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Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Terry Pratchett and "Real" Literature

We interrupt our regularly scheduled post to bring me getting pissed off at elitist anal sphincter lit snobs! 

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. And sometimes–not often, but sometimes–I write the hate mail.]

Cathy asks:

Given that you're now (Contrarian allowing) reading some Pratchett - wondered if you had any opinions on this piece?

Pratchett is not a literary genius.

Text below - it does seem to be very much "it can't be literature, it's speculative!".

(Yeah, 'cos Vetinari's approach to immigration into Ankh-Morpork isn't at all a comment on actual politics, and the war with Klatch has nothing to do with the war with Iraq...)

My reply:

My Facebook exploded with this fecal matter–every third or fourth post for a few hours–including several PM's wondering what my take on it might be, so even though I'm in the last 24 hours or so of trying to get out to Burning Man, I'm going to cobble together some barely coherent thoughts about this enema suck of a sentiment.

I can't say much about Pratchett in this case, but boy do I have a thing or three to say about Jonathan Jones. And it's not like the critically obtuse criticism of speculative fiction is anything new for its fans to have to deal with.

Every once in a while someone in academia or the lit sommelier world gets their knickers totally fucking twisted that they don't get more input into what people ought to read. They just can't stand that the plebs dare to find mainstream authors culturally resonating. So obvi they have to go and drop a high and mighty deuce on some popular author just to make sure we all don't forget that they're the real word on what's good according to....well....them. It's not enough to celebrate what they love. They have to wag their fingers at the unwashed masses for daring to enjoy anything else.

The problem is these lit snobs are just....fucking....comically bad at trying to predict what will be canonized or considered literary in the next generation–precisely because their heads are jammed firmly up their ivory towers (if you know what I mean). Double their irrelevance and inability to predict what prose will echo through the ages when they say anything (ever) that dismisses a writer who comes up from the working class (and more recently from other marginalized groups like writers of color) instead of wafting across on a cloud of florid-prosed, high-art-aesthetic privilege.

They hated Walt Whitman.

They hated J.D. Salinger.

They hated Mark Twain.

They hated John Steinbeck.

They hated William Golding.

They hated Charles Dickens.

They hated Fitzgerald.

They absolutely hated Gertrude Stein.

They hated Herman Melville. (Okay, actually, it's hard to blame them for that one.)

And until he had inured himself into Queen Elizabeth's court, they hated Shakespeare.

Oh many of them got past their initial works, and were respected in their lifetimes, but we're not even cracking writers like Jules Verne, Mary Shelly, H.G. Wells, Tolkien, LeGuin, PK Dick, Vonnegut, Delaney, Lessing, Lem, and more. All of them found mainstream literary culture didn't like them–certainly not when they started writing to mainstream appeal, though some of them even long after their deaths. And if you really want to watch lit snobs miss the mark, start including writers of color like Butler, Hughes, McCay, Everett (until the mid 90's when he started winning awards) and DuBois.

Of course, the next generation's lit snobs will clutch these very same authors to their breasts and say how self evident their worth is. They will delight in their simple grounded prose and the way they observe the world with a more "real" eye. It was just those crusty old lit snobs of yesteryear that were the problem, not the entire underlying ideology of elitist bilge upon which much of the literary world rests. Surely this time we've got it straight and those authors all the kids are reading today really aren't even worth looking at.

And it has nothing to do with the fact that they grew up reading the stuff and were willing to give it a second look.....or, you know, even a first. RIGHT JONATHAN???

People find pretty much anything to be insufferable snobs about, but the literary community are among the worst because they are so fucking out of touch with what ends up being culturally relevant. At least the Emily Post table manners folks really actually do know what a fish fork is. Lit snobs, on the other hand, keep acting like Charlie Brown trying to kick the ball. "Don't worry Charlie Brown, this time you can ignore entire swaths of the art you claim to be an authority on with an upturned nose and it won't cost you your street cred for being able to find your literary asses with both hands." What???? Lucy pulled the ball again?

Who would have thought?

Basically there's a really good, relevant, working, topical reason that no one outside the literary community gives much of a fuck what those in the literary community have to say. Sure sometimes they take a run at the bestsellers and those authors feel a sting, but their horses are so high, they really can't understand cultural relevance anymore. And it shows! Their (in)ability to predict the lower class writers who will be the voices of the social struggles of their generation are high among the reasons that they have elitismed themselves into utter irrelevancy.

Air gets a bit thin up in that tower, I guess.

I have to pack tomorrow. We're leaving on Wednesday and I could literally die if I don't make sure every damn thing on that checklist is in the car. But something about these lit snobs has me up after midnight, clacking away furiously. These guys are everything that's wrong with the high art world and its snotty disconnect with actual cultural relevancy and their "right kind of literature" nonsense that epicphailz pretty much every time their mouths open.

At this point I've read about 200 pages of Pratchett, so I can't defend his prose or his stylings or anything really. But what I can do is point out what a monumental unwashed, sweaty sphincter wrote this steaming pile of pimple squeezings.

So here we go (letter not quoted in its entirety–because seriously it's just more of the fucking same):
"It does not matter to me if Terry Pratchett’s final novel is a worthy epitaph or not, or if he wanted it to be pulped by a steamroller. I have never read a single one of his books and I never plan to. Life’s too short."
Full stop. You're done. Go home. Drink a coke, and fuck off with your absolutely irrelevant opinion. If life is too short to read Pratchett it is surely too short to bloviate about Pratchett without having read him.

My cat, Princess Mononoke, has advancing kidney disease and has recently developed incontinence. There's a pretty decent chance when I go into my room, I'm going to find an oily black turd near, but not in, the litter box.

As of your second sentence, I value that turd more than your opinion.

Literally nothing you say after this point contains even an iota of anything I could respect as a writer, an artist, or even as a reader who happens to quite enjoy the literary genre despite all its whitewashed bullshit. I can respect the difference between commercial and literary prose (even if I think it's usually mostly classist crap). I have read thousands of "literary" novels including Marquez and Grass who you later cite as unlamented because I guess they didn't get enough likes on FB to make you happy. [Both magical realists in case that speculative fiction stick up your ass weren't ironic enough.] I can appreciate the difference between them and what might be considered more commercial work and why mainstream appeal is sometimes muted for the artists of the highest artistic integrity.

And yet I STILL cannot respect anything that comes after that second sentence. You just identified yourself as a completely insipid twit. The worst kind of critic imaginable (though sadly common among the lit snobs): one who attacks a work that you haven't even engaged. You've got this snotty, condescending paragraph about harder literature being "worth it," but you can't even be arsed to cruise through 250 pages to have the first fucking clue what you're talking about.

Can you imagine any other artist doing this? In any discipline at all? "I haven't ever seen a Scorsese film, but I'm sure they're crap." "I haven't ever listened to Vivaldi, but I'm going to write a whole piece about how he's sub par." "I've never really looked at a Picasso. Glanced at it once. It looked kind of like he needed to learn to draw."

The reason those examples sound absurd is because it's preposterous to have an opinion on art that you haven't actually experienced. In any other discipline it becomes instantly recognizable as ludicrous. Only in literature is there some sort of latitude for critics to have opinions of works they've never actually read.

Who in the actual fuck aggrandizes their own opinions to the point that they believe they can honestly talk about a work with any authority without having actually engaged it? Lit snobs. That's who.
"I don’t mean to pick on this particular author, except that the huge fuss attending and following his death this year is part of a very disturbing cultural phenomenon."
Of course you do. That is exactly, precisely what you mean to do. You took a run at an über-popular author when he was prominent in the news because of his death and even more prominent because his the book he was working on when he died is due out today. You did this for the topicality of it, but without doing your due diligence as a respectable critic. Maybe you did it to cash in on the traffic. You will probably make more money from what you wrote trashing an author you've never even read than in the rest of your writing career. Certainly if you approach everything you do with as zero ass (we can't even call it half ass, can we?) research as you did Pratchett.

But even if you didn't do it for the money or the lulz, you absolutely used the timing to shoehorn in a soapbox mounting of your smug egotism about how awful people are for having feels about authors dying.  Sure, maybe you're not actually exploiting a beloved author's death and you really, honestly, truly just want to take his fans who deign to mourn popular authors' deaths down a peg or two. But then....actually, no, that's about the best thing that can be said at this point.
"Their books, like all great books, can change your life, your beliefs, your perceptions."
Funny, I've heard the same thing said about Pratchett.
Everyone reads trash sometimes.
Not everyone, right John? Not you. You don't lower yourself to anything that common. You're better than those potboilers, right?
"Because life really is too short to waste on ordinary potboilers. I am not saying this as a complacent book snob who claims to have read everything."
Jesus you just got through saying everyone reads trash. Which is it? Or is this entire article as poorly conceived as an attack on an artist you are UTTERLY unfamiliar with?

We would probably settle for having read the books in question, you pretentious asshole. You know, the ones on which you are now claiming to be a literary authority? The only thing you have said with this is that you ARE a complacent book snob. You are complacent not to challenge yourself to read a book before you take an exploitive smear of author (who's too dead to fire back) who has resonated with millions. You aren't even willing to face the possibility that you might be wrong. To me that shows how complacent and snobby you are.

Also callow and ignorant...if you're keeping score.
"Actual literature may be harder to get to grips with than a Discworld novel, but it is more worth the effort. By dissolving the difference between serious and light reading, our culture is justifying mental laziness and robbing readers of the true delights of ambitious fiction."
Laziness like say, not reading an author before discussing their flaws with the world? Laziness like presuming an unengaged work of art has no ambition? Laziness like letting other (also priggish) people dictate to you what is cultured and what you ought to enjoy? Perhaps you mean lazy like the intellectual laziness demonstrated by arbitrating aesthetic ideas like "actual literature" and "true delights" instead of discovering those things for oneself? Did you mean more like the logical laziness that is evident in the fallacy of false dichotomy in the suggestion that a reader could not somehow enjoy both kinds of books? Or was this just about the laziness of humans with the temerity to spend their money and time on art and entertainment that they enjoy.

I think it's important we nail down what caliber of laziness we're talking about here.
"This summer I finally finished Mansfield Park. How had I managed not to read it up to now? It’s shameful. But at least now it’s part of my life. The structure of Jane Austen’s morally sombre plot, the restrained irony of her style, the sudden opening up of the book as it moves from Mansfield Park to Portsmouth and takes in the complex real social world of regency England – all that’s in me now. Great books become part of your experience. They enrich the very fabric of reality. I don’t just mean 19th-century classics, either. I also read Post Office by Charles Bukowski this summer. My God, what a writer. Bukowski is a voice from hell with the talent of an angel. I must read every word by him."
Hey here's a fun game. For fifty points, can you guess two other writers who were soundly rejected by the literary establishments of their day? Did you guess Austen and Bukowski? (25 points each.) Good thing the plebs were willing to lift them up to the point where the lit snobs simply had to take a longer look. Or, GOSH, you'd never have that morally sombre plot or restrained irony. (Seriously did you get that shit off of Sparknotes because I can talk about Mansfield Park without sounding like I'm reading literary criticism off the back of a cereal box.) It's almost like cultural relevance involves....being relevant in a culture......or something.

Oh Bee Tee Dubs, I know another author who is really good at irony and social satire....
"But Terry Pratchett? Get real. It’s time we stopped this pretence that mediocrity is equal to genius."
But you wouldn't even know, would you? You're like the asshole fuckwit in my lit classes who kept raising his hand during the discussions but hadn't read the book. He thought the teacher didn't realize he was just saying a bunch of bullshit until the day she shot him down: "Sorry Dan, I only want the opinions of people who've actually done the reading today. Your thoughts aren't actually germane." Oops. I guess doing the reading you want to talk about as if you know fuck all about it actually IS important.

You would think people would have learned after the whole Lynn Shepherd debacle that admitting you haven't read an author you're about to roast makes you look like you are a particularly smelly drip of willfully ignorant butt-crack sweat. Oh let me guess, you didn't read that either?

You know, my great-grandkids might be sitting in a Pratchett class fifty years from now discussing the close reading of one of the great turn-of-the-century satirists. (Notice I don't claim to know if he's a genius since I am still only about half way through my first book. See how that works?) This is because time and again it's those pesky plebs who decide what is culturally relevant, not the ivory tower. Not everything is about prose and linguistic flourishes. Sometimes it's about who speaks to a generation against the elitist establishments of power who dismiss them without even really knowing what it is they dismiss.

But if my grandkids are in such a class, I'm pretty sure they will have to suffer some kind of viral article (or futuristic wavecast or something) by a bloviating pee hole of a tiny man who sneers at the great working class authors of the day without ever even reading them because that's what a bunch of upper class white dudes told him he ought to do. "You all should be reading Pratchett," he'll say. "My god, what a writer!" And he'll think that makes him a better person because he didn't even have the imagination required to question such classist emu-diarrhea bloviation. To say nothing of the incredible wealth of imagination–whole worlds of it–created by the person he refused to read.

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  1. hot damn. Reading this was JUST like watching the King of the Britons, defeator of the Saxons, sovereign of all England, he who, it has been said, may (or may not) have had a scimitar lobbed at him by a watery tart just ... totally ... and with detached, clinically casual ease ... take all the arms and legs off the None Shall Pass dude in the black armor. Well -ing done, mate. Well -ing done.

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  3. I have enjoyed this rant tremendously!

  4. I've spent the better part of the day reading this post and the posts in defense of speculative fiction not needing a defense. Time well spent.
    I'm working on my MA in English literature and I've run into this nonsense more often than I care to remember. Being a massive fantasy enthusiast, I've often run into the preconception that nothing I read is literature, and that therefore it's trash. Even if it's not said out loud, it seems to be inherent in the courses and in the mentality of the instructors. No one seems to have a good reason for it. Even the ones who acknowledge the problem just treat it as something inevitable. Something that just happens. That just because it's fantasy, it won't be treated as literature
    It's nice to see I'm not the only one who found that ridiculous.
    Gravity is inevitable. Literary snobism is not.

    Also: I've now got a lot more ammunition if this discussion ever comes up again. So that's nice, too.

  5. I actually had a class where we did a close reading of Pratchett's "Going Postal".
    I agree with a lot in this article. I'd just like to add there are some academics (and being in a small town in Czech Republic makes experiments more likely) who do search for relevance and are often interested in today's art.
    Short example which warmed my heart:
    Two of my lit professors, both over 50, both with two PhDs each, blasting Taylor Swift on school speakers talking about her social commentary. I'm in exceptionally good hands, I feel.

  6. Out of curiosity, what do you think of Pratchett now?

    1. Because of my committment to read other voices, I'm still only on my third book, but I think he's a very poignant satirist, and I suspect Jones is going to end up eating extra crow with crow sauce.

    2. Pratchett will come to be regarded as one of the greatest observers of human nature to put word on page. His comic timing is genius, his philosophy razor sharp and somehow both brutal and kind at the same.
      The discworld is his device, his stage; it's his characters and what they say and do that burst off the page.

  7. When my son was a nascent reader I chose to read the "Captain Underpants" books to him, a series highly unlikely to qualify as "litterchure" under anyone's definition. But they made him laugh, engaged his interest in the printed word, and served as one of many vehicles by which the two of us could enjoy story time together. Win. Win. Win.
    Read what you want. It counts!

  8. I was taught to read at a very early age by my grandmother. Her attitude to books was simple. The author takes the time to weave a story, be it big, small,or irrelevant so you take the time to read and enjoy. If at the end of the book you didn't enjoy it you still haven't wasted time. Some authors struggle to be taken seriously some are lucky enough to get taken seriously. But all authors should be respected.

  9. Oh, this was beautiful. I cannot express my respect enough for a person who can write about literary institutions etc. and use expressions like "emu-diarrhea bloviation". Besides, you are absolutely right and it was an enormously funny read.

    Thanks and greetings from Finland.