It has been said, with some justification, that dissecting a joke is much like dissecting a frog. One may figure out what makes the subject tick, but the end result is inevitably a dead frog.
Unfortunately, the “respectable” literary establishment seems incapable of showing its appreciation of an author unless said writer’s work has been ruthlessly, relentlessly and repeatedly dissected by critics. The conjunction of these two truisms may ultimately be the reason so few humorists are ultimately regarded as “literary authors.” After all, most literary criticism of humor tends to suffer from a sort of terminal leaden seriousness, perhaps to emphasize that despite being funny, the material upon which the critic is writing is actually (and you can often hear the implied capital letters) Important Literature. It also tends to absolutely demolish anything even remotely enjoyable about the original text, leaving the reader wondering what all the fuss was about in the first place. (Studies of Ambrose Bierce’s humor in particular suffer from this sort of thing, leaving Bitter Bierce’s standard-bearers no choice but to retreat to the environs of Owl Creek Bridge, there to fortify their arguments for Bierce’s canonical status.)
What, then, are we to make of Terry Pratchett: Guilty of Literature, a collection of critical essays of wildly varying quality which focus primarily on the Discworld writings? After all, Pratchett himself has made his opinion of literary criticism none-too-gently known in an oft-quoted (especially within this book; I lost track of the number of references) passage from Guards! Guards!: “He waited patiently as a herd of Critters crawled past, grazing on the contents of the choicer books and leaving behind them small slim volumes of literary criticism.”
Clearly, an author whose writings assert a close familiar relationship between literary criticism and organic fertilizer isn’t necessarily a prime subject for the so-called Academy. When one considers that Pratchett simultaneously labors in the unpopular vineyards of fantasy (which academia is reluctant to accept unless it can be passed off as some flavor of allegory, preferably political; c.f. Spenser, Milton and the repeated critical attempts to mash Tolkien into a commentary on European politics) and comedy, the notion becomes, like Pratchett’s writing itself, fantastic and humorous. Indeed, why bother?
However, all of those arguments forget the most important element in the equation, namely, the books. And the books of Terry Pratchett are monstrously popular, they are very good, and when they are even lightly scratched they reveal that they are (for the most part) rather sophisticated satire on modern society, as opposed to simple genre parody. Pratchett’s writing is important in a way that borders on the Dickensian; he is a populist author whose target is everyday life, and whose gentle affection for his characters does not completely disguise the ruthless efficiency of his perception. Issues of race, class, faith, patriotism and belief are the real heart of Discworld. The many-sentenced footnotes, the wacky supporting cast and the over-the-top parody are the spoonful of sugar that helps that particular flavor of medicine go down.
Saying that serious criticism of Pratchett is necessary, though, is not the same thing as saying that any literary criticism of Pratchett is to be hailed, simply because it exists. After all, shoddy work done for the express purpose of establishing an author’s “serious” credentials can ultimately do more harm than good. And that leads us to the very doorstep of the putative subject of this review, the collection of critical thought on all things Pratchett.
The book opens with a pair of essays which do well to warn the reader of what’s to come: an introduction to the material and the approaches to be taken with it, as scribed by the book’s editors; and then a more genial preface by David Langford, the editor of the British SF magazine Ansible and the man who recommended to Victor Gollancz Ltd. that perhaps this Pratchett fellow’s writing might be worth publishing in hardback. The introduction suffers
from defensiveness, overseriousness and an attempt to be all things to all critics (the wistfulness over the failure to include a queer theory reading of the minor character Greebo, based solely on the fact that he wears leather, comes across as a bit of an awkward stretch). Langford’s preface, however, is breezy, informative and quite useful for establishing context for Pratchett’s place in the modern market and literary canon.
So it goes, really, throughout the entire book. In their attempt to expose as many critical takes on Pratchett as possible, Andrew M. Butler, Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn have gathered together what can only be described as an encircling barrage of approaches. In some instances, the writing is incisive, insightful and useful in opening new approaches to reading Pratchett’s work. In others, it’s turgid, self-righteous and poorly supported, making one long for a good Edmund Wilson-style smackdown. The best two pieces in the book are, interestingly enough, character studies. Andy Sawyer’s essay on “The Librarian and His Domain” does a remarkable job of establishing the importance and depth of the role played by Unseen University’s Librarian, a character often unjustly relegated to the status of (dare I say it?) second banana by dint of the simple fact that he’s an orangutan. Barred by his one-word vocabulary from the verbal pyrotechnics of some of Pratchett’s other recurring players (notably Rincewind), the Librarian can be shunted off to the side by incautious readers as a one-joke shtick. Sawyer masterfully gives the character his due, elevating him to leading ape status and demonstrating how the efficacy of his nonverbal communication is an important defining trait of the Discworld books.
The second of the topflight pieces is Nickianne Moody’s examination of the Discworld staple, Death. A rock-solid piece of criticism, it exhaustively examines the implications of Death’s presence, absence, and evolution within the Discworld context. “The reaper man cares for his corn,” is one quote early in the essay, and from that telling statement the rest of Moody’s argument flows.
Unfortunately, not all of the work lives up to Moody’s and Sawyer’s standards. Editor Butler’s survey-course attempt to try to cram Pratchett into various theories of humor is dull and uninformative, the material of an evening’s poorly attended lecture at a local library. Cherith Baldry’s take on Pratchett’s childrens’ books is well-intentioned but heavy-handed, something which is perhaps inevitable considering the unfocused nature of her subject matter. And John Clute’s piece, “Coming of Age,” is simply awful, full of unproven assertions, erratic switches in focus and dubious suppositions which the reader is supposed to take as unvarnished truth. Clute’s piece also has the misfortune of being the very first one, and as such is strategically positioned to prevent the easily discouraged from plowing any further into the book. More’s the pity, really, as the best work tends to come toward the end.
Terry Pratchett: Guilty of Literature (the title references Pratchett’s own author bio in some of the Discworld novels) is, ultimately, a worthwhile book, and not just because the proceeds from its purchase go to The Science Fiction Foundation and Pratchett’s own Orangutan Foundation. Despite the rather erratic nature of its contents, it is a serious look at an author who certainly deserves one. Several pieces fail, but others (generally, the ones with the most tightly focused subject matter) succeed, and succeed admirably. Blessedly, the often over-dense technical jargon of literary criticism is pruned carefully here, making the book readable in most places, and a welcome spur to discussion and re-reading even for those of us who don’t dwell in academia.
Obviously, the book isn’t for everyone. Casual readers will want to avoid it on general principle, and folks who prefer having their metaphorical frogs alive and kicking will do so as well. However, readers who enjoy digging a bit deeper will most likely get something interesting out of Terry Pratchett: Guilty of Literature. They should just be prepared to skip around a bit in order to do so.