Friday, 27 March 2015

Terry Pratchett Remembered

Terry Pratchett had a way of crafting a sentence that was his own. This is what makes him a great writer full-stop, not just a great popular writer. By the time of books like Small Gods, Jingo, Nation, Monstrous Regiment, and The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents he was a writer incapable of writing a routine sentence. This unique style used the second person. A few examples:

You never said to your parents, "Hey, I really need a computer because that way I can play Megasteroids."
   No, you said,"I really need a computer because of school."
   It's educational.
   Anyway, there had to be a good side to the Trying Times everyone was going through in this house. If you hung around in your room and generally kept your head down, stuff like computers sort of happened. It made everyone feel better.
(Only You Can Save Mankind)

And of course, very people *do* know how Tradition is supposed to go. There's a certain mysterious ridiculousness about it by its very nature. Once there was a reason why you had to carry a posy of primroses on Soul Cake Tuesday, but now you did it because...that's what was Done. Besides, the intelligence of that creature known as a crowd is the square root of the number of people in it.

It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone's fault. If it was Us, what did that make Me? After all, I'm one of Us. I must be. I've certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We're always one of Us. It's Them that do the bad things.

People on the side of The People always ended up disappointed, in any case. They found that The People tended not to be grateful or appreciative or forward-thinking or obedient. The People tended to be small-minded and conservative and not very clever and were even distrustful of cleverness. And so the children of the revolution were faced with the age-old problem: it wasn't that you had the wrong kind of government, which was obvious, but that you had the wrong kind of people.
As soon as you saw people as things to be measured, they didn't measure up. What would run through the streets soon enough wouldn't be a revolution or a riot. It'd be people who were frightened and panicking. It was what happened when the machinery of city life faltered, the wheels stopped turning and all the little rules broke down. And when that happened, humans were worse than sheep. Sheep just ran; they didn't try to bite the sheep next to them.
(Night Watch)

 A witch didn't do things because they seemed a good idea at the time! That was practically cackling. You had to deal every day with people who were foolish and lazy and untruthful and downright unpleasant, and you could certainly end up thinking that the world would be considerably improved if you gave them a slap. But you didn't because, as Miss Tick had once explained:
a) it would make the world a better place for only a very short time;
b) it would then make the world a slightly worse place; and
c) you're not supposed to be as stupid as they are.” 

The stories never said why she was wicked. It was enough to be an old woman, enough to be all alone, enough to look strange because you have no teeth. It was enough to be called a witch. If it came to that, the book never gave you the evidence of anything. It talked about "a handsome prince"... was he really, or was it just because he was a prince that people called handsome? As for "a girl who was as beautiful as the day was long"... well, which day? In midwinter it hardly ever got light! The stories don't want you to think, they just wanted you to believe what you were told.
(The Wee Free Men)

I'll never be like this again . . . I'll never again feel as tall as the sky and as old as the hills and as strong as the sea. I've been given something for a while, and the price of it is that I have to give it back. 
   And the reward is giving it back, too. No human could live like this. You could spend a day looking at a flower to see how wonderful it is, and that wouldn't get the milking done. No wonder we dream our way through our lives. To be awake, and see it all as it really one could stand that for long.
(The Wee Free Men)

People have believed for hundreds of years that newts in a well mean that the water's fresh and drinkable, and in all that time never asked themselves whether the newts got out to go to the lavatory.

(Reaper Man)

And, while it was regarded as pretty good evidence of criminality to be living in a slum, for some reason owning a whole street of them merely got you invited to the very best social occasions.

(Feet of Clay)

[...] with the expression of one who knows that the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train.
(Interesting Times)

Sergeant Colon had had a broad education. He'd been to the School of What My Dad Always Said, the College of It Stands to Reason, and was now a postgraduate student at the University of What Some Bloke in the Pub Told Me.

It was a wry, knowing, sceptical style, constantly challenging received wisdom, and exploring how that received wisdom - sometimes merely stupid, sometimes toxic - affected everything from the psychological makeup of his protagonists, to the behaviour of people in crowds, to the behaviour of whole societies. Granny Weatherwax, Johnny Maxwell and Sam Vimes are characters forged from the hammer and anvil collision of what a society expects from its witches, children or police and what it actually needs; between what stories have led us to expect witches, children and police to be capable of and what happens when they affect the lives of real human beings.

The complaint that writers of genre fiction are treated less seriously than mainstream "literary" writers can sometimes be a waste of time. Ursula Le Guin has just won the National Book Award's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, JG Ballard was seen as our greatest living novelist by those outside as well as inside SF circles, and it can hardly be said that, say, China Mieville's novels are reviewed in less depth or with less respect than Anita Brookner's or Graham Swift's. There are six reasons why on this occasion the complaint actually has substance to it and Pratchett's work genuinely is underestimated. 

Firstly, unlike Ballard, Vonnegut, William Gibson or Philip Pullman, Pratchett never made his books poachable by those disdainful of SF. Ballard and Vonnegut lost interest in Science Fiction, Pullman claimed he didn't write fantasy but "stark realism", Gibson and Ballard moved in later novels to exploring their concerns from a less overtly SF setup. Pratchett continued to write fantasy, which shouldn't distract from the extraordinary maturation of his work. As George Orwell wrote of Charles Dickens, he is one of those writers who are well worth stealing. Nation, Monstrous Regiment, Going Postal, Hogfather, Wintersmith, Night Watch and The Amazing Maurice are better written, richer books than the early ones, fun though those are. It seemed natural at the start of the series that the characters would have names like Rincewind and Twoflower and no second names. Pratchett comes from fandom. He didn't merely use fantasy because it was the best medium for what he wanted to say, nor did he lose interest in it. He was the kid hooked on The Lord of the Rings who corresponded with Tolkien, was thrilled to meet Michael Moorcock and Arthur C Clarke at conventions and who wrote The Colour of Magic because there was so much bad Tolkien-lite around he decided it was time for some fantasy with a little wit. He continued to be a fan of astronomy, Aliens and Red Dwarf, and came damn close to making a knighthood cool when he responded by smelting his own sword out of meteorite ore.

 Secondly, his work won him a fandom of his own: his novels appeared alongside maps and guidebooks of the Discworld, he interacted with his fans from the earliest days of the internet, and the Discworld had much appeal for convention-goers, gamers and costume enthusiasts. No writer could have expressed more care and affection for such a fan base, and it's what got my teenage self hooked, but serious attention should be paid to Pratchett's art, as many of these novels are more important than anything by many of Britain's supposedly "literary" novelists. From Small Gods onwards Pratchett began writing more ethically complex novels of ideas. The fandom didn't decrease, and while Pullman and Rowling's books were published in alternative "non-genre" covers from the start, it took some years before the Discworld books were available in this way. Along with another distinction that Pratchett earned - everything he ever wrote remained in print - this meant that his oevre tended to take up a distinctive section in any bookshop, and made it easier for snobs or skimmers to categorise his books. It also probably created the false impression you needed to have read each book's predecessors or be an aficionado of the genre to appreciate it.

Thirdly, he was popular. I don't think anyone in history has ever written so well while selling such vast copies. His work was adored by children and teenagers and, as the legend goes, he was even the UK's most shoplifted author. It was the sales figures that made Tom Paulin sneer ("selling thousands of copies - a complete amateur - doesn't even write in chapters") in an ignoble performance in which he discussed Pratchett on BBC2's Late Review. Some critics find it hard to stomach the uncomfortable truth: a popular artist brought wisdom and the numinous to the masses. (I'm assuming only Paulin was kept away by the excruciatingly stupid chapter complaint.)  If Pratchett's books aren't literature, nothing is. 

Fourthly, he was prolific. Joyce Carol Oates and Anthony Burgess have also received grief for this. Pratchett published, by my count, 55 novels in his lifetime, and had already submitted the 56th, 57th and 58th to his publishers by the time of his death. It remains important to convince people that this astonishing rate of production was not due to a preference for speed over craft, attention and depth. Pratchett was, as Neil Gaiman has pointed out, rare among writers in the pleasure he took in the act of writing itself.

Fifthly, so many of his books are set on the same world, a highly misleading detail exacerbated by the phrase "A Discworld Novel" always appearing on the cover. The forty-one Discworld novels are not installments in a single series. The Discworld series consists of six different series plus stand-alone novels. Yes, the world is a disc resting on four giant elephants on the back of a giant turtle, but many of the books don't mention this just as Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady doesn't mention the Earth's crust.The Light Fantastic and Going Postal have about as much in common - and show the same range and maturation - as The Pickwick Papers and Bleak House, two books also by the same author and set on the same planet.

Sixthly, his writing embraced comedy in all its forms. Comedy tends to be underestimated anyway, but Pratchett's went beyond the supposedly literary. Like Douglas Adams, Sue Townsend and Tom Sharpe, he was part of a generation raised not just on literature but on radio, TV and film and on the newer forms of purely comic writing: Monty Python, the Goons and the Marx Brothers, along with unashamedly comic writers such as Wodehouse, Grossmith, Wilde, Waugh, Amis and Jerome, and in Pratchett's case bound copies of Punch magazine from the Victorian era to the 1960s. He used satire, and character humour, but also puns, setpieces and slapstick. Splendid creations like Bloody Stupid Johnson, the mad Bursar and Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler come from the world of sketches and sitcoms as much as from literature, and that's no bad thing. Some of the gags, like the more straightforward fantasy tropes, get dropped as his novels grew more sophisticated.

   AS Byatt's description of Pratchett having the "real energy of the primary storyteller" remains the best description of him as an artist. His daughter Rhianna once described herself as having worked as a narrative paramedic, and we can see where that came from: a strong instinct for what works and doesn't work in narrative runs through  Pratchett's novels. However, this is never used for mere postmodern smugness. Discworld is powered by narrativium, as Pratchett put it in The Science of Discworld. His description of the new version of Doctor Who - "making too much use of the msgic element makeitupasyougoalongium" is treasurable because it encapsulates the point that such an element is required, even though its overuse can be dangerous. Pullman favours a Rushdie-esque "stories will defeat theocracy" message which is conveyed rather crudely in The Amber Spyglass, but Pratchett believed that fantasy was like alcohol: too much is bad, but a little can make the world a better place. His books explore how we use stories, but also how they get out of hand. As Byatt points out, he is "more important" than Pullman because he never lets didactic "designs on his readers" get in the way of his art.

  No male novelist ever wrote better female characters. In the series spanning from Equal Rites - in which a dying wizard hands on his staff to a baby, not realising it is female, and the child grows up, with the help of the village witch Granny Weatherwax, determined not to let the wizard patriarchy hold her back - to the Tiffany Aching books - in which a nine-year-old becomes a witch and learns everything from defeating the Queen of the fairies to cheesemaking to puberty - he constructed a brilliant feminist panorama, in which complex evils have to be fought while a community has to be maintained. The evils that Granny and Tiffany face are not just there to keep the narrative moving, but to challenge the protagonists' beliefs, and challenge them to reaffirm their ideals. The same challenge is faced by Vimes, Johnny Maxwell and Mau from Nation, and by heartbreaking coincidence Pratchett himself would face it in real life after being diagnosed with PCA in 2007. In these novels, monsters are there to remind you why you need to be a hero. Tiffany and Granny face challanges on a smaller scale, too. Carpe Jugulum features an affecting scene in which Granny saves the live of a pregnant woman kicked by her cow but is unable to save the baby. Her last action is to make sure the husband doesn't kill the cow, as the couple will need it. I Shall Wear Midnight has a beautifully drawn scene in which Tiffany discovers that Amber, a young village girl, has been beaten unconscious by her father upon his discovery of her pregnancy, resulting in a miscarriage, and must work hard not only to prevent him from harming his wife and daughter, but to prevent a lynch mob mentality breaking out amongst the villagers:

The rough music was never organised. It seemed to occur to everybody at once. It played when a village thought that a man had beaten his wife too hard, or his dog too savagely, or if a married man and a married woman forgot that they were married to somebody else. There were other, darker crimes against the music too, but they weren't talked about openly.

In person Pratchett was as awesome as you'd expect him to be, every speech full of the wit, grace and love of language that reflected Pratchett's love of Chesterton, Twain and Wodehouse. The fight he put up against PCA was as inspiring as one of Tiffany Aching's battles,and he displayed the same poignant determination to bring warmth and humour to darkness. The only occasion I saw him in the flesh - at an appearance at London's Drury Lane Theatre in 2011 - will remain a magical memory for me. He was on great form, and his assistant Rob Wilkins was - as was clear from the two excellent documentaries - part of a marvellous double act, and as good a friend as any one could wish for, which is why on hearing the bad news one thinks of Rob just as one thinks of Terry's wife and daughter.

We have lost a great man, but what he has left us is staggering.

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