Friday, 21 October 2011
Snuff, Terry Pratchett and literature
My blogging has been curtailed this last two weeks because, first Lois, and then me, have been struck by a virus that likes to camp out in your sinuses and generally make life miserable. If that wasn’t enough, we have also had the decorator in. The combination of inflamed nasal passages and assault by strange paint fumes definitely subdues the creative urge.
To the rescue comes Terry Pratchett in the form a new novel, “Snuff”. As it happens I accidentally ordered the audio book rather than the hardback, or possibly Amazon accidentally sent me that version. Either way it is something of a godsend because reading with your sinuses blocked and your eyes streaming is no fun.
I can’t as yet make any sort of proper critical assessment of the story, because the disadvantage of the audio book is that it is easy to fall asleep while it is playing, especially if you have your eyes closed. No one has yet made the Iphone app that stops the playback when the listener starts snoring. How hard can it be? This means that despite listening to ‘Snuff ‘on and off for four or five days I have still not heard it from end to end in sequence.
Whilst this is unusual, it has some advantages. Losing the plot makes one notice the actual writing, the turns of phrase, gems of description and so on. This should come as no surprise I guess, because every creative writing class I’ve attended always dealt with extracts of books when discussing technique and style. It is all too easy to dismiss Terry Pratchett as a rather successful comedy fantasy writer who has been very prolific and generated many fans, but because the books are full of Trolls, Dwarfs, Dragons, and in this case Goblins, they are somehow not literature.
This is nonsense and most probably a temporary position in the long evolution of the subject. No one suggests that Gulliver's Travels is some sort of silly fantasy novel, not to be taken seriously. Gulliver visited imaginary lands with imaginary species, not quite the disc world, but not a lot different. Orwell's Animal Farm sets the book on what is presumed to be Earth, but the animals talk and behave in ways that we know animals do not. Again, this is not widely regarded as a trivial book. Alice in Wonderland and its sequel are sometimes thought of as children's books, but never dismissed as trivial.
What do these authors do? They set up an invented world in order to focus on the relationships and scenarios between the key players. The dialogue and management of situations is used to get the messages across. What does Pratchett do? He sets his books on an imaginary world where the play of situations and characters makes the point. On top of that, he manages to produce endearing characters with whom vast audiences have an emotional attachment and hence has created a market for sequel after sequel. In his books, he tackles issues such as class prejudice, racism, misuse of power, foolish management, and many others. He addresses the human condition, both individually and as human societies. On top of that, he writes astonishingly well, and he is funny; maybe that's a crime to the literati, though that accusation is not levelled at Swift or Carroll.
Pratchett is often very economical in his use of words, capturing the essence of a scene simply by triggering the imagination of the reader. "Miss Beadle led the way into a room in which chintz played a major part." Do you need an elaborate description of the room in order to have a picture of the room in your mind?
Here is Pratchett, through a character, being tongue in cheek about the writing craft, "one day I thought, how hard can it be? After all most of the words are going to be and, the and I and it, and so on, and there's a huge number to choose from, so a lot of the work has already been done for you."
In Snuff, he develops the Goblins as characters, using them to explore a number of aspects of racial prejudice. Much of the language used by the oppressors could be taken straight from the concept of manifest destiny that was used to exterminate the Red Indians, or the sort of things that were said about Aboriginals in Australia or used to defend Apartheid. Pratchett goes further, the goblins say little, but when they do speak, he gives their speech a unique cadence, so that not only do you know when a goblin is speaking, but you have to concentrate. Too much of this would be a bore, so it is used very sparingly, and hence is even more effective. How many writers can say that you can tell which of their characters is talking, simply from the way the words work.
"Wonderful is good," said the goblin girl, as though tasting every word. "Gentle is good, the mushroom is good. Tears are soft. I am tears of the mushroom, this much is now said." The character comes straight off the page.
Of course he can make the language funny too "She's got me marked down for balls, dance, dinners and, oh yes soirées,' he finished, in the tones of a man genetically programmed to distrust any word with an acute accent in it." Again, it is economic, but there is no doubt, along with the laugh, that you know the man.
I appreciate that I may be in an abnormal suggestible and emotional state, in that this ‘Snuff’ has rescued me from three days of feeling miserable and bored and unable to breathe properly, but I'm still pretty sure that this book, like so many other Pratchett novels could just as easily be classified as literary fiction as fantasy. Surely, it is time to wake up and realise that Pratchett is very much a political, and managerial satirist – a commentator on modern life, using an important literary tradition of an imaginary world as the vehicle.
Of course, in that tradition, Pratchett has gone too far, writing more than fifty books, and producing endearing characters that people want to hear more of, hardly 1984. Alice did at least have a sequel, but there does not seem to be have been much demand for the further adventures on Animal Farm or Gulliver’s next voyage. On the other hand, I suppose that if word got around that Pratchett, despite his knighthood, is not a pillar of society, but is in fact a subversive political satirist putting forward an egalitarian liberal philosophy, he’d probably never sell another book.