|SFX magazine column by David Langford: issue #37, April 1998|
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It is well known in literary circles that this horrid sf and fantasy stuff can't be Real Literature. Even if it looks exactly like sf, true literati can tell when it isn't – using the same rule as Anthony Burgess when long ago he reviewed a work of unashamed sf. See the Burgessometer in action as he examined Brian Aldiss's Enemies of the System: 'it contrives to be rich, allusive, full of real people and unfailingly interesting. It is not, then, real SF.'
Or, as Robert Conquest's famous couplet goes:
'SF's no good!' they bellow till we're deaf ;
'But this looks good....' 'Well then, it's not SF.'
According to the official rules, Terry Pratchett can't be any good because his books are best-sellers with comic covers. This was the critical insight of Robert McCrum, who in a recent Sunday newspaper explained that of course he'd never read a Pratchett book, since he could detect (probably by telepathy) that the author was a nerdy writer of commercial garbage. So why on Earth, McCrum wondered, were his literary friends constantly recommending these appalling novels to him? This is what distinguishes topnotch literary journalism from criticism in low rags like this one. SFX, in its hopelessly old-fashioned way, expects reviewers to read the books before slagging them off.
Shed a tear for poor Mr Pratchett, eternally beyond the pale, consoled only by enormous sales ... But, gentle readers, he almost made it! I was an interested bystander as, in recent months, Terry's works very nearly became Literature.
In Britain the official stamp of Literature is conferred by the British Council's high-class series of critical texts called 'Writers and their Work'. Only properly literary authors need apply. As the biblical saying goes, it is easier for Jabba the Hutt to pass through the eye of a needle than for a fantasy writer to enter the British Council's pantheon.
However, exceptions are made. J.R.R. Tolkien finally attained the respectability of this series in Summer 1995. It's not necessary to have been dead for decades, either: also in 1995, the British Council seal of approval went to a fantasy novelist called Salman Rushdie.
You could have knocked me down with a slim volume of modern literary criticism when the Advisory Editor of the 'Writers and their Work' series – let's call him Dr X – wrote last year to ask whether I'd care to contribute a book about ... Terry Pratchett.
Wonderful vistas of academic possibility began to open up. I imagined glittery chapter headings like 'Deconstructing Rincewind: The Aesopian Figure of Coward as Hero' ... 'New Labour and the Policies of Lord Vetinari' ... 'Granny Weatherwax: Exemplar of Post-Pre-Feminist Political Discourse, or Just Plain Ornery?'
Our author himself was unconvinced that a Pratchett critical monograph could ever make it through the glass ceiling of literary snobbery. 'My fairly confident bet is that this will wither away ...' was his e-mailed prediction.
Dr X, though, expressed enthusiasm about my book proposal, literary CV, and sample Pratchett critiques (including the Encyclopedia of Fantasy entry) and sent it all on with a 'strong recommendation'. Just where he sent it is uncertain, since next came a welcoming letter from the awesome General Editor of 'Writers and their Work' – let's call her Professor Y – who duly asked for my proposal, CV and sample critiques.
Aeons passed, with reassuring e-mail from Dr X saying things like 'Bear in mind that this is academic publishing at a scholarly pace, i.e. we've yet to hit the real world. All will be well.' More wonders of academic communication were revealed when I finally heard from the actual publisher – let's call him Supreme Being Z – who hadn't seen and therefore wanted copies of my proposal, my CV, my sample critiques ...
Since we were now discussing a real draft contract already signed by Supreme Being Z, it seemed that Terry's entry into the world of real literature was assured. Whoopee! Unfortunately the next thing to arrive, after another long gap, was a dismal letter from Professor Y saying that 'there has been a policy change' and that 'the general direction of the series' was suddenly headed away from the hideous possibility of a Pratchett study. There was also a hint that despite approval from academics and publishers, it's the political appointees who have the veto: 'We have to work with the British Council ...'
So Terry wins his bet, and all I can say to him – in my sober, academic way – is 'Nyahh, nyahh, nyahh, you're not Literature.'
David Langford is even less likely to become Literature.
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