Monday, 20 September 2010

Why Pratchett Matters

In declaring Sir Terry Pratchett to be my hero, there’s a temptation to focus on the iconic details of the man rather than the work: his idiosyncratic speech, the hat, the increasingly Gandalf-like beard, the way his inimitable humour and way with words can be found in everything from letters (have a look at his 2005 letter to the Sunday Times, in defence of pre-Rowling fantasy, for a model of economy, cutting wit and passion) to speeches (even the anti-euthanasia right-wingers like Melanie Phillips, who form such a barrier to Pratchett’s fight for freedom to choose the course of his own life and death, had to concede that his 2010 Richard Dimbleby lecture, Shaking Hands with Death, was a fine speech. Martin Amis even broke literary curfew and paid tribute to its dignity). But while Pratchett may be the wizard of contemporary literature, putting up an inspiring fight against a troubling situation, it is his novels that make him a genius. I haven’t met Pratchett. I read and reread his books. They are a life-long companion that changed the way I see the world. The dignity and wit we find in the man himself may be an offshoot of this, but it is his books that are his remarkable achievement.
Pratchett, like Dickens, is something different to an intellectual: he is wise. His intelligence is not articulated through references to canonical writers, or philosophical theory, or current world events, just as Jane Austen’s genius was not manifested in analyses of the Napoleonic Wars or the Slave Trade. The difference is that while Austen’s wisdom lay in her understanding of human beings and the complexity of love, friendship, desire and rivalry throughout unremarkable day-to-day lives, Pratchett’s wisdom is set out on a wider scale. His empathy with ordinary people and his gift for psychological insight and his delight in creating characters extends towards larger canvasses such as battlefields (Monstrous Regiment, Jingo, Only You Can Save Mankind) civilisations under threat from Imperialism, (Nation) cities suffering from racial tensions and bigotry (Thud!) or nations ruled by religious autocracy (Small Gods). Ankh Morpork, a city that appears in many of the Discworld books, started off as a playground for Pratchett to set funny characters in, but Pratchett developed it into a place full of violence and injustice without losing his feel for the interplay between its citizens. Monstrous Regiment is a novel about a group of almost certainly doomed soldiers trapped in a bloody and pointless war, while Nation tells the story of a young boy whose entire tribe are destroyed by a tsunami, and yet Pratchett’s profound insight into both situations comes not from exhaustive research but from his genius for understanding people. AS Byatt understood this, observing in a review of Thief of Time that Pratchett is a greater writer than even Philip Pullman, because Pullman, for all his extraordinary powers, has “designs on his readers”.
Pratchett’s use of dwarfs, trolls, vampires and numerous other species as denizens of the Discworld epitomizes this. They started off as standard fantasy archetypes, reflecting the earlier Discworld novels’ genesis as a parody of fantasy cliché, but as the series progressed, they are developed into people, so that readers forget they have rocky hides for skin or fangs just as they forget that the Discworld rests upon four giant elephants perched upon a giant turtle (something mentioned increasingly less as the series progresses). Crucially, however, they are not metaphors for real-life minorities - the trolls are trolls and the dwarfs are dwarfs. They do provide parallels with struggles against discrimination and bigotry in our world because that is what literature provides, but Pratchett understands the best way to explore social concerns and attack bigotry is to keep the concerns real but trust in your characters enough to give them life of their own rather than reduce them to predictable simulacra of real-life counterparts. When Aslan hinted that he was Christ, CS Lewis’s Narnia books lost any shred of depth or imaginative vision and stood revealed as clumsy propaganda. Even Phillip Pullman’s magnificent His Dark Materials trilogy suffers slightly in its last volume when the ideas the characters and plot symbolise are made explicit, threatening to diminish them. If we are to understand people (is there a more important aim for fiction?) we must not deny them depth, and depth is not possible if a character simply represents something else. Characters must be irreducibly themselves, and that is just what we find in Pratchett’s books.
Pratchett is a genuine magician. This was the point AS Byatt was trying to raise in a 2003 piece on the Harry Potter phenomenon for the New York Times that was unfairly attacked as a snobbish dismissal of JK Rowling. Byatt rightly pointed out that Rowling’s books have little time for the numinous, unlike Pratchett:

whose wit is metaphysical, who creates an energetic and lively secondary world, who has a multifarious genius for strong parody as opposed to derivative manipulation of past motifs, who deals with death with startling originality. Who writes amazing sentences.

A fine summary of Pratchett’s art, and it has to be admitted that, for all Rowling’s gifts, none of it could be applied to the Harry Potter books. The Potter books are emotionally engaging and told with flair, but Pratchett’s writing, like that of Philip Pullman or Alan Garner, is the heady wine of fantasy: if we are to understand this world, we need the courage to break it down. Just as seeing a different design of car engine, a different style of architecture, a different style of film-direction or a different style of writing can shed light on a style we were used to, so too can creating new worlds and understanding how they work enrich our understanding of the recurring assumptions, requirements and follies of our own.
Pratchett understands what stories are for. Intertextuality is frequently a dreary area, something that sounds more complex than it is, as are truisms about our need for storytelling (I can’t hear Ian McEwan say “I cannot live without literature” without roaring “you cannot live without oxygen!”) Pratchett, however, is the rare thing: a writer whose awareness of our need for fantasy and why it is we tell stories gives him a distinctive voice, but enriches rather than detracts from his insights into humanity, war, anthropology, happiness, suffering and death. Hogfather, in which the existence of the Discworld’s equivalent of Christmas is threatened, is both a celebration of the importance of Christmas - specifically the imaginative response it provokes in us as children - to our lives, and a denunciation of the dubious aspects of Christmas in its attitude to poverty and charity (there’s an acid retelling of Good King Wenceslas at one point which is as good as any of Angela Carter’s post-modern fairytales). The novels centering around the commander of Ankh-Morpork’s City Watch, Sam Vimes, are driven by a tension between what stories lead us to demand from cops (there are riffs on everything from In the Heat of The Night to Dirty Harry to Robocop) and the darker realities of police work and what its citizens require of it. The novels about Granny Weatherwax and the Discworld’s other village witches make rich use of the contrast between what we think we need magic for and the magic needed to help people in their day-to-day lives, as Granny and her kind defy the villagers’ prejudices and superstitions to keep the village going while purposefully not quashing such beliefs. The villagers think they performs spells and curses, but the spells they excel at are midwifery, providing the right ointment, kicking someone’s bad back into shape and making sure the sheep are looked after.
In Pratchett’s hands, the novel becomes at once accessible to everyone, and yet capable of complexity, of craft, of imaginative depth and nuance. Has he written popular fiction of stunning intelligence, bringing the numinous to the masses, or has he written literature that sells on an almost incomprehensible scale and appeals to teenagers, casual readers and anyone that devours comedy or fantasy? He has of course done both.
Pratchett has presented some of the best fiction of the past two decades to a wide public rather than a literary subculture. James Wood has not reviewed him, Tom Paulin doesn’t like him, the Sunday Times book section barely mentions him. Their loss. Instead he writes outstanding novels, and millions read him.

What Harvey Pekar meant to me

Harvey Pekar, the great comics writer, died this summer. This is neither a belated obituary nor a comprehensive account of everything Pekar wrote, but an attempt to convey how his work greatly affected me. It takes a while for a reader to get his thoughts in order when paying tribute to a mourned writer (although writers are never lost).
I devoured collections of American Splendour, admiring the way Pekar wove the minutiae of everyday life into well-constructed narratives - something only Philip Larkin has done as brilliantly. Larkin was a librarian, Pekar a filing clerk for a hospital, and yet instead of portraying these aspects of their lives as prisons to be escaped from through the wonders of art, Pekar and Larkin are refreshing in their understanding of the importance of work, and the way it shapes rather than shackles our lives.
What Harvey could do with an everyday event in the course of a few pages of comic panels was extraordinary. Consider his account of how the cistern in his bathroom breaks, and he asks his neighbour - with whom he has always enjoyed a friendly relationship, but has struggled to find any common ground to allow them to get to know one another - to help him, ending with a triumphant moment in which the neighbour uses a plastic ribbon normally used for tying up rubbish bags (Harvey couldn’t find any paperclips) to replace the broken hook in the cistern. My paraphrasing of it might sound absurdly trivial, but Pekar turns it into a narrative, capturing the joy of turning cordial relations into friendship in this tiny but delightful moment - an epiphany, as James Joyce would have called it. A beautifully observed account of Pekar’s relationship with a Rabbi with whom he initially gets along but then clashes with due to the Rabbi’s more right-wing views on Israel also stays with you, capturing the clash between one’s ethnic background and one’s political and social awareness which the Israel/Palestine situation provokes. Another story recounts the time Harvey had the opportunity to meet the actor and playwright Wallace Shawn, fresh from his celebrated film My Dinner with Andre. Aware of the affinities between the film and his own work, he hopes to ask Shawn for support, but gradually it occurs to him that Shawn probably has much the same problems himself, and he becomes too nervous to ask him. Only Harvey Pekar could turn a straightforward, humdrum encounter into a thoughtful account of thwarted ambition, artistic struggle and the tension between aspirations and day-to-day-life.
Harvey was canny in realising that comics were an ideal medium for autobiographical writing, because of the remarkable way in which they use layers. As anyone will know, a comic strip’s combination of text and pictures gives it two different narratives - what we see, and what the narrator tells us about it. In the case of American Splendour, this was enhanced by the way in which the artwork depicted Harvey-as-narrator too: you don’t just get the events of a particular day in Harvey’s life, you get the web of debate, angst, logic, motive, desire and reconciliation that has succeeded them in Harvey’s head in the days, months or years since. This technique opens up new possibilities for autobiographical fiction, a way of displaying the true complexities of actual, unembellished, mundane life without ever coming across as dull. You also get multiple Harveys, much as you get multiple Walt Whitmans in his Song of Myself. Turning the pages of an American Splendour collection, we might find Robert Crumb’s grotesque model, the more photorealistic versions by Gerry Shamray and Ty Templeton and the more stylised interpretations by Bob Fingerman and Hunt Emerson. The film adaptation of American Splendour realised this, shifting between the real Harvey, the comic-strip Harvey and a cinematic Harvey skilfully played by Paul Giamatti. Everyone can find a Harvey they can identify with.
To end this tribute with a slightly personal instance of what Pekar‘s work has meant to me, while devouring a Best of American Splendour collection, I came across an issue in which Harvey bangs his car, and while agonising about the implication - insurance, contacting the person whose car he banged against - opens his mail to find a fan letter from Colin Warneford, a British artist who has been heavily influenced by Harvey’s work, but whose Asperger‘s syndrome has made life so difficult that drawing comics are where he seeks solace. We instantly shift not only to Warneford’s words but to his excellent artwork, as he gives a heartfelt, honest, convincing and profoundly moving account of life with Asperger’s Syndrome. I have Asperger’s myself, and following the misconceptions spread by The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and the stereotypes about Rain Man style savants, here was one of my brethren finally speaking to me. How I had yearned to hear an account of Asperger’s I could identify with, and here it was within the pages of a book I was greatly enjoying. For that, and other things, I am very grateful to Harvey Pekar.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Down with the Literary

A strong case could be made that what has done the most damage to the modern novel from the late 20th Century onwards has been the concept of the literary. This actually may not be so when one considers the impact of so much new storytelling media (film, TV, computer games, the internet) upon the novel’s standing as the primary method of entering another world, but clearly the idea of literary fiction, fixed ideas about what books must do to qualify as art rather than entertainment and the dependence on earlier writers has made the novel less interesting and potent than it was.
Firstly, the expansion of the publishing industry has led popular fiction to be much more badly-written, and literary fiction to consciously aspire towards the highbrow. The days of competent popular novelists like Nevil Shute, JB Priestley and Nigel Balchin are long-gone. Modern popular novels like those of Dan Brown don’t even qualify as what Orwell called the “good bad book” - a badly-written book with something in that endures: it might be pointless to observe that The Da Vinci Code isn’t as good as Great Expectations, but it’s rather more sobering to think that it isn’t even a patch on King Solomon’s Mines (let alone Buchan, Wilkie Collins and Fleming). Instead, it’s a product of an age that treats everything as a commodity, a book hammered into the vague shape of an thriller but with nothing of the soul which we find even in Rider Haggard. The Harry Potter books, very good though they are, are symptomatic of this to some extent, as they dilute the very concept of magic itself. Instead of the ambiguity, fear, wonder and imaginative texture you find in Alan Garner and Terry Pratchett, Rowling’s world is, to use AS Byatt’s phrase, “dangerous only because she says it is.” Even authorship is being treated with contempt. I fondly remember the days when the fact that Naomi Campbell had not written the novel published under her name was seen as rather funny and embarrassing, but now it’s seen as perfectly acceptable for publishers to sign up celebrities in this way.
In reaction to this, there now exists such a thing as literary novels, even though we would never use a phrase like cinematic films. The Man Booker Prize represents the commodification of the uncommodifiable - the factory where Art is made - much as British television gets round its reliance on talent shows by commissioning shows about Important Social Issues (The Street, Criminal Justice) to fulfil its Bafta quota. John Banville’s comments upon winning the Booker Prize for The Sea capture this perfectly. He remarked that it was “nice to see a work of art win the Booker Prize“, elaborating on this by arguing that Dickens was a greater novelist than James, but James was a better artist than Dickens, and that “there are plenty of other rewards for middle-brow fiction. There should be one decent prize for real books.” Art becomes not a term of fecundity and inspiration, referring to any outstanding creative work, but a genre, a reassuringly recognisable style of writing, another shelf in Waterstones, labelled “Real Books.”
A Man Booker judge from a few years earlier, the comedian and novelist David Baddiel, attempted to skewer this way of thinking in a piece that was unfairly reported (even by Booker impresario Martyn Goff) as a plea for the prize to focus on lighter, more commercial fiction. His actual argument was that many of the submitted novels that he’d had to read as a judge had clearly been written with the purpose of winning the Booker in mind. He admitted in a later article that a Banville novel - Shroud - had been among those he was thinking of, and it’s probably no coincidence that Banville, upon winning, praised the panel for not enlisting any stand-up comedians. The essential point that Baddiel had hit upon was that for a an author to have designs upon his book’s reception is anathema to good art - a book should be more concerned with being true to itself and its strengths than to pleasing a handful of judging panels and literary editors.
To define the literary novel, we should define what it is not. Dickens is probably the most obvious example - possibly the greatest British novelist, an unashamed popular entertainer, someone without a pious devotion to previous novelists and an author not initially embraced by the literati (Leavis and Henry James had their reservations about him). However, I’m going to choose a less obvious example - James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. They may have been embraced by the literary novelists - would John Banville and Jeanette Winterson exist without them? - and their techniques may be the techniques that the literary novelists have run to ground, but they seem to me to be perfect examples of the kind of novelists we are missing, as surely as Dickens. Firstly, they are trying to do something different - both wanted to represent consciousness in a way that had never been done in novels before. Woolf’s attack on HG Wells, John Galsworthy and Arnold Bennett may seem like snobbery to the contemporary reader (and the snobbery is certainly there), but if one remembers the status of Wells, Galsworthy and Bennett at the time it seems more like the equivalent of an attack on McEwan, Martin Amis and Rushdie - a genuine attempt to break away from received wisdom and bring some originality to the novel (even if one prefers Wells to Woolf).
By contrast, Jeanette Winterson once stood by Virginia Woolf’s grave on BBC2’s The Late Show and proclaimed herself the heir to Woolf, while John Banville was described by Peter J Conradi in the Independent as “a new Henry Green”, but Woolf wasn’t an heir, and Green wasn’t a new anyone. They were trying to do new things with prose. Why would I want to read a new Henry Green, when I can read the old one? Ian McEwan recently argued that it was “ignorant and foolish” to ignore “the great conversation of literature“, but this is essential for literary criticism, not fiction. If you read a brilliantly-written, moving and thought-provoking novel, you don’t think less of it because the author shows no interest in Jane Austen. Kingsley Amis’s lack of enthusiasm for novels may have weakened him as a literary critic, but it doesn’t detract from our enjoyment of his own fiction.
A major reason for this is probably the rise of Literature as an academic subject. Amis and Graham Greene were among the last novelists for whom fiction was something they wrote rather than studied. Consequently the allusions we find in their work (and in that of novelists from Mary Shelley to George Eliot to Evelyn Waugh) are from poetry and classical texts, rather than novels. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is steeped in the myth of Prometheus, German romanticism and the ideas of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, but its strengths as a novel come from Shelley’s determination to tell a tale that will, as she put it, “quicken the blood.” By contrast Peter Ackroyd’s The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein is hopelessly indebted to another novel - Shelley’s - and makes no imaginative impact, just as Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot is revealed as a feeble Pale Fire knock-off with little human interest once one looks past all the adulation for Flaubert.
In interviews with Ian McEwan, one gets the sense of someone who writes novels because of the pleasure they’ve got from reading Updike, Bellow and Roth, rather than from the urge to tell stories. Martin Amis - whose fiction is similarly fuelled by his worship of Nabokov and Bellow - once dismissed an (admittedly ill-considered) manifesto for a troupe of writers who proclaimed themselves the “New Puritans” with the putdown “there is no reading behind the writing.” Surely, though, the problem with Amis and McEwan is that there is no writing behind the reading. Novels are not enough to make new novels.
Unfortunately the literary world often gets it wrong when it comes to appraisal. I have an old literature textbook from the sixties, (The Pelican Guide to English Literature) which I’m fond of looking through simply to see the dismissal of Orwell as embarrassingly bad and Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene as minor writers. Posterity rightly made them the three giants of the period, but the textbook marched to a different drummer, as I‘m sure did the literati of the time. I’m reminded of it when considering the fact that JG Ballard, a gigantic figure in post-war fiction, and one given to us by science-fiction rather than the literary world - never won the Booker Prize, and was only shortlisted once, when he lost to Anita Brookner (Flaubert’s Parrot was on the shortlist that night too). In forty years time, readers steeped in Ballard and less familiar with Brookner will be similarly amused by the judges’ decision. Even the finest novels with the “literary” tag have tended not to make the grade - Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and, astonishingly, Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong were not shortlisted, although the idea that six better novels were published in each of those years seems dubious.
It’s often said that British novels are no longer relevant to the outside world. This point needs qualification. There are two types of novels, the Pride and Prejudice type - which examines human beings’ internal nature - and the Bleak House type - which examines society. Neither of these two modes is superior to the other, but we tend to get sick of the former because the past century saw a deficiency of the latter. Kazuo Ishiguro’s wonderful novels, for example, examine human beings as exquisitely as Austen, but there have been few angry novelists in his time that mix satire with artistry in a way that would rival Dickens and Swift. To find that type of novel, we have to look to the genres, where we find Ballard, Philip Pullman‘s His Dark Materials, Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Terry Pratchett. There are also TV series like The Wire, which like Watchmen is far closer to Middlemarch and Bleak House - in achievement as well as scale - than any subsequent literary novel.
So let’s forget about the concept of literary fiction, a blind alley we stumbled into in the late twentieth century and which was behind none of the great literature of the past, and few of the best novels of recent years. Let’s not ask ourselves how well a novel compares with the novels that came before it, because you couldn’t do that with Tom Jones or Ulysses. If fiction is to become once again a prominent part of our culture rather than a subculture, than novelists should once again be encouraged, like Joyce, to do whatever the hell they want, rather than whatever Joyce did.