Yesterday, the great misfortune of reading this piece by Jonathan Jones fell upon me. In it, Mr. Jones argues that the outpouring of grief for the death of Terry Pratchett is “very disturbing,” that Pratchett’s work is “ordinary,” and “trash,” and that reading it is “mental laziness.”
I know Mr. Jones’s reputation as a provocateur and contrarian. He deliberately says controversial things to get attention. But I will risk feeding the troll to rebut him.
Like Mr. Jones, I am not a Pratchett fan. I simply haven’t read enough of his work to have an opinion. I made it halfway through Good Omens, and that’s all I’ve read of him. I am not a member of the horde of fanatical geeks that obsess over all things fantasy and science fiction. When I read for pleasure, I’m likely to curl up with something thick, “literary,” and dripping with themes and symbols. I use the word “leitmotif” in everyday conversation. I have openly expressed disappointment in my fellow readers’ failure to challenge themselves with more ambitious books.
In short, I am exactly the reader Mr. Jones expects to have in his corner, cheering him on.
That is why it falls to me to say how very wrong he is.
Mr. Jones reveals his true motives in the first paragraph: “I have never read a single one of his books and I never plan to.” The rest of his column is based on the premise that Pratchett’s works are poorly written, escapist tripe — a conclusion that he does not support, and cannot, because he knows nothing about them. This is prejudice at its most literal. A reviewer can’t properly say a book is badly written unless he’s read it. Mr. Jones is writing solely to sneer down his nose at authors and readers he feels are beneath him.
Hateful snobbery has infected much of the literary and critical world. It’s spread like an epidemic through the ivory towers, literary journals, and MFA programs where Mr. Jones and his ilk reside. It is true that popularity is no indication of high quality — if it were, McDonald’s would have three Michelin stars. But the snobs of the literary world have taken this premise and drawn the incorrect conclusion that popularity indicates low quality. Studying logic is not a prerequisite for a career as an art critic.
Snobbish reviewers even harbor a phobia of elements that seem like they would belong in popular fiction. When Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch came out, it threw some reviewers into such snits that their pince-nez must have flown right off their horrified faces. “Art heists?” they huffed. “Terrorist bombs? These things don’t belong in literary fiction. Why, oh why, could this not have been just a story about a boy living with his divorced father?”
Reviewers will turn up their noses at an 800-page Pulitzer winner? Science fiction and fantasy of the sort Mr. Pratchett wrote don’t stand a chance in that climate. They’ve been deemed unfit to enter the literary canon even through the servant’s entrance.
This thinking misses the point of fiction. Ironically, Mr. Jones sums up the true function of the story when he says, “great books, can change your life, your beliefs, your perceptions.” Mr Jones believes this will only happen if you are reading Günter Grass or Jane Austen. From this I conclude that Mr. Jones has never met anyone who’s read the Harry Potter series or the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien. J.K. Rowling has likely changed more lives than any other living author.
The hallmarks of greatness Mr. Jones sees in great literature are the same things as the “fuss” and “internet splurge” over the deaths of Pratchett and Ray Bradbury. Their books touched lives. People didn’t merely read them, they entered them, they lived the stories. The characters have become real people in the minds of millions. That’s how books are supposed to work.
As a reader of literary fiction, I believe that a novel should aspire to more than simply entertaining readers with an engaging tale. But in order to express its greater theme, a great novel must first entertain readers with an engaging tale. Style and symbolism and richness are worthless in a book no one wants to read. The trend in literary fiction of removing all elements that may seem “popular” makes about as much sense as improving a car’s gas mileage by taking out the engine. A car without an engine can’t move. It isn’t capable of doing it’s job; neither is a book that doesn’t draw people into a captivating story.
Mr. Jones claims, “Actual literature may be harder to get to grips with than a Discworld novel, but it is more worth the effort.” It doesn’t have to be. Recently, I picked up a copy of The Sun Also Rises, by Hemingway. I hadn’t read it since high school. I intended to read the first sentence. Some time later, I awoke from a trance, still standing in the same spot in the bookstore. Twenty pages had gone by effortlessly.
Humans want to believe things are always getting worse. Mr. Jones claims, “In the age of social media and ebooks,” we are “dissolving the difference between serious and light reading.” This is curmudgeonly hogwash. For most of the history of English language, there was no difference between serious literature and popular literature. The literati that Mr. Jones fawns over wrote books the general public enjoyed reading.
Faulkner wrote popular books. So did Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Vladimir Nabokov made so much money on Lolita that he retired to a luxury hotel for the rest of his life. Its success in no way diminishes its importance as a novel. Jane Austen, one of the authors Mr. Jones holds up as a genius, epitomized writing for a middlebrow audience.
Even William Shakespeare wrote for the masses.
Especially William Shakespeare.
The “actual literature” Mr. Jones gushes over is nothing more than the popular books of generations past. People remember best the books that touch them most. In two hundred years, what will be remembered of this generation’s books? Mr. Jones can be assured that he’ll be safely in his grave, unable to be horrified that authors like Thomas Pynchon and Italo Calvino have slipped into obscurity in favor of Hogwarts and Discworld.
Mr. Jones closes with the ultimate irony — babbling about Charles Bukowski, an author whom he’s just discovered. He misses the absurdity of elevating “the laureate of American lowlife” to a pantheon of untouchable, highbrow literature.
Here’s what Charles Bukowski would have to say — did say — about that:
“GRATE ART IS HORSESHIT, BUY TACOS.” (sic)
That’s from his poem “Artist,” from Love is a Dog from Hell. The poem mocks the idea of people fawning over artists whom they assume are geniuses because their work is inaccessible.
Great books must also be good books.
There’s a message here to authors. If you want to be remembered as well as Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Jane Austen, you’d better grab your readers like Terry Pratchett did.
(The image on this page is modified from “A Soap Box” by “Matt.” It is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.)
Let’s hear your take on this. What books have changed your life? Do you feel you should be reading more classics? Should popular books be taken more seriously? Tell me in the comments.