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.


  1. Well said! I absolutely agree. There seems to be a slightly condescending attitude towards Pratchett sometimes, suggesting that his fans are all 13 year old male soap dodgers- people who think this have clearly never been to a signing and seen the lovely, varied people of all ages who love Pratchett and his books.

    I've recently started re-reading Maskerade (after a few years away from the books) and it genuinely feels like coming home.

    (I met him once and he complimented me on my nail varnish!)

  2. Well said! Thanks for posting this!

  3. Thank-you. He's as much a classic novelist as Dickens, et al. He does it by holding up a delicious distorting mirror to show us ourselves with wit and humour.

  4. I've long maintained that Pratchett is just about the only satirist worthy of the title to come along since Mark Twain.

  5. Yes, Twain's a strong influence on him - they both have have that rueful awareness of stupidity.

  6. As for Dickens, that's a clear presence too - particularly in Ankh-Morpork as a creation.

  7. Excellent post. Thank you!