Arts/Literature

ArtSunday: My Terry Pratchett Problem…the “there” there….

To paraphrase Jimi, there are writers – make that readers – I do not understand…

The Discworld Graphic Novels (The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic) by Terry Pratchett (image courtesy Goodreads)

I admit readily that I am no fan of science fiction and fantasy. I like Tolkien fine, but having read the Rings trilogy in college and The Hobbit my first year out of undergrad school for my first teaching job, I have felt absolutely no urge/desire/itch/yen to read those works again. During that same period of my life I read the Asimov Foundation trilogy, Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and Frank Herbert’s Dune, all at the behest of friends whose intelligence and taste I respect deeply. I found them interesting, as I find any well told story interesting, but I was not been inspired to read more by Asimov, Heinlein, or Herbert. See first sentence of paragraph.

Around the time that I read The Hobbit, I stumbled upon Phillip K. Dick (remember, I am not an activist sci-fi reader). I enjoyed Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – yet I have read no other Phillip K. Dick.

Later on younger friends whose intelligence and taste I respect pushed me to wrestle with one of sci-fi’s cousins, cyberpunk. I dutifully read Gibson’s Neuromancer and a story or two by Bruce Sterling. Interesting stuff – but, as you’ve guessed by now, I’ve read no more.

This is not true of a couple of other writers whose position in the science fiction pantheon seems to be argued about – as best I understand. I am a huge admirer of both Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury. I have read a number of titles by these authors and, in fact, have re-read Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle, and Breakfast of Champions as well as The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 more than once. But I hear murmurings – more than murmurings, actually – that Vonnegut and Bradbury aren’t “real” science fiction writers; the opinion seems to run along the lines of “they were really ‘literary’ aspirants using science fiction as a vehicle for their literary efforts.” I’m not at all sure why this is wrong, but this seems to be the gist of the complaint from science fiction purists.

Last year for the 2013 reading list, of course, I read Douglas Adams for the first time. I found his work charming – intelligent, funny, elegant, and absurdist in the best Monty Python sense. As I noted in my essay on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it was the most enjoyable science fiction I’d ever read.

I approached these novels by Terry Pratchett (full disclosure: I went in search of some Pratchett at my favorite used book store and this volume with the 1st two novels of the Discworld series in graphic novel form was what they were able to dig up for me) in the fulsome hope, based on the opinions of friends whose intelligence and taste I respect in the hope that Pratchett would make fantasy (another genre I feel no great attraction to) as enjoyable for me as Adams had made sci-fi.

Sigh.

Pratchett certainly has some wonderful moments, and his blending (as well as satire) of ancient creation myths, beliefs in necromancy, and consumer culture has some great moments – the lost luggage that literally follows Twoflower, Discworld’s first tourist, is a delightful running gag. And the send-ups of classic sword and sorcery works (i.e., Cohen the Barbarian, a wizened warrior in his dotage) are clever – if slightly obviously so.

But I found the works lacking somehow in ways that I didn’t find Hitchhiker’s Guide lacking.

Part of this, I think, may come from the format. My view of graphic novels is colored by a Boomer childhood reading DC and Marvel comics – and outgrowing them in early adolescence (I did have a brief fling with Tales From the Crypt at about 14). So I view “comic books” slightly askance – although having read a volume of American Beauty I see their value as an art form.

In this case, I don’t think Pratchett is particularly well served by the graphic artists. Other readers have noted this lack of wit in the artwork – it’s the typical sort of stuff in fantasy comics as best I can tell: characters are either comic such as the Wizard Rincewind and the tourist Twoflower (and, truth be told, Cohen) or escapees from a body builders’ gym  such as Hrun or predictable approximations of scary such as Death and Scrofula. The female characters are depicted in a highly sexist manner and all (except a couple of crones) are fantasy lit variations on Vargas girls. I don’t think this necessarily does Pratchett’s novels a service – I suspect somehow some of his satirical edge in, for example, making female characters predictably voluptuous but unpredictable personalities which would work to his advantage. Having them meet adolescent boys’ fantasies in appearance undercuts the writer’s aim here.

And there’s this, which I’m sure won’t make fans of Pratchett happy. A lot – too much – of the plot and characterization of The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic seem to me like the fantasy genre equivalents of Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, and Zaphod Beeblebrox. Maybe that’s coincidence – but the similarities struck me as oddly convenient, given that Pratchett’s works came in the wake of Adams’s success.

As a good friend and a loyal Pratchett fan told me when I expressed concerns about writing about these books because of these qualms, maybe part of my problem is that, as is the case with science fiction writers, a writer like Pratchett who creates an entire world and then a saga of its history is operating with a long view – true understanding of all that he’s trying to accomplish takes a commitment to reading several works to grasp his perspective. I hope I have admitted freely to my biases. And I intend to find and read at least another (or maybe one of these) Discworld novels in its true form to get a better sense of what Pratchett’s work really is.

I know that Pratchett is enormously popular and that his work is highly esteemed by many people, including, as I have noted, friends whose opinions I value highly.

But for now, for me at least, Adams work seems superior to me.

31 replies »

    • Well, nothing really to go on here about why I might be wrong, so, until you give me some more explanation, not much I can respond to – except to say “Oh, no, I’m not” or some such. Which gets us nowhere. So, c’mon, Terry, help me out here….

  1. I think one of the keys here may be that Discworld had to be adapted to make it into graphic novel form. Something happened in adaptation, it seems, that just didn’t work. I think that’s an unfortunate cost of putting some of these works into format like graphic novel or interactive fiction.

    • Exactly, Diana – one of the key points I’m trying to make. I think the issue here, based on conversations with friends (see above), is that this graphic format seems to do Pratchett’s work a disservice. But that raises the sticky question, for me at least, about why HE didn’t nix this until it met a suitable standard for him. A writer as revered as this owes readers some explanation. I read a couple of generally favorable reviews from reliable sources (Kirkus, for instance) as I wrote this – and both pointed at problems with the format distracting from or lessening the power of Pratchett’s narratives, though they praised Pratchett’s novels (though it seems they meant in their original form whether they meant to say so or not). The fault here seems to lie with Pratchett, a powerful author, not using his power to ensure quality control – which seems unfortunate – or worse, cavalier. Maybe he’d argue that he doesn’t take his work so seriously and neither should readers. Fair enough. Still, one wishes….

      • Perhaps? Part of what I was thinking, as well, when I wrote that is that Pratchett didn’t do the adaptation, and I’m not sure how much creative control he would’ve maintained in that case. What we’re seeing is not just someone else’s renderings of his scenes, settings, and characters in a graphic sense, but also someone else’s editorial decisions on what text makes it into the graphic novel version. I think that makes a difference.

        • Hmm. Well, the adaptations were done in 1992 – Pratchett was already pretty successful by then – but given that the original novels were done early in his career, maybe he didn’t have all the creative rights of use in his hands as happens with a writer’s early work sometimes. And I note that this edition is coming from HarperCollins, Murdoch’s company – and Murdoch isn’t known for treating his creatives well. But that’s only later. I wonder if this has to do with decisions Pratchett is making in terms of making money for his family given his health issues. Even the great ones have made financial decisions that they mightn’t have made given other circumstances (I’m thinking of, say, some of Olivier’s movie choices late in his life when he readily admitted he was doing it to provide for family). As I say, I plan to buy some Pratchett in its original form in order to give him a fairer comparison to Adams who was going from screenplay to novel, a chance to build in rather than cut out.

  2. While I have never seen these Graphic Novels, I would urge you to read ‘Guards Guards,’ ‘Equal Rites’ or ‘Mort’ before you make a judgement on Pratchett’s work. Pratchett’s first two Diskworld books are not written nearly as well as the later ones, and the universe wasn’t as well defined early on.

    I personally tell people to start with ‘Guards Guards,’ it is the beginning of the Ankh-Morpork or Watch series so very accessible, it is a later book so very well written and works well within the universe. You could also read one of the stand alone books, like ‘Small Gods,’ ‘Moving Pictures,’ or ‘Pyramids’ if you don’t want to get dragged into a series (although I don’t think any of those are the equal of ‘Guards Guards’).

      • Guards, Guards is indeed a great one.

        Not sure I’d advice you to start with the one-offs, though. While they’re certainly worthy, they also take you out of the magic of the continuity of the world’s development. I’d say start with the first book in one of the cycles – this one, for instance – and commit to reading three in sequence. The City Guard cycle is my favorite, but the Witches are awesome and the Wizards can be hysterical.

        For those who might be interested, here’s your chronology.

  3. Buying the Pratchett graphic novels without having read the original novels is rather like buying the Game of Thrones wall calendar and expecting it to give you a proper idea of what G.R.R. Martin’s writing is like. It’s just not going to work. It’s expecting far too much of the product.

    Additionally, the first two books were mostly written as decently clever, humorous exaggerations/parodies of the fantasy book explosion that came about in the wake of the popularity of Tolkien. The early books often have the plot and characters there mostly to serve the jokes, and Pratchett himself jokes that those characters and plots were written by a much less talented writer.

    He also has a lot to say in interviews about learning, later in his career, to be more discerning in who he sells movie and other development rights to and retaining control of some sort. He has said “no” to a lot of movie studios or said “no” enough that an adaptation of Mort, which sounds like it would have been unrecognizable if the moviemakers had their way, didn’t happen, even though they held rights in 1992.

    “A production company was put together and there was US and Scandinavian and European involvement, and I wrote a couple of script drafts which went down well and everything was looking fine and then the US people said ‘Hey, we’ve been doing market research in Power Cable, Nebraska, and other centres of culture, and the Death/skeleton bit doesn’t work for us, it’s a bit of a downer, we have a prarm with it, so lose the skeleton.’ The rest of the consortium said, did you read the script? The Americans said: sure, we LOVE it, it’s GREAT, it’s HIGH CONCEPT. Just lose the Death angle, guys.

    “Whereupon, I’m happy to say, they were told to keep on with the medication and come back in a hundred years.”
    —Terry Pratchett, alt.fan.pratchett

    The later books improve exponentially, by leaps and bounds, the characters and plots are much better and while still very funny, the jokes are there to enhance the plot and characters and are much more subtle than “Hey, look at this parody of the typical fantasy novel cover chick in a chainmail bikini”. I don’t think the graphic artist got the joke all the time.

    Being very partial to the Watch and Vimes, I also recommend Guards Guards as a great starting point. Mort also has flashes of the brilliance to come. Pratchett can literally make me laugh and cry in the same paragraph, sometimes the same line. He has a wonderful grasp of both human nature and the nature of politics, and even his Tiffany Aching novels, aimed at younger readers, do not talk down to the reader. By the time she’s a teenager, she’s dealing with some very adult and very dark problems, and yet, Pratchett’s writing is always, at heart, very hopeful and uplifting.

    I always tell people that if you only try one of the Discworld sub-series, you’re not giving Discworld a fair shake, either. Rincewind seems to be a “love him or hate him” character, with a lot of people who otherwise love Discworld not feeling so fond of the Rincewind books, so you might want to look in on one of the other sub-series even if you find you don’t like the first one you sample!

  4. Agree with Sam, Stacie – and Diana – and Drew – wonderful, thoughtful, helpful comments. I am NOT, as I have protested loud and long, much of a fan of this sort of stuff, but I will be digging further into Pratchett. Many thanks for your insights and recommendations.

    • That’s a point in favor of the Watch series if you’re not usually a traditional fantasy fan, then. The Watch books often make the more traditional fantasy setting almost incidental to the story. It’s there, but as Vimes is by nature pretty distrustful of magic (“It’s mystic. We don’t do mystic in the Watch.”) it’s not as front and center as it may be in some of the other books, even when “mystic” is happening to him.

      There may be trolls, dwarfs, werewolves, magic and zombies, but the stories are mostly about people being people even when they’re not the people you usually think of as people. It might also be a recommending point for the Tiffany Aching and the adult witches novels, too. Yes, the books revolve around witches, but to be honest, a lot of their lives are about NOT doing magic, instead doing the little needful things that get people by and taking responsibility for things when no one else will.

      Another soft spot I have for Pratchett is that even his secondary female characters are very well written and diverse, as noted above. To steal a lovely sentiment from a Tumblr post I once read, Pratchett’s wonderful because his writing shows that there’s no wrong way to be a strong woman. His marvelous ability to write happy and functional married couples is also on full display in the Watch series.

  5. I haven’t read the graphic adaptations, so I really can’t comment on those. This seems a fair & reasonable take on Pratchett. I had a similar problem with him when I first encountered him in the 90s, and it was the Colour of Magick and The Light Fantastic that caused me to have that reaction. A couple of years ago, I discovered that someone had left Hogfather on my shelf and decided to give him a second chance. I like it so much I spent the summer reading Pratchett. The quality of his work is uneven, and the books about the Wizards are some of my least favorite. I agree with the suggestion that you try Guards! Guards! I haven’t read every Pratchett, but I have read a lot of them. To me, the Watch series is his best work, and Feet of Clay, a later novel in that series, is his best book.

  6. Reblogged this on Sourcerer and commented:
    — Another fine Art Sunday post from scholar and rogue Jim Booth. This is one of the best regular features the blogosphere has to offer, and I enjoyed this week’s discussion thread as much as I did the post itself.

    • Many thanks, Gene’O, for the share – and for the very nice words about ArtSunday. And you’ve given me the most helpful (for me as reader) insight yet on the Pratchett oeuvre – seems I have a little shopping to do.

      • You’re very welcome. The thing he excels at is deconstructing both literary tropes and social issues taking a situation and pushing it to the point of absurdity, then spinning it into a serious, honest observation. I think he is more successful this in the Watch series than his other work, and it’s why I categorize him as more than your average genre writer. He’s satirizing high fantasy and police procedurals in those novels, but I think he’s also commenting seriously on things like how men and women interact, multiculturalism, machine politics, addiction, and all manner of human rights issues. He gets better at it in the later novels, which is not surprising since writers tend to improve with practice. I would say give the first two or three a shot, and they will tell you whether or not he’s interesting.

        • The city also provides the most obvious backdrop for much of his best cultural critique. For instance, he has novels devoted to the post office, the rise of journalism and the development of the Internet. Yes, I know, it’s a fantasy world. Trust me. But he’s also deft in how he handles the bucolic end of the city/country divide. There’s a remarkable humanity about the Granny Weatherwax (and later Tiffany Aching) series, and my guess is that he has a lot more female fans than your average fantasy writer as a result.

        • I think you’re probably correct about the female fans. He’s good at writing women. Have you read Monstrous Brigade? In addition to all that cultural stuff you mention, I would add post-Cold War society to the list. The thing he does with the evil empire breaking up and all the vampires and werewolves immigrating to the city and looking for jobs is just priceless (hopefully, that’s vague enough to not be a spoiler).

        • Of course I’ve read MB. It’s yet another example of how he takes what you expect and turns it on its ear. He’s absolute hell on stereotypes and conventions, which is one of the things I love about him. Come to think of it, that’s also one of the things I love about Christopher Moore, a writer who has a lot in common with Pratchett.

        • Christopher Moore is a personal favorite. I’ll bring you any of those books you want, Gene’O-I have most of them. Lamb was the first I read, and it’s still my favorite, although Fool is honestly one of the most imaginative re-tellings I’ve read.

        • Diana is right. FOOL is brilliant. LEAR reworked as a comedy with the fool as the central character. Inspired. SACRE BLEU is also a damned fine accomplishment.

  7. I can only second Stacie on her longer comment – Pratchett has visibly developed over the years of writing Discworld and you will find at least one or two major breaks in all of the series. The first ones are just mere comedy, absurdist and slapstick, and are very good at making fun of the fantasy genre ‘per se’ (you’ll notice a few allusions to Tolkien and other major fantasy writers and the wide range of fantasy troped he’s using) but when he started having real success he decided to not play the clown anymore …

    Discworld by now has become much more than satire, it’s “grown up” and may even include social criticism and debating such issues as gender equality and racism – yes, still in a fantasy framework but that doesn’t hindert it at all, imho.

    Kudos on reading some of the “classics” in the field of fantasy and sci-fi – you’ve been doig much better than many people I have heard not easily liking the genre. It’s always good to rest judgment on experience 🙂

    And yes, there are two or three great websites on Pratchett which will tell you all about reading orders, complexities of science, philosophy and religion as well as offer conventions where you can meet Death, Vimes and other characters. My favourite: Moist von Lipwig in my fav novel from Discworld, “Going Postal.” 🙂 [P.S.: It’s about the ‘internet’ coming to Ankh-Morpork.]

  8. You might want to take a listen to one of the audiobooks. In my view, they are superior to the written books. It’s the same for the Harry Potter books, and the All Creatures Great & Small books. Part of it has to do with the talent of the readers. The rest – well, I dunno. For Potter, it’s probably Jim Dale’s performance – I found the books second rate. At any rate, while is enjoyed my first exposure to Prachett’s writing, at this point I wait for the audiobook.

  9. Hitch-hikers was original written as a radio play, and for me the best way to truly appreciate the story.
    I am one of the woman fans of Pratchett and have read all of his books. I think you do need to read more of the series. My dad started with guards garlands then went on to the witches.
    having never seem one of the graphic novel a can not comment, however I don’t see the point apart for as a collectable.

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