A Few Words Not In Defense of Sir Terry Pratchett

Let me first state that I do not write to defend Sir Terry Pratchett or any of his extraordinary work. That has already been done, and done very well, by Sam Jordison in a delicious rebuttal this morning. The notion that Sir Terry needs a defender, particularly in the form of a writer and satirist, is absurd. Writing in defense of Terry Pratchett is like serving as bodyguard to Bruce Lee—an honour, of sorts, but an utterly redundant one.

Terry Pratchett’s writing is, in itself, the best defender of its own excellence. Its Austen-like qualities, its grim sly humour driven, as Neil Gaiman has observed, by an engine of immense, loving, and righteous, anger, are so undeniable that the only possibly defense against their excellence is not to read them at all. This is, of course, the defense unabashedly fallen back on by Jonathan Jones, a so-called art critic for The Guardian who recently decided that it was professionally appropriate, ethical, and befitting a man of his class to tear a strip out of Pratchett, during a time of mourning no less, without ever having bothered to crack the spine of one of Pratchett’s books.

Even for a well-informed critic, this would be a classless move, in extroardinarily bad taste given its timing: a few months too late for Sir Terry to offer a rebuttal of his own, but soon enough that his grieving family and fans suffer the maximum possible amount of offense from it. But let no one confuse Jonathan Jones for a well-informed critic. In his mean-spirited little tantrum for The Guardian on August 31, Jones admits with a measure of pride that “I have never read a single one of his books and I never plan to”—perhaps one of the first times in history that a professional has boasted so proudly of his incompetence toward the task at hand. At the appearance of this line, any reader with the capacity for reason should stop reading. His vivisection of Pratchett is done with all the finesse and skill of a surgeon who takes pride in not knowing what organ he’s supposed to be taking out—a dentist who prides himself on closing his eyes before he drills. Paying Jones to write about Pratchett, as The Guardian has embarrassingly done, is a little like hiring an especially snobbish bus driver to pilot your helicopter, right after he has declared air travel to be “beneath him.”

“Everyone reads trash sometimes,” Jones writes, “but why are we now pretending, as a culture, that it is the same thing as literature?” I am impressed that a man who spends his days roiling in such perpetual disgust in his own culture can stomach his own profession as a cultural critic.

Again, this is not so much a defense of a great writer as an indictment of a phony. That Jones has deliberately taken The Guardian’s money to write them a column on a subject about which he knows nothing is not just unprofessional; it feels like he has gleefully defrauded them. Will they take articles from their Technology section from a writer who openly boasts he has avoided all contact with computers? Do they buy Travel articles about the French Riviera from writers who have never set foot there, yet boast before an appalled public just how much they despise the French? Dare they run a front-page article on Ukranian unrest from someone who has tried not to pay attention to what’s going on over there, but is pretty sure everything’s fine?

The primary role of art critics, at any level of journalism, is to be informed about the material with which they engage. The world is too full of books, films, paintings, and other works of art for us to keep track of them all casually: we trust the informed opinion of our cultural critics to be our harbingers, to go ahead of us, to lead us on toward what is good and steer us away from what is bad.

When I say this isn’t a defense of Sir Terry, I’m serious. Maybe someone who starts with one of the sillier Discworld novels is entitled to decide that it’s just too silly. Maybe, if I start reading somewhere in the middle—say, with Thief of Time—it would be a valid, informed criticism to complain that his books aren’t self-contained enough, that they reward die-hard fans who have internalized the richness of his world, but offer a formidable learning curve to those who wander into the delicious chaos in medias res. Does Pratchett reach for too many low-hanging comedic fruits? Does he try too hard for the laughs that would come naturally?

Although I may question the decency of asking them while Pratchett’s body is still warm and his family still grieving his loss, there are indeed some valid and pointed critical questions to be asked of Pratchett’s work. What a pity that Jones is powerless to ask any of them. The best criticism need not be gentle: it can sometimes have teeth. But as a comically ignorant reader—or rather an unreader—Jones is lost at sea talking about Pratchett. Watching him flail for meaningful critiques while he’s utterly baffled as to the content is like watching someone trying to guess who the murderer is in a Dr. Seuss book. We are right to be offended, but his dismissal of Pratchett can find no purchase; his ignorance renders it utterly toothless. What it lacks in teeth, all the venom in the world cannot supply.

I’m reminded of my years of teaching—of the exam questions I designed to separate the students who had actually opened a novel from the students who simply stared at them on the shelf and put their faith in their ability to bullshit their way through an essay. More often than not, they fancied themselves successful, as Jones must here; equally often, though, their efforts were utterly transparent. It was a nobler time, perhaps, when failing to read the course material was a reason for shame rather than pride. Unreaders like Jonathan Jones are a different breed altogether: un-students who sail uncritically through the course, trusting in their elitism to tell them everything they need to know about the world around them. They are foul-tempered, obstinate people, and only the most optimistic of idealists would deem them anything but useless people to talk to.

As Wikipedia diplomatically describes Jones, he is “known for his provocative and often contradictory and contrarian journalist style.” This is a nice way of explaining that Jones’s readers don’t much care about what he says so much as how he says it. While Jones may wax elitist about Jane Austen, a woman who spent her professional life quietly satirizing his kind of hollow classist snobbery, he ultimately makes his living through the same sort of visceral smack-talk that electrifies the fans of American pro wrestling. His posturing to two other great and recently departed writers, Gabriel García Márquez and Günter Grass, is the mental equivalent of flexing his big brainy muscles to intimidate all comers. But it is all posturing, of course, all smoke and mirrors. Has reading Guy de Maupassant and Albert Camus this year made me better equipped to talk about Terry Pratchett? How many Hemingways is a Victor Hugo worth? Who is the arbiter of elitism, and who keeps track of the shifting cachet-values on this bustling stock market of dead writers?

It’s worth mentioning that at one time, Jones’s darling Jane Austen was much less celebrated than her contemporary Ann Radcliffe, a Gothic novelist—and a critically lauded one—who was much closer to a writer of what Jones dismisses as “potboilers.” If we’re going to name-drop celebrated authors, since that’s the language Jones seems to speak, I ought to cite the beloved Mark Twain just to spite him: “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice,” Twain wrote, “I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

But the fact remains: these are still the words of a man who actually read a Jane Austen novel—from the sounds of it, more times than he would have liked. If anyone’s entitled to disrespect a dead writer’s legacy, it’s Twain—not because he’s a celebrated author himself, nor even because he’s every inch the biting satirist that Jones only dreams he could be. It’s because and only because he’s educated himself about the thing he chooses to dislike, and can offer a valid and informed critique. Shin-bones aside, Mark Twain is the kid who’s done his homework while Jones thought he could get by just fudging the essay.

In the end, there are a number of needlessly long-winded ways I could summarize my feelings on criticisms of Terry Pratchett: the much more concise “haters gonna hate” seems to do the job well, and in a vernacular that I’m delighted would rub Jones the wrong way. But I think it’s our prerogative—nay, our duty as consumers—to demand a better class of hater. Just as it was a few months ago in Canada, with Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente ragging on a bunch of young graduate student papers at the Congress of the Humantiies (again, without bothering to educate herself on the texts she was smack-talking), we are once again providing a professional outlet for people who don’t do the minimal work that should be necessary to do their job.

I offer the following two proposals to The Guardian and The Globe and Mail:

(1)For a modest salary, I will write for you on matters and texts of cultural importance. Novels from Pratchett to Austen or all points in between. Films. Comics. Subcultural hollering. You name it, I’ll do it. I promise today that I will actually read the things I talk about. I promise I will take my job that seriously.

(2)For a modest salary, if it’s the kind of work you really prefer from your columnists, I will write a satirical column for you which consists only of me making snap judgments on things I know absolutely nothing about. Tell me about a thing, and as long as I’ve never been even slightly exposed to it, I will grandstandingly pontificate on it as much as you like. I will make a fool of myself, of course; but it’ll all be okay because I’m doing it in the name of satire—even if it’s satire that many people just won’t get.

I say “for a modest salary” only because I stand by my claim that content production is an important job, and worth paying for. If you’re willing to pay Jonathan Jones to do his job badly, I can only presume you’ll pay someone—not just me, anyone—to do it right, with at least minimal pretense to the professional ethics of cultural and entertainment journalism.

Maybe it’s just a quirky old-fashioned belief of mine. But if you’re paying a penny for someone who’s never opened a damn book to talk about that book, you’re paying a penny too much. There’s no shortage of people in the world who are willing to engage in ignorant whinging for free. We don’t need to hire them any more than we need to water the weeds. As long as there are artists like Sir Terry Pratchett in the world, the malcontent Jonathan Joneses of the world will spit on their memories to get ahead. They will continue to flourish, with or without our support and attention lavished on them.

But if you please, I’d kindly prefer “without.”

“Stories of imagination tend to upset those without one.”  -Sir Terry Pratchett, concise as ever, in his own defense.

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