He’s Literary and he Suffers from Cranio-Rectal Inversion
Actually this isn’t really true. Judging by the evidence I bothered to obtain he enjoys every moment of it and even thinks his rectal emissions have a rather pleasant aroma.
I refer, of course, to the twit idiot moron.. oh bugger. I can’t think of anything sufficiently stupid that won’t be insulted by the comparison. The alleged literature person at the Guardian who has “read Pratchett” and decided it’s “more entertainment than art”.
Well, gee, bright spark, there’s a good chunk of your problem right there. Art is supposed to be a form of entertainment. People who take the view that art – or should that be “Arte” complete with fancy damn near unreadable font? – is not entertainment always strike me as pretentious wankers with no idea what they’re talking about.
The rest of the so called “column” discussing the lack of merits of Pratchett’s Small Gods – which I personally classify as early Pratchett, before he’d come into his full strength as an author – shows just how much pretentious wankery this specimen is capable of. It’s truly amazing and best presented with commentary.
So, his words will be blockquoted, my observations (which are mine and only mine and furthermore have buggerall to do with the Hugos or Sad Puppy campaigns – so digressions into those topics in comments will be eviscerated. Politely. I may be Kate the Impaler, but I do try to be civilized).
In the theocratic state of Omnia, isolated in a barren desert on the Discworld, a miracle has happened. A god – in fact the one Omnians worship, Om himself – has fallen to earth. He speaks to the young man who will become his prophet. But neither god nor prophet cuts an impressive figure. Om has taken the shape of a tortoise. Brutha, the young novice monk who finds him in a vegetable garden and is the only person who can hear him speak, is unpromising, apparently stupid, undoubtedly slow (the difference will become apparent), and not expected to progress beyond novicehood. That’s why he’s always working in the vegetable garden.
Let’s start with the basics. In most other worlds a deity manifesting to his worshipers would be a miracle. In the Discworld it’s usually considered a bloody nuisance. So, no, not a miracle.
If he did achieve monk status, he would be called Brother Brutha. This is the kind of joke Pratchett enjoys. In Small Gods he takes delight in bringing the hifalutin stuff of theology and cosmology down to earth with self-conscious silliness. Thus a philosopher expounds a theory of knowledge remarkably similar to that of the ancient Greek thinker Plato, except with a punchline:
“Life in this world, he said, is, as it were, a sojourn in a cave. What can we know of reality? For all we see of the true nature of existence is, shall we say, no more than bewildering and amusing shadows cast upon the inner wall of the cave by the unseen blinding light of absolute truth, from which we may or may not deduce some glimmer of veracity, and we as troglodyte seekers of wisdom can only lift our voices to the unseen and say, humbly, ‘Go on, do Deformed Rabbit … it’s my favourite.’”
The silliness our dear self-important columnist appears to have forgotten that silliness always runs along with profundity and often does so deliberately. That punchline is so utterly human it casts the entire Plato’s Cave analogy into a completely new light – one Mr Self-Important Columnist fails to see.
This is Pratchett at his best: expansive and lucid, taking one of the greatest ideas in western thought (it is, as his fans will know, almost an exact quote from Plato’s Republic) and having a bit of fun with it.
It’s not Pratchett at his best, but close enough – particularly when Pratchett at his worst has more value than any of the wunderkind this specimen praises (yes, I’ve tried them. See comments about pretentious wankery).
Small Gods turns the story of Galileo and the Inquisition upside down: scientists know the Discworld is a flat disc on the back of a turtle swimming through space, but in Omnia, they hold the bigoted belief that it is a sphere orbiting the sun. A heretical thinker who pointed out the truth was heard to mutter that the turtle really moves, just as Galileo – after being forced by the Catholic church to deny Copernicus’s theory that the spherical earth orbits the sun – is said to have muttered: “And yet it moves.”
Okay. Problem one. That’s only the surface story. If it’s all someone sees, then no, they’re not going to be impressed. They’re not going to impress me with their literary nous, either, because underneath the obvious parody here there’s narrative about war and what it takes to make one, the nature of good and evil, and – as always with Pratchett – the nature of humanity.
Small Gods came out four years after The Satanic Verses, when the fatwa on Salman Rushdie was very much in force. Pratchett, too, is taking on religion and seeking to undo fixed truths. The difference, of course, is that Pratchett is mocking a non-existent faith and risking the wrath of imaginary fundamentalists.
Is that seriously the only way you can frame this? I’ve read Rushdie’s Satanic Verses too, and it sucked. If not for the fatwa, the thing would have died without leaving a ripple. Far too much overblown prose that didn’t say a damn thing about anything. Of course, if you think “entertaining” is bad, you probably think Satanic Verses was magnificent.
Word of advice here, Mr Literary Columnist. It doesn’t matter a damn what the prose is like if, once you parse it out through the run-on sentences and trails of improbable clauses, all you have left is an Ourouborous tapeworm.
Not very well rendered ones, either. The villain in Small Gods is Vorbis, head of the Quisition, a man without a single redeeming feature or any back story to explain how he became so utterly inhuman. We see very quickly that the author has little time for doctrinaire bigots who fight doubt with fire, but Vorbis is a cardboard cut-out. We’re told again and again how loathsome he is; pantomimes are more nuanced.
Once again, Mr Literary Columnist has his head so deeply embedded in his rectal passage he completely misses the point. That or he read a copy of Small Gods that was missing the last 20 to 30 pages. Vorbis is not a villain. He’s an antagonist, certainly, but not a villain, and absolutely not inhuman. Vorbis is too human, a human convinced that he knows what’s right and has a deity-given duty to ensure that rightness is protected and encouraged – rather like some real-world humans who have become household names in the last hundred years, people like Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Pol Pot, Mao… Oh, and the Taliban, ISIS, Al Qaida and other such charming folk.
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.
They have them on the Discworld, too, Mr Literary Columnist. The collection of mugs in the Quisition breakroom is one of the most telling examples: professional torturers with coffee mugs that have captions like “World’s Best Dad”. Of course, Pratchett doesn’t put a great big flashing arrow on the scene that says “Look! Human complexity!”, so maybe you couldn’t see it past the rectal emissions you’re so full of in this article.
Reading Small Gods has made me realise what I love about the novel as practised by someone like Roth. It is the courage to dive into human psychology and the insight to describe the bizarre flux of reality. Roth’s Portnoy locked in his bathroom trying to masturbate while his parents bang on the door – has he got bowel trouble, what’s wrong? – that’s my idea of great fiction, I am afraid.
No you’re not afraid at all. You’re giving Pratchett fans the collective finger while demonstrating that you have no idea why you piss them off. That, sir, is pretentious wankery of the highest order. At least figure out what they’re actually talking about before you flip them off.
Masturbation is also a recurring image in Small Gods. It is what the Omnian church fears young novices get up to in their dormitories. But there’s not much in this book to get them aroused. This sexless romp is a real ale novel, honing its opinions over a pint and a roll up and exuding a benign rationalism.
Oh. I see. Mr Literary Columnist doesn’t think it can possibly be literature if there’s no sex in it. I guess that means Austen isn’t literature either – so what is she? Women’s studies?
That rationalism is projected on to one of the most meticulous alternative worlds in the whole fantasy genre. The Discworld is mapped out in Small Gods with the same topographic and cultural detail as JRR Tolkein’s Middle Earth or George RR Martin’s Westeros. There are the same pleasures of entering a completely fabulous realm – the best part of the book takes place in a desert that evokes the suffering of the Church Fathers and includes a witty parody of the Temptations of St Jerome.
In short, Mr Literary Columnist is looking at a work of art and admiring the frame. This kind of thing often happens when people try to appear smarter than they are. Me, I don’t give a shit if someone thinks I’m stupid – stupid is as stupid does, and you, sir, do.
But 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.
Tolkien is not the fantasy writer I’d recommend for his prose. Any more than I’d recommend Tolkien for his scientific approach to magic. That isn’t what he was writing for.
Pratchett’s deflationary jokes, like his Plato parody, are often funny in isolation, but taken together, they result in a determinedly unambitious, unexciting style. He seems to love handling clichés as if they were shiny pebbles:
“The sky was blue.”
“It was a million-to-one chance, with any luck.”
“Simony laughed bitterly.”
There’s nothing wrong with these sentences from Small Gods –the book is full of such expressions – but there is nothing special about them either.
This, dear Mr Literary Columnist, is an example of making the prose invisible. Yes, it’s deliberate. Pratchett doesn’t want excess fancy getting in the way of the reader. If I stop to admire pretty words, you’ve lost me. I don’t remember Pratchett’s phrasing, I remember his characters. His situations. The subtle parallels he draws that show disturbingly plausible ways to go from civilized to barbaric. Dear lord, I can remember and talk about this and give bloody examples when it’s been something in the order of seven years since I last read the book.
Fuck prose. If I can remember the meaning of a book that long after I last read it when I’ve read – quite literally – hundreds of other books since then, that author is doing it right.
That’s what I’ve felt previously when I looked at Pratchett’s prose, and following it for 397 pages has not suddenly transformed it into Henry James. The ordinariness of this writing is surely deliberate: it makes the book warm and friendly, like a normal chat with a normal bloke.
Why would anyone confuse this with the kind of literary prose it so emphatically does not want to be?
Ah. No. Literary prose does not mean the contents contain literature. Usually the opposite is the case. Unless, of course, you happen to be a pretentious wanker who wants to impress people with how much he knows about Arte.
This is the difference between entertainment and literature – the novel as distraction and the novel as art. You cannot divorce a literary novel from the way it is written. Sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, literature is the words and nothing but.
Bullshit. The stuff that’s the words and nothing but? That’s the stuff that will be forgotten in a generation, if it lasts that long. The things people remember and love? That’s literature.
Plenty of novels get published and loved that are not literature in this sense, but all I am saying, and all I was saying, is that I prefer the literary kind. I prefer it by a billion Ephebian miles.
You prefer meaningless quasi-literary wankage. Right.
You can praise Pratchett for his witty exposition of big ideas, his creation of a fantasy world that gives readers an alternative home (and will surely one day become as seductive on screen as Martin’s Westeros has in Game of Thrones). But you cannot say: “Pratchett writes really ordinary prose yet is a literary genius.”
Oh, yes, you can, sir. Real literature, the kind of thing that lasts past the flash-in-the-pan praise of the pretentious fashion-slaves who call themselves literary? That has meaning. Meaning that percolates and matures and emerges sometimes years later in the realization that there was a lot more to that fun romp than you’d have thought at first.
Pratchett’s fiction works well enough on its own terms. But 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.
And if you can’t see that in Pratchett’s work, sir, I pity you.