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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.