Critical Criticism

September 3, 2015

Earlier this year, an English author called Terry Pratchett passed away from Alzheimer’s disease. Pratchett was a well-loved fantasy writer responsible for a series called Discworld. He also cowrote the novel Good Omens with Neil Gaiman, which is one of my favorite books and was my introduction to Gaiman’s writing. I have yet to read another book by Pratchett, but I own one and fully intend to.

His final novel in the Discworld series, The Shepherd’s Crown, was released on August 27th. The truth is I’ll probably never read it. But for fans and friends of Pratchett alike, such a release is an opportunity to say goodbye to a writer they loved, and for their sake I hope it brings a satisfying measure of closure.

I wasn’t even aware of this release until, by way of Twitter, I came across this opinion piece in The Guardian, which is my real reason for writing about Pratchett’s final novel. Its author argues that the veneration given to Pratchett is misplaced, that whatever love people have for his writing reflects middling taste more than anything else. Here’s the juicy quote:

I don’t mean to pick on this particular author, except that the huge fuss attending and following his death this year is part of a very disturbing cultural phenomenon. In the age of social media and ebooks, our concept of literary greatness is being blurred beyond recognition. A middlebrow cult of the popular is holding literature to ransom.

Bad Argument is Bad

This is a hot take, particularly using the word “disturbing” in this context, but it’s not an altogether uncommon one. People love to reminisce about the good old days and declare the present era of art or dating or whatever culturally or morally bereft. It’s a variation of the argument I criticized earlier this summer when a local writer referred to people using streaming music services like Spotify and Pandora as participants in a “gentrification of the mind.”

I’m unconvinced that people’s tastes are getting collectively dumber or worse over time, but here’s what elevates the piece from your run-of-the-mill hot take into wet, steaming garbage. Another quote:

No offence, but Pratchett is so low on my list of books to read before I die that I would have to live a million years before getting round to him. I did flick through a book by him in a shop, to see what the fuss is about, but the prose seemed very ordinary.

Bad Argument is Bad, Gets Worse

Your eyes do not deceive. The writer of the opinion piece linked above has declared that Terry Pratchett’s writing is not REAL literature without reading it. Why? Because he says so, I guess. He offers examples of better writers–Jane Austen, Gabriel García Márquez–but apart from skimming a few pages how would he know?

He can’t, of course, but he sees fit to attempt doing so anyway.  This is kind of nonsense makes art criticism irritating when it ought to aim for enlightenment. If criticism had some sort of empirical objectivity, it might be easier to tolerate, but it doesn’t. Underneath any pretense about objectivity, the analysis comes down to whether a reviewer does or does not like something, which is not at all the same as saying it is definitively good or bad.

And that’s fine! But we should understand the limits of criticism, and it does us no favors when a critic speaks in absolutist fashion. It reminds me of the scene in Dead Poets Society where the students’ text book explains the precise way to measure the value of a piece of poetry. I invite you to watch that now.

A piece of poetry, according to the textbook, should be judged based on how it scores on its “perfection” in the use of language and the “importance” of its subject. In other words, we must rate the objective value of something using two subjective measures. This is very dumb, which Robin Williams’ character helpfully addresses.

The reason the mentality in The Guardian piece is harmful is that it locks doors without considering what’s behind them. Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude became a classic because people read it and shared it. The author of the post laments that it took him so long to read Austen’s Mansfield Park, but he made himself get around to it because of his belief that it was important to do so. Terry Pratchett’s writing may or may not have the longevity or enduring importance of these other writers, but that will be determined by those who actually read it.

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