war, and Austen’s achievements as the first writer to indulge the reader in letting us know what her characters were thinking at any given time, I can’t say that I enjoy reading their works any more than I enjoy reading a stokingly good Pratchett novel.

Of course, for critics like Jonathan Jones, enjoyment isn’t the end goal of reading. When he published his article a few weeks ago, my initial reaction was incandescent rage. I tweeted a rebuke which included a certain unsavoury four-letter word which is perhaps best kept to heated disputes between differently-opinionated Englishmen, and which perhaps ought not to be repeated on a respectable site like the Art of Writing. If he saw it, he didn’t see fit to reply.

Whatever your opinion of Mr. Pratchett, surely a literary critic is not doing their (blisteringly well-paid) job properly if they don’t even deign to read a book before they publish a condescending criticism of it. A lot of people pointed this out to Jonathan Jones, and he eventually relented, and agreed to read Small Gods, one of Pratchett’s books which has earned acclaim from fans and critics alike.

Small Gods
If you haven’t read it, do!

After reading it, it seems that Jones’ opinion has remained largely unchanged.

He writes “In the real world, as opposed to the Discworld, people have complexities, contradictions. A whole art form has evolved to explore them. It’s called the novel”.  He says:

“…for some reason, the fantasy genre is a graveyard for the English language. Even Tolkien himself – and yes, I have read him thoroughly – wrote an ordinary, flat, Hobbitish prose.”

When I read this, I bristled. This was more than just a condescending invitation to be referred to with unsavoury four-letter words. This was a direct attack on the fantasy genre. It was an insult to everything I held dear. I’m sure a lot of followers of this blog will feel the same way. Insulting Terry Pratchett is bad enough. But insulting Tolkien? Insulting the genre spawned in Tolkien’s wide wake, and all of the authors who write books in that genre? That’s fighting talk.

Rather than picking up my axe, sounding my war horn, summoning my bannermen and marching forthwith upon Jonathan Jones’ house, I decided to take the Hobbit’s approach. I sat back and thought about his reviews for a while, sucking on my proverbial pipe weed and ruminating upon his opinions.

I think it’s interesting to note that when Terry Pratchett was awarded his knighthood in the 2005 New Years Honours list, the official justification was for “services to literature.”  The newly knighted Sir Terry himself commented that ” “I suspect the ‘services to literature’ consisted of refraining from trying to write any,”

Even Mr. Pratchett seems to have conceded that he was not actually a writer of literature. He was a writer of amusing stories, of entertaining tales, supposed to be enjoyed with a wry smile, but not to be regarded as fine works of art. Jones agrees. After reading Small Gods, he writes “Why would anyone confuse this with the kind of literary prose it so emphatically does not want to be?”

That made me think. Perhaps fantasy authors should just accept that we’re not writers of great literature – and nor are we obligated to be. Perhaps we should accept that our work exists as entertainment, not as art. That our books are meant to be enjoyed, cherished, read by the kind of people who love a rip-roaring adventure story – not by the kind of people who read books because they want a unique, raw, tragic, multifaceted insight into the deepest unplumbed crevices of the human soul.

But then I remembered the sheer range of fantasy novels that have been written since Tolkien invented the genre. The sheer range of topics, experiences, insights, human emotions that have been explored in the wealth of fantasy writing that exists in the world. Because the very best fantasy and science fiction stories – whether it’s A Song of Ice and Fire or lesser-known novels loved by their small, dedicated audiences – always go beyond their fantasy setting. Their authors always strive to write about the whole broad spectrum of the human experience, whether the humans are fighting in a medieval crusade or sailing across vast oceans or travelling between the stars. There are wary soldiers and disenchanted princesses and unsung heroes struggling through adversity and finding out that their happily-ever-afters aren’t as as shining and golden as they thought they were. There is raw emotion there, and raw humanity, in all of it’s infinite diversity.

Jones concludes his second review by writing “I prefer writing that rubs up against the real world, that describes what it is to be alive in all its unpredictability, wild comedy, longing, grotesqueness, exhilaration – and shame.”

Jones thinks that fantasy readers don’t take the time to read enough ‘serious’ literature. But if Jones thinks that fantasy can’t ‘rub against the real world’, that fantasy can’t present all of the bizarre and wonderful extremes of what it is to be human…then I have to say, I don’t think he’s taking the time to reading enough fantasy.

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2 thoughts on “Fantasy vs. Literature: Terry Pratchett in the eyes of serious literary criticism.

  1. Tom, I feel your pain, I really do. Personally, I tend to cringe (a little) at the idea that people with morally bad ideas are still worth listening to (maybe, with a huge block-sized grain of salt). The rest of what you had to say, though, is so true and something I’ve dealt with as someone who wants to write fantasy despite being told – in my youth anyway – that I should be writing “serious fiction.” Thanks for sharing this reflection. I don’t think all, or even most, literary critics are like this one but it can definitely happen – and unfortunately there will always be an audience. I think that’s why it’s important to try to do what’s right and good in spite of all that. (And if you ever learn the secret to that then teach me how!) Blessings, Anne

  2. Thanks Anne! I think most literary critics understand the fact that many readers are as passionate about Pratchett or other fantasy authors as they are about Tolstoy or whoever else.

    As for everything to do with Runes, I was really just trying to cover my tracks – I love his definition of critics, but after a lot of online research I was left feeling mostly just confused about his views on other topics. He’s not that much of a well-known figure. I think he was just a blameless publisher, but if anyone were to present me with evidence that he was an anti-Semite I’d edit the post in a heartbeat.

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