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Terry Pratchett, Jane Austen, and the definition of literature

The definition of ‘literature’ is changeable, and inextricably linked with fashion. Pratchett image: EPA/Alessandro Della Bella. Austen image: Wikimedia Commons

Terry Pratchett, Jane Austen, and the definition of literature

Last month in The Guardian, with a piece headlined Get Real. Terry Pratchett is not a Literary Genius, literary critic Jonathan Jones claimed Terry Pratchett’s books should not be read, because they are not literature:

Everyone reads trash sometimes, but why are we now pretending, as a culture, that it is the same thing as literature? The two are utterly different.

Jones informed us that he hadn’t read anything by Pratchett, because his time was better spent reading Jane Austen. In presenting Pratchett and Austen as polar opposites, Jones made certain lazy assumptions about both the nature and function literature, which deserve to be challenged.

Jones’ article irritated many, and has drawn criticism for reinforcing an elitist and exclusionary definition of culture, based on the assumption that there is a singular definition of “literary” fiction independent of the reader’s individual experience of either life or reading.

Yet the definition of “literature” is changeable, and inextricably linked with fashion. As the author Christopher Priest has pointed out, works now considered classics were not necessarily defined as high culture when they were written, and works considered literary when published do not always survive over time.

Priest also observes that many classics began life as popular publications – the story of Americans waiting at the wharf to discover the fate of Little Nell springs to mind. What is missing from this debate is direct engagement with Pratchett’s work and its relation to literary high culture.

So what is high culture? And what do we mean when we call something “literary”? According to Jones, “actual literature” is “harder to get to grips with than a Discworld novel, but it is more worth the effort”.

As this definition is not particularly helpful, let us consider some characteristics commonly considered “literary”: the elegant and adventurous use of language, engagement with themes of universal significance, inventiveness of style, defiance of genre classification.

Jones accuses Pratchett’s prose of being “very ordinary”, missing Pratchett’s delight in locating the extraordinary within the ordinary: his writing is simultaneously clear and complex, much like Austen’s. Both are masters of aphorism; compare for example:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife (Austen, Pride and Prejudice).

To:

The presence of those seeking the truth is infinitely to be preferred to the presence of those who think they’ve found it (Pratchett, Monstrous Regiment).

Both are wry observations of human nature, and both make the reader stop and think.

Pratchett seldom allows language to exist unchallenged; words are stretched and twisted by new and surprising contexts, opening the reader’s eye to the arbitrary relation of signifier and signified, often eliciting surprised laughter.

The Truth (2000), the 25th Discworld novel, reflects on the meaning of “truth” and people’s propensity to look for it, structured around the aphorism that “a lie can run around the world before the truth has got its boots on”.

William, a compulsive truth-teller, sets up the first newspaper on the Discworld, and discovers that the truth is hard to find. He is horrified when readers assume everything printed in the paper is true, assuming “otherwise they wouldn’t let them put it in”.

The novel concludes with the statement that “nothing has to be true for ever. Just for long enough, to tell you the truth”. This challenges readers’ assumptions about objective truth, but positions it as ephemeral rather than non-existent.

Pratchett’s writing style is economical, elegant and adventurous. In The Truth, he takes the same approach to chapters as Joyce takes to punctuation in the final chapter of Ulysses (1918): he doesn’t use any. Instead, a multitude of episodic narratives fit together like scenes in a film, jumping between characters, location and time without losing the narrative thread.

The Truth begins by tracing a rumour flying through the city of Ankh-Morpork: “The dwarfs can turn lead into gold”. As different characters hear the rumour, (alchemists, wizards, thieves, the dwarfs themselves), the image of both city and world emerges. The rumour, like a panning camera, stops when it reaches William.

Pratchett’s work is often underestimated because it is classified as “genre fiction” rather than literary fiction. Yet Pratchett’s relationship with genre is complex and adversarial. He does not reproduce genre stereotypes, he sets them up to be deconstructed, or at least affectionately mocked.

Rincewind, the original Discworld hero, is represented as completely un-heroic: a cowardly wizard who cannot do magic, or, indeed, spell the word wizard. He is joined in his adventures by Cohen the Barbarian, now old, toothless and suffering from lumbago, who nevertheless is still a more successful hero than Rincewind.

Austen often flirts with genre in a similar way. Northanger Abbey (1817) is a mock-Gothic romance, which satirises the stereotypes of Gothic fiction by reproducing them and then allowing reality to intrude. The novel begins with a discourse on Catherine’s unsuitability as heroine, listing the characteristics one expects of heroines and locating their absence in Catherine.

When visiting Northanger Abbey, Catherine goes looking for manifestations of Gothic tropes, and is disappointed at every turn: the hidden papers she finds are laundry receipts, the old Abbey has been restored and redecorated, and her love-interest’s mother was not murdered, after all.

Austen’s novels are no harder or easier to read than Pratchett’s; both use wit and satire to carry out social critique, and in both cases people who don’t find them funny tend not to enjoy them.

Reading Pratchett, like reading Austen, requires commitment, and a willingness to look under the surface. It’s a shame Jonathan Jones was unable to do so before writing his follow-up article on Pratchett – for which he had, belatedly, read one book by the author – this past weekend.