England is a land of snobs. Intellectual snobs, cultural snobs, or plain old social snobs: the place is riddled with them. So it’s a pity but perhaps not a surprise that when a truly popular literary figure appears, one well loved across the social and intellectual divides, the snobs can’t wait to pounce – even when it means dissing an Alzheimer’s sufferer.
Jonathan Jones, a regular literary critic for The Guardian in the UK, has just penned an attack on the legacy of Sir Terry Pratchett that is already attracting a fair amount of ire. “I have never read a single one of his books and I never plan to,” he states, which however useful the potted precis can be for saving a reader’s time, seems a pretty poor basis to gut an entire corpus. “In the age of social media and ebooks, our concept of literary greatness is being blurred beyond recognition,” he declares. “A middlebrow cult of the popular is holding literature to ransom.” And note, in passing, how easily Jones damns ebooks by association, as though Project Gutenberg wasn’t one of the best things to have happened to the classics in living memory.
“Actual literature may be harder to get to grips with than a Discworld novel, but it is more worth the effort,” Jones continues. “By dissolving the difference between serious and light reading, our culture is justifying mental laziness and robbing readers of the true delights of ambitious fiction.” Well, I miss in his screed a single attempt to define exactly what it is that sets literature apart from pulp or trash. Ideas? Imagination? Possibly prose, but Jones is hardly able to speak definitively on that as he confesses to only having skimmed one Pratchett “potboiler.” And if they’re so light and ephemeral, would it really cost him that much invaluable time to read through one? And if you’re not capable of defining, in concise and memorable prose, what distinguishes literature, are you really capable of pronouncing on it? Chesterton or Arnold could have managed it one pithy epigram, whereas all Jones seems able to do is vent spleen.
Jones, all in all, demonstrates beautifully that you don’t need to be American to have Franzenfreude. Highly hierarchical, undemocratic, elitist cliques, like the literary establishments of London and New York, seem well able to host it wherever their particular brand of overdeveloped entitlement and underdeveloped intellectual imagination and human understanding flourishes. In a country desperately short of broad readership and general culture, Pratchett actually dared to reach out and please a wide audience, and was loved for it in return. How unforgiveable.