Sunday, March 15, 2015

Thoughts on the Passing of a Giant

R.I.P. Sir Terry Pratchett.

Terry Pratchett was a genre writer. He entertained people. He could never win the Booker Prize, or the Pulitzer, or the Nobel, or much in the way of critical notice. All he ever did was write seventy or so books, become the second-most-popular author in the UK (after J. K. Rowling), be widely beloved by fans and admired by fellow scribblers, and leave a corpus of work that will surely be read--voluntarily! by non-academics!! for pleasure!!!--in a hundred years' time.

Genre writing is never intellectually respectable. It's popular. It's easily comprehensible. Perhaps worst of all, it's not modern; it's premodern, and in many cases antimodern. Fantasy, especially, is a throwback form of storytelling, tracing its ancestry straight back to the Iliad and Beowulf and the Morte d'Arthur. Modernism means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but one of those things is an explicit rejection of the "outmoded," the "traditional," and the "bourgeois." In the visual arts, that meant rejecting realism for abstraction. In writing, it went the opposite way: the hero's struggle was rejected in favor of what Michael Chabon has aptly dubbed "the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story".

Even the language is loaded. The adjective "modern" has connotations that are all positive. Its antonyms are words like "premodern", "antique", or just plain "old"--all negatively charged.

So we get a literary canon in which boring, ordinary people do boring, ordinary things, in a boring, ordinary setting, as a result of which nothing much happens. Books that violate those genre conventions are defined as Not Literature, don't win prizes, and don't enter the cultural conversation. Admit to liking this stuff, and you're instantly a plebeian--a mere escapist entertainment-seeker. Cultivate a lofty sneer, on the other hand, and you may be admitted to the club.

Maybe I'm too dumb to understand real literature. Maybe I'm too short on empathy. Maybe--OK, undoubtedly--my tastes are fundamentally adolescent. But I don't like it when the books that readers actually like are reflexively marginalized.

It matters, because reading matters--in a way that virtually nothing else does. And yet, as a friend of mine recently noted, the habit of reading is neither inevitable nor particularly natural. I don't think it's coincidence that a quarter of Americans don't read any books, or that pleasure reading peaks at age 13-16 and declines steadily thereafter. (Similarly, I don't think it's a coincidence that the years which saw the canonization of John Cage and Philip Glass and other "modern" composers saw the accelerating decline in the popularity of classical music, or that fewer and fewer people are looking at art nowadays.)

To their credit, a few people within the literary Establishment recognized just how good Sir Terry Pratchett was. On their behalf, and mine, and my friends', therefore, I say: fare thee well, good sir knight; your quest was a noble one, and it outlives you. And if there are any naysayers out there who want to show me the error of my ways, I'll be in the library, reading stories about heroes.

P.S. If you want to try Pratchett but aren't sure where to start, Guards! Guards! is a good place; it begins a wonderful sequence that continues with Men at Arms and Feet of Clay.

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