Terry Pratchett (1948–2015)

It must have been somewhere around 1984 or 1985, and it must have been in Kevin’s bedroom, one lunch time or after school, that there was an advert in a computer magazine for The Colour of Magic (1983). Maybe it was a bit later and it was The Light Fantastic (1985). At some point I bought both — I suspect at a long-lost sf and gaming shop in the Broadmarsh Centre — and read and enjoyed, although I preferred the novel to what was effectively a few novellas. I bought each paperback as it came out and, in 1989 in Leeds at a convention, had the slightly embarrassing experience of queueing up to get an already-signed copy of Mort (1987) signed by Pratchett. I had found copies of The Dark Side of the Sun (1976) and Strata (1981) in the local library and read them — indeed I bought the latter when the library sold it.

At some point in the early 1990s I went to a conference on Mikhail Bakhtin in Sheffield, and sat there wondering why no one was talking about Pratchett and Death. Eventually, this turned into an article for Foundation (“Terry Pratchett and the Comedic Bildungsroman” (1996)), which I was never quite sure whether was a parody of an academic or serious. As if there’s a difference. In time, Farah Mendlesohn, Edward James and I edited a collection of essays on Pratchett for FoundationGuilty of Literature (2001), which was nominated for a best-related book Hugo, and when I started writing books for Pocket Essentials it was one of the ideas I pitched. That was a fun summer or autumn, reading the novels one by one, made weirder by receiving a missive from Colin Smythe.

It had come to someone’s attention that I was writing a biography of Pratchett and people were somewhat aghast that I hadn’t spoken to anyone more than remotely connected to Pratchett. I pointed out that this was a work of criticism — which wasn’t actually reassuring to all parties, but it was hoped that it would be better than the one that three people had edited a couple of years earlier. Coughs quietly. And indeed, I was led to believe that a biography might not be objected to — although I presumed that most of it would be about someone sat at a keyboard. I was invited to visit Colin Smythe and picked up from the station by a large expensive car, and was lent a copy of the book that was going to come out just as we went to press.

At that point I had OD’ed on the novels. At some point I wrote a piece on Only You Can Save Mankind (1992) in relation to other virtual reality war novels — “’We Has Found the Enemy and They Is Us’: Virtual War and Empathy in Four Children’s Science Fiction Novels” (The Lion and the Unicorn (2004) 28(2)) — and I was commissioned to edited a book on Pratchett for Greenwood Press, An Unofficial Companion to the Novels of Terry Pratchett (2008), which damn near killed me. Certainly I could have done without an all-night proof read of the galleys putting right the errors introduced into the manuscript. And I learned — as I had with the Pocket Essentials — that some of Pratchett’s readers don’t like anything other than absolute praise. OK, sobeit: He was the finest comic writer of the last thirty years. But sometimes he nodded.

This is going to go on, but here are two parts of the intro to the Greenwood volume. I’m not sure I ever read Making Money, but I will and no doubt will be lured back to read him. Just because you love a writer’s work, doesn’t mean that it can’t be criticised.

Since 1983, Terry Pratchett has been writing novels set on the Discworld, a flat world bathed in magic, resting on the backs of four elephants, themselves stood upon top of a turtle, the Great A’Tuin, which is swimming through space. These novels have brought pleasure to millions. He is now the number two living British novelist in terms of sales, beaten only by J.K. Rowling and her seven novels featuring the child wizard-in-training Harry Potter. This best-selling status has led some reviewers to be rather prejudiced against his work, dismissing it with much of the rest of fantasy, the genre to which most of his novels clearly belong. The fact that the novels are also comedies does not help their critical reputation, as to take them seriously might be to miss or spoil the jokes, and to appear too po-faced.

There have been a number of attempts to critique his work, but Pratchett remains ambivalent about reviewers, critics and academic writers, even though in most cases they (we) are dedicated and loyal readers of his work. Terry Pratchett: Guilty of Literature (2001, 2004) brought together revised versions of essays by a leading science fiction critic, John Clute, and myself, along with a number of new essays, under the editorship of Edward James, Farah Mendlesohn and I. This was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Related Work […]. In his forewords to both the editions of Guilty of Literature, David Langford describes his attempt to produce a pamphlet about Pratchett for a series of editors for the ‘Writers and their Work’ series published by the British Council, before the project finally sank without trace. Pratchett was never quite respectable enough. But there have been other articles, including some in academic journals, a section of reprints in Contemporary Literary Criticism (2005) and various B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. theses.

[…]

[After Strata] Pratchett switched his target of parody from science fiction to fantasy, inventing the template for the Discworld series beginning with The Colour of Magic (1982). Colin Smythe was able to interest Diane Pearson at Corgi in a paperback edition, and she sold radio adaptation rights to BBC Radio 4. This publicity started the ball rolling, and Pratchett was finally on his way to overnight success; a direct sequel, The Light Fantastic (1986) followed. He could soon afford to finally become a full-time novelist. But the Discworld sales were proving too big for Colin Smythe Ltd to handle,
so a deal was struck with Gollancz to co-publish further volumes: Equal Rites (1987) – now serialised on Woman’s Hour – Mort (1987) and Sourcery (1988). At this point, Smythe moved from being Pratchett’s publisher to acting as his agent. Gollancz contracted Pratchett to write six more novels, which he produced at a rate of more than one a year. Sales increased with each new book.

In interviews through the late 1980s, Pratchett kept saying that he could not keep writing the Discworld series indefinitely. The adventures of the wizard Rincewind of the early novels had been set aside for a novel about Eskarina Smith, Granny Weatherwax and the other Wizards, starting a sequence of novels that focused on witches. A novel that featured the recurring cameo character of Death as a central figure – Mort – started a sequence about Death and a novel about the City Watch of Ankh-Morpork started another featuring Samuel Vimes and his men. But he also took time away from the series to write the Bromeliad trilogy (1989–1990) for children, The Unadulterated Cat with Gray Jolliffe (1989) and Good Omens (1990) with Neil Gaiman, the latter being produced to experiment with the modems both had bought for their computers. A second children’s sequence – the Johnny Maxwell Trilogy – was published in 1992–1996. More recently, the Tiffany Aching books (2003–) for children have formed a new sequence, and the novel featuring the conman and fraudster Moist von Lipwig, Going Postal (2004), is to be followed by his experiences in banking Making Money (2007).

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