Sorry Jonesy, but I can write for The Guardian AND love Terry Pratchett

Written with the support of my most excellent patrons.

I never had the good fortune to meet Terry Pratchett, but I’ve been reading his books since I was eleven. My favourite Discworld tomes – Mort, Small Gods and Going Postal – have been read a half dozen times each at least. I also hold a Masters degree, have been a senior university lecturer, and am a columnist for The Guardian, the very same bastion of middlebrow values that Jonathan Jones penned his opportunistic attack on Terry Pratchett. Unlike Jones however, I see no conflict in being both an intelligent educated human being and loving the fuck out of Terry Pratchett’s discworld books.

It’s worth asking why Jonesy begins his tantrum against Pratchett by flouting the fact that he has never read a single one of the author’s works. He’s “flicked through” one and, because of his vast cultural expertise was able to classify, and therefore dismiss it, as a “potboiler”. Let’s give Jones his due here. He wants to quickly dash out a piece of clickbait, so he has chosen a rhetorical structure that allows him to achieve the greatest possible public ire, with the least possible research or effort. What Jones is too high in his ivory tower to consider is what this strategy says not just about him as a critic, but the entire cultural edifice he seeks to represent – the elitest, and poisonously classist world, of British arts and culture.

It’s widely known that Terry Pratchett laboured most of his career with little to no recognition from the UK literary or cultural world. Even as his sales climbed towards hundreds of millons, Sir Terry’s books received none of the attention given to, say, Ian McEwan. As Terry Pratchett’s illness became public knowledge that seemed to change. I don’t want to beat the drum about why it takes a great writer’s illness to make such a change, but it’s hard not to when that good work can be sadly undone by an ignorant spectator like Jonathan Jones. For decades, the cultural establishment held exactly the same ignorant position that Jones today retreated back to – Pratchett wrote “potboilers”, and no more need be said.

This is hardly a new or original position. The history of fantasy can be traced back to the oldest myths and legends. But the dysfunctional relationship between fantasy fiction and the British literary world begins with the early days of popular publishing, and “penny dreadfuls”, a pejorative term for popular books of the Victorian era recently repopularised by the TV show of the same name. Stories like Varney the Vampire sold in huge numbers and rate as some of the earliest truly mass entertainment. They also began the process of defining fantasy stories of all kinds as the literature of the working classes, while realistic novels became associated with the growing middle class. Even when, in most cases, the reality they catalogued was a sordid who’s-fucking-who in high society, or a guide to good manners to show at the table while happily demeaning your household servants, realism became de facto ” high culture”.

Because let’s not forget that the literary and cultural structures Jinathan Jones rides out to defend originate from one of the most unequal and unjust cultures in human history. The Victorian Britain that derided the readers of penny dreadfuls was the same one profiting from their sweat and labour in the nation’s factories. The white, Anglo-Saxon, upper class literary and cultural elite deciding what should be classified as “great art” were simultaneously pillaging the cultural heritage of India, China and a quarter of the planet. The fortunes that paid for the exclusive university educations of Victorian Britain’s artists, writers and critics came in large part from the profits of brutal industry, murderous colonialism and, of course, the vast reparations paid to British slave owners. It’s in no way surprising that Imperial Britain defined art and culture as it defined all things, in such a way as to exclude the poor and keep the oppressed in their place. The values of British culture that Jonathan Jones takes such joy in defending are, in large part, indefensible.

It’s unlikely you’ll ever see a political commentator for The Guardian sneering with joy at the suffering of the workers. But it’s still standard practice for cultural commentators like Jones to hack down writers and artists who communicate to, and on behalf of, the great mass of readers. And lets be frank about why. Arts and culture are home to some of the highest paid and highest status jobs in society. And for all Britain’s progress as a democracy, our arts and cultural industries are still overwhelmingly dominated by an incredibly narrow stripe of society. Our actors, musicians, artists, and of course novelists come almost exclusively from the monied elite, a state made even worse in the last three decades of growing inequality.

Why would this confederacy of cultural dunces, snobs and Oxbridge elitests ignore – or in the case of Jonathan Jones openly insult – a great writer like Terry Pratchett. I wonder. Perhaps someone from an average background rather shows up those who managed so much less with so much more. Perhaps a writer who can brutally satirise the media industry in Moving Pictures, or the finance industry in Making Money, or the poisonous glamour of elitism itself in Lords and Ladies, was not a writer Britain’s cultural elite felt safe around. Or perhaps it’s simply that an artist who can make millions of souls laugh with joy, is hard for the deadened souls of some critics to ever truly appreciate.

Shakespeare, Dickens, Pratchett. There’s no shortage of great writers from Britain’s struggling lower classes who have found themselves attacked, with minimal effect, by Lilliputian cultural elitists like Jonathan Jones. Maybe a century from now, when the remarkable satirical fantasies of Terry Pratchett are studied on every school syllabus, some future and equally insignificant Jonathan Jones will slyly claim that no lower born writer could have written these intelligent, subtle discworld novels. Perhaps they were really written by George Osborne, a figure of the era who came from a proper university. Let’s hope The Guardian has advanced beyond such cheap cultural elitism by then, and stands up to defend great art, instead of selling it out for clicks.

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39 thoughts on “Sorry Jonesy, but I can write for The Guardian AND love Terry Pratchett”

  1. Well done. I have no objection to someone holding a different opinion to me, however I do object to people taking money to review something or someone without engaging with their work. It is dishonest. I don’t care whether Pratchett is eventually considered a literary genius way in the future because I enjoy his books now. They make me laugh, out loud. There is often a message, but Pratchett doesn’t have to beat the reader over the head with it. I wonder what Jones thinks of Swift, Bunyan, Voltaire, Aristophanes (who also makes me laugh out loud) etc. They all invented worlds (fantasy) to satirize what was happening around them. (Okay, maybe not Bunyan so much, but ‘The slough of despond’ is still an excellent creation. I nearly forgot Homer’s Odyssey. Maybe Mr Jones hasn’t read any of these either ‘because life is too short’.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this. That article made me mad but I couldn’t put into words why.

    Also, if life is too short to read Pratchett, why should I spend any time reading a click bait review by someone who didn’t even read the work they were writing about?

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Bang on, Damien. Excellent piece. I rather liked the reference to “A Confederacy of Dunces.” Here in the U.S. (Texas) Terry Pratchett isn’t an everyday reference I can make and expect people to know who he is, but his popularity is steadily growing.

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  4. If you write of things and people the way they are, it won’t be Great Literature. Including, with respect, all sorts of protagonists who would not ordinarily feature is yet another invitation to failure in the Gl stakes. Maybe the meeja should be doing it. Fat chance.
    Maybe we should mourn and celebrate Pratchett in his own context and never mind the bollocks.

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  5. Linda Stevens touches on my main reaction. This isn’t even about class, it’s about the defence of the “serious” against comedy. Jones can’t acknowledge comedy, because his art world can’t cope with it.

    I’d add that Pratchett’s satire is also too political for Jones’ world. He likes little boxes of nostalgia (Austen) or paintings that provoke thought about micro-circumstances. The idea of actually critiquing society…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The funny thing is, that in order to fully appreciate Pratchett’s books, you need to be well versed in literature, history, science, art and even religion(s). All of us who have read his books know this and I for one am certain to have missed any number of his embedded jokes due to my ignorance. So how can an author, who actually makes you want to read other books before re-reading his, in the hope of gleaning more enjoyment and “aha” moments from his books, be considered un-intellectual?

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  7. What makes Pratchett’s work Great Literature? It’s because no matter your background or political leanings, if one has a soul, Sir Terry made you laugh. He made you examine, with a smile, your perception of life.

    If one has to chew through a “great novel”, as Mr. Jones seems to imply in one paragraph, it might just be pretentious, artsy crap.

    Well done, Mr. Walters.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This is a very timely article for me, Damien, so thank you. I recently started an MFA program at Pacific University. It is very highly regarded and chock full of great writers who function as mentor figures. I have been blogging about the experience.

    The reason I’m commenting is because for the residency work-shop, I submitted a Fantasy piece which was essentially summarily executed by the workshop leader. A fellow writer there, whose day job is writing YA post-modern fairy tales, told me I was very brave for having submitted such a piece! I was a bit surprised. I believed that in any group of discriminating writers, the quality of work should decide the response, not the clothes it is garbed in. (Or do clothes really make the man?)

    My mentor, Kellie Wells, suggested that I research for the program why certain genre pieces (The Drowned Giant, for example) are considered literature and why others are not. As a lifelong fan of fantasy and scifi, who like you REFUSES to summarily dismiss, I think I will do such research. I was wondering if you have any advice about where to go… other than your blog of course :)

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    1. I guest posted on Charles Stross’s blog about this theme. You might find the comments thread has some good pointers to more material and evidence. Somebody referenced writer Samuel Delany’s point about how when the mainstream likes something that’s SF&F, it classes it as not SF&F “because it’s good”.

      Original blog entry here: http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2015/05/in-defence-of-traditional-euro.html

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Read the blog post, Harold. Absolutely agree with you. I think that you’ve identified a key “back-story” to the dismissal of genre fiction as being a part of a culture war between the Old Middle Class and the New Middle Class. Food for thought.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you for this brilliant deconstruction of that vile article. :)

    As I commented on your colleague’s article (Sam Jordison):

    While the original article this is in response to made my blood boil, I have come to a decision.
    Arrogant, snobbish and ignorant twats like its author (who thinks putting down something without even taking the time to actually read and review it makes him superior to the author of those marvellous, insightful and hilarious pieces of social satire) are not worth getting your knickers in a twist over.

    We should pity them, for they will never have the emotional maturity to grasp the complex and profound social criticism and intersectionality, brought with such graceful, poignant and hilarious prose, that can be found in the Discworld.

    And as they lack these traits, and are obviously too ignorant to realise the stupidity in writing off a writer without any knowledge whatsoever on his books, their opinion can simply be overlooked.

    Because it doesn’t matter. Because people who do this don’t matter in the scheme of things, how ever much they would like to pretend they do by writing bullshit articles inflating their own importance. They’re insignificant.
    Unlike Terry Pratchett. :)

    Liked by 1 person

  10. (Please delete this comment once the typo is fixed.)
    Great article. One typo jumped out at me, though. Paragraph 2, “flouting” should be “flaunting”. Unfortunately, just the sort of slip that will lead to the intellectual snobs dismissing your excellent article.

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  11. I don’t really like fantasy as a genre, but so what? I think a lack of critical reviews in the papers of genre fiction is wrong, and should be encouraged. Jones is a sad sack, a clickbait moron. He’s no better than Jan Moir or any other Daily Mail writer; the Guardian keep publishing this crap, so it must bring in the pennies.

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  12. This article says almost perfectly how I feel about elitist reviewers whom classify work without spending time to know it.

    A true critic can explain well how a work of art is good and of value without beeing a fan themself.

    If a critic has to put down an author without even reading his/her work, then he is a sloppy worker and doesn’t do his job.

    I have had the good fortune of meeting Sir Terry, and even if it was brief, he was tired after a long day, he was very polite and graceous to a fan. I found him to be a very nice individual. One year later he was diagnosed, and the reason for his fatigue was very clear. I am proud to have meet him, and be able to thank him for all the joy he had given me.

    I feel bad for this Jones that never will see the wonder of Discworld and laugh at the satire.

    Never will he have to stop and put down the book because he is laughing tears into his eyes. Never will he see the clever ways everyday issues is rediculed in the books.

    If Sir Terry was (and is) not a great artist, noone is. Because giving the audience such feelings and experiences IS what beeing an artist is all about.

    Sir Terry touched my heart. And as long as he is remembered he is not truly gone. He never will, we will read his books far into the future. And I will remember him as long as I live.

    Jones, I will have forgotten about in 5-10 minutes, and if he passes my mind again, I will have to look up his name. He wont ever be an artist, nor a good critic. Not after doing his job in such a piss por manner. There are critics whom I still remember the name of, whom used time to read and research the work they criticised. Jones doesn’t.

    Gunnar Bakke
    Oslo Norway

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Jonathan Jones is to arts coverage what Armond White is to film criticism: they poop in the pool for click-bait and pretend it’s maverick contrarianism.

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  14. For a critic to slate books he hasn’t actually read is plain absurd! Having never read, or even heard of, anything by Jonathan Jones, does this qualify me to comment on the veracity of his opinions?Terry’s work will be read for many, many years to come, Jonathan who??

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  15. … Ima shoot straight, I don’t know who Jonathan Jones is and I don’t want to validate his alleged opinion by looking up the article. Is it more substantial than “I have an English Literature degree and don’t understand reading for enjoyment”? Because, I’ll be honest… a lot more people read Terry Pratchett than ever will Jonathan Jones. Whoever that is. I dunno, pretty sure his death won’t make Facebook’s trending features so it’s not super important I find out, I guess.

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