A writer of great literature, or just a great writer?

Today, an article was published in The Guardian written by Jonathan Jones, an arts correspondent. I’m not going to link to it, because I don’t want to increase that man’s hit count but you should read it, just to see how ridiculous this man is.

In brief, The Shepherd’s Crown was published this week. This is Terry Pratchett’s posthumous novel, the last in the Tiffany Aching series. I have read it and, although I wouldn’t rank it as one of my personal favourites due to MASSIVE SPOILERS, it is a good Pratchett book. It deals with death, and what happens to the living once somebody you love has died. It talks about how to forge your own path when you live under the shadow of somebody great. It shows the importance of accepting the faults of others, and how sometimes you have to learn to band together, even with people who irritate you, when a bigger threat occurs. It’s also about six inch blue men who like thievin’, fightin’ and drinkin’, Horace The Cheese, a Lancre Blue who has a very vicious streak indeed and the importance of garden sheds. It is, in fact, very much a Pratchett novel

I read the first few chapters through blurry vision, crying as much for the death of an author I loved as for the death of the character that he decided to let go. I’m biased, I know. I love his work. I have since I was thirteen. His work varies in quality – there is a Golden Age of Pratchett, coming after the first few where he was cutting his teeth and before the later books, where he was writing in a different style, either deliberately or because of the “embuggerance”, the variation of Alzheimer’s disease that robbed us of him. I’m not a fan of the later works, particularly – I’m not really fond of Moist von Lipwig, if I’m to be honest. I’m a Golden Age girl, and always will be. My personal favourite is Lords and Ladies, although I’m always up for a bit of Soul Music. I prefer my Sam Vimes in Guards, Guards! than in Snuff, but I also like the books that seem to be out of continuity, like Small Gods.

I will, however, take one of his works that I’m not so fond of over any other writer in the genre, though. I love him and his books that much.

That’s just me, however. That’s my opinion. You’re allowed not to like him. You’re allowed to have read one or two of his books and thought, “Sorry, not for me.” That’s fine. That’s what it should be like. Everyone is entitled to their honest, informed opinion.

But writing an article for a newspaper – a big newspaper, one of Britain’s best sellers – saying that Pratchett is not a good writer, that the fans that mourn his death are venerating somebody who doesn’t write great literature when you haven’t read one of his books yourself is just not on. If Jonathan Jones had read a book and disliked it, that would be fair. But he hasn’t. He says so in the very first paragraph of his article!

How can you criticise a book – or over forty, actually – if you haven’t bothered to read one? Can you do that? Can I write an article criticising, oh, I don’t know, a series of paintings by an artist that I haven’t bothered to view myself? Of course not. It’s the same as saying “I hate chocolate ice cream” when you’ve never tasted it. It’s stupid, and beneath somebody who claims to be educated.

Because Jonathan Jones is educated, you know. In the article he goes to great length to point out that he knows what Great Literature is, because he’s just finished Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. Austen wrote Great Literature, Jones assures us. Why on earth are people mourning Pratchett and claiming that he is a modern day genius when there are people like Austen around, creating books like Mansfield Park?

Oh dear, Mr Jones. Oh deary, deary me. And probably lawks.

Let’s start with the fact that nobody ever sits down to create Great Literature. Writers write to tell a story. Some writers, like Austen (and Pratchett) use satire as a method to tell their story. Some writers, like Austen (and Pratchett) use humour to tell their story. Some writers, like Austen (and Pratchett) attack commonly held ideas about how society works, and how people are unfairly treated. They shine a light into dark areas. They hold a mirror up to the world. And, if they’re Pratchett, they make us laugh as they make us open our minds. Oh, wait, Austen did that too.

Silly me. As a Pratchett fan, I can’t possibly understand how Great Literature works.

But when Austen sat down to write Pride and Prejudice or any of her great works, she didn’t know she was writing Literature, with a capital L. No other writer did either. Let’s be honest, when Shakespeare was banging out hit after hit for the Globe, it’s not like it crossed his mind that half a millennium later teenagers would be trying to puzzle out the dirty jokes in Romeo and Juliet under orders from the Department for Education.

It’s other people who make stories into Literature, not the writers. It’s the fans, and the critics, and the teachers who put the books onto school and university syllabuses.  It’s the people who won’t shut up about how great this writer is. It’s the other writers who have been influenced by them.

If a writer can make a story speak to people, even people born long after they themselves have died, that makes it Literature.

I think that Jonathan Jones picked an Austen book as an example of great Literature because he gets to show that he’s a modern, enlightened man if he picks a book by a female author. What a shame he chose Jane Austen, because I think that if she was alive today to read the article, she’d be quickly creating a character for her next satire; that of an arts critic who writes pompously and scathingly about an author he proudly admits to never reading. Actually, I take that back  – I’m not sure she’d take something handed to her so easily. Jonathan Jones has made himself too easy a target.

It’s the ultimate irony- in showing his proud Literature credentials, Jonathan Jones reveals himself to be clueless about the author he holds up to be a master of the genre.

I think that she’d be howling with laughter about this ridiculous article. I think Pratchett would find it amusing, too.

So no, Jonathan Jones, when people think of the canon of English Literature, most people wouldn’t put Pratchett there with Austen, or Swift, or Pope. The thing is, though, when Austen, Swift and Pope were writing, they weren’t considered great writers of Literature either. That’s what time is for.

Come back in a hundred years, and we’ll see where history ultimately lands on where it puts Terry Pratchett – beloved comic fantasy writer and satirist, or guilty of committing acts of great English Literature.

I know where I put him, though, and I suspect it’s where his millions of devoted fans put him too – on their bookshelves, and in their hearts. And at the end of the day, I suspect I know where he would have wanted to end up.

One thought on “A writer of great literature, or just a great writer?”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s