I've read Pratchett now: it's more entertainment than art
Source:theguardian Author:Jonathan Jones Date: 2015-09-14 Size:
When it comes to reading fiction, we are all fans. We read and reread the authors we love, and with whom we may have fallen in love decades ago……

Terry Pratchett, author of the Discworld novels, who died in March.

When it comes to reading fiction, we are all fans. We read and reread the authors we love, and with whom we may have fallen in love decades ago. The process that connects a reader and an author is as mysterious as the spark that brings two people together – and the passions are as intense.

One of my proudest moments was when I looked at the British paperback edition of Philip Roth’s novel Nemesis and saw praise from my Guardian art blog quoted on its cover: “A mesmerically imagined work of realism...” I have been addicted to Roth for decades. Having my homage printed on one of his books was a fan’s fantasy come true.

My most shameful moment as a critic has also come about as a result of one of my occasional forays into the world of books. I forgot that other people love authors as much as I love Roth. So I recently snorted contempt at a writer who did not interest me at all, the bestselling fabulist Terry Pratchett. Since I also made plain that I had not actually read a whole book by Pratchett I brought down a vengeance not unlike the firestorm that engulfed the library of Ephebe after the Omnian attack on this philosophical city.

Terry Pratchett's Small Gods

See, I have now read an entire Pratchett book. The fall of Ephebe is one of the most dramatic moments in Small Gods, the 13th Discworld novel, which furious fans suggested I should read.

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.

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.’”

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

A Terry Pratchett mural in east London.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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 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.”

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.

[Editor] 张艳

    Artintern