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An unhappy muggle!
July 31, 2005 4:29 AM   Subscribe

Terry Pratchett isn't a happy muggle! In a letter to the Sunday Times, Pratchett's had a go at the media for 'the continued elevation of JK Rowling at the expense of other writers'. The letter appears to be in response to a Sunday Times article from last week (sorry, archived) and possibly this article in Time magazine.

I agree that JK has had significantly more press in the last few years than any other author. I'm a Pratchett fan, however, I suspect her success is down to a mix of good marketing and the simple truth that Harry Potter is (and don't shout at me), slightly less geeky and more accessible than the Discworld series. Although I wouldn't be too surprised if, eventually, the streets of Ankh Morpork are alive with “knights and ladies morris-dancing to Greensleeves"...
posted by Nugget (101 comments total)

 
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posted by RavinDave at 4:40 AM on July 31, 2005


Not really related to Pratchett, but reading the linked times article, I was stunned to see
"It's precisely Rowling's lack of sentimentality, her earthy, salty realness, her refusal to buy into the basic clichés of fantasy, that make her such a great fantasy writer. The genre tends to be deeply conservative--politically, culturally, psychologically. It looks backward to an idealized, romanticized, pseudofeudal world, where knights and ladies morris-dance to Greensleeves. Rowling's books aren't like that".

This view strikes me as utter hogwash. I too went off fantasy, (for some of the same reasons), but Harry Potter is if anything, even more dripping with nostalgia for a world that never was. Everything from the quant idealised old school traditions and uniforms, journey by steam train to boarding school for term, to the use of quills, everything, everything looks backwards to an idealized romanticized oldworld, to an extent that equals or exceeds the most cliche fantasy books. (And I've read a few).

(This kind of rubs salt in a wound, because I've known for some time I would enjoy Harry Potter more if it was less cloyingly pseudo-nostaligic)
posted by -harlequin- at 4:50 AM on July 31, 2005


I find this all highly ironic. Pratchett's scribblings are among the most tedious, unamusing, moribund dross in the genre.
posted by PurpleJack at 5:00 AM on July 31, 2005


One thing I love about the blue - You can always find someone who can carry on at length about hating absolutely anything under the sun, and always loathing the appropriate topic to the utter depths of their soul...
posted by Samizdata at 5:07 AM on July 31, 2005


Reg-free BBC link to the main story.

I'd agree with PurpleJack to some extent, when it comes to his later books at least - except that "Going Postal" is one of the deepest, funniest, most insightful books in the genre I've ever read.

Hell, I even enjoy "Small Gods" more each time I read it - and that was one I thought sucked mightily the first time...
posted by Pinback at 5:12 AM on July 31, 2005


The area you wish to access is behind registration.

I'm guessing this is the letter to the Times? Shouldn't need to register, but if there are a lot of problems I can post the full text - it's not a long letter. Thanks for the BBC link Pinback, appreciate it.


Pratchett's scribblings are among the most tedious, unamusing, moribund dross in the genre.


I'll politely disagree - I find Pratchetts writing far more insightful and relevant than Harry Potter, in part due to the same opinions that harlequin put forward. I stopped reading fantasy (apart from Pratchett), until recently and am still trying to find an author that ignites my imagination in the same way. The Harry Potter series certainly didn't do it. Jasper Fforde's my current reading, and if you've any recommendations I'd love to hear them..
posted by Nugget at 5:16 AM on July 31, 2005


Prachett had a fair point about the media's denigration of all other fantasy writers to Rowling's benefit, but lost the moral high ground when he went for the cheap shot against Rowling herself the second paragraph.

He can be bitter all he likes that his work is being painted by a particular tar brush, but as soon as he resorts to talking smack about the other subject of the review, he takes on a faint, but distinct, odor of sour grapes.
posted by headspace at 5:19 AM on July 31, 2005


(Thanks for the alternate links)

I was dragged kicking and screaming into the Rowling world. The media hype that Prachett blames for lionizing Rowling is (ironically) exactly what kept me away from her; so it cuts both ways. But once I made the plunge I was utterly charmed and absorbed by both the movies and the books.

I'm glad you guys told me Prachett is famous. I've never heard of him.
posted by RavinDave at 5:30 AM on July 31, 2005


looking through the local barnes and noble there seems to have been a remarkable expansion of fantasy books for children in the last few years ... does pratchett really think that people read nothing else while waiting for the next harry potter book to come out? ... for a few weeks people are going to talk about nothing else than rowling's new book ... and then they're going to say, "what else can i read that'll be like that?"

the fantasy field needed something like this to come along and will be stronger for it
posted by pyramid termite at 5:38 AM on July 31, 2005


Samizdata : "One thing I love about the blue - You can always find someone who can carry on at length about hating absolutely anything under the sun, and always loathing the appropriate topic to the utter depths of their soul..."

You love that? Because I absolutely hate that. I loath it to the utter depths of my soul.
posted by Bugbread at 5:54 AM on July 31, 2005


pyramid termite hit the nail on the head. Fantasy readers new and old needed a shake up and Rowling provided the prod that many need to get into or back into the genre. As for being unfamilar with Prachett if anyone has access to the alt binaries news groups many of his works are posted in mp3 format for hours of great listening on your players.
posted by bjgeiger at 6:23 AM on July 31, 2005


Wow, now that is sour grapes.
posted by caddis at 6:33 AM on July 31, 2005


I find Pratchetts writing far more insightful and relevant than Harry Potter

Isn't that saying something like "I find John Grisham's writing far more hard-hitting and challenging than Judy Blume's"?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:53 AM on July 31, 2005


Of course, I'm sure there's a lot of fantasy writers who are hugely pissed off at all the attention Pratchett gets at their expense, given that his books are more pastiches and parodies of the genre than whole-hearted fantasy novels themselves...

(For some reason, he feels a need to attack Rowling for a mis-characterisation of the genre that was perpetrated by the journalist who wrote the article - who clearly doesn't know what they're talking about.)

Sour grapes and bitching from the guy who's sold 40 million books toward the lady who's sold nearly 300 million. Perspective's a funny thing.
posted by flashboy at 6:55 AM on July 31, 2005


I've long thought of Pratchett in the same mental breath as guys like Douglas Adams and John Cleese -- somebody who is so obviously talented and funny that it hardly needs justification. I realized, about five years ago, that I'd never read a book by him, and had developed this opinion through cultural osmosis.

Excited by the world of literary possibilities opened to me but this realization, I picked up "Good Omens," his collaborative novel with Neil Gaiman.

I can't believe I wasted four hours of my life on that book. It was the most tired, cliche-ridden, predictable tripe that I'd read since Terry Jones' "Starship Titanic," which was worse in that it besmirches the good name of Douglas Adams. I was perhaps more annoyed with Gaiman for "Good Omens," because I know that he knows better.

I haven't read anything by Pratchett since. I have, however, read the first few books in the Potter series, and I adore them. If Pratchett thinks that his (highly relative) lack of success is to be blamed on Rowling, he might want to take a step back and reassess the literary landscape and his position in it.

</bitter>
posted by waldo at 7:40 AM on July 31, 2005


I'm with flashboy: I'm sure there are more than a few fantasy authors who'd say similar things about Pratchett.
posted by mcwetboy at 7:52 AM on July 31, 2005


he takes on a faint, but distinct, odor of sour grapes

I respectfully disagree. I think the entire thing reeks of nothing but sour grapes. It's pathetic to see someone as successful as Pratchett whining like that. I've never read any of his books, and this certainly doesn't increase the likelihood that I will. (I'm not saying this as a Rowling fan; I tried the first HP book and found it OK kiddie-lit but not something whose sequels I needed to read.)
posted by languagehat at 7:56 AM on July 31, 2005


I liked Good Omens.
posted by Arch Stanton at 8:06 AM on July 31, 2005


Pratchett thinks that his (highly relative) lack of success...

Okay, Terry Pratchett, here in the US, is a moderatly successful, but by no means huge, author.

Terry Pratchett, in the UK, is a different story. There, you find his books in the front of the store. Every time. He's huge -- indeed, I would be surprised to find that Rowling has outsold Pratchett in the UK, given the number of works that he's sold. (Worldwide, JKR wins by a good amount.)

Rowling has been huge in the US, though, where Pratchett has only reached a decent level of sales. The stories of Scholastic basically freaking out when the sales started rolling in, and the effect this had on every other publisher in the country, as Scholastic started to buy every bit of press time they could get, were amusing.

I'm unable to read his letter at the moment, but I'm suprised by the percieved tone. I can see him giving grief to the UK press, who brushed off his books as tripe (while everyone in the land was buying them) but then treats JKR as some sort of Goddess of Literature. But the tone that you guys are seeing is very unlike the man I know.

I'll find the letter and talk to a few people in Scotland next week (inculding Terry himself, if he's not swamped -- very possible) and see just what the hell's up. This seems very much at odds with the guy I've met before.
posted by eriko at 8:21 AM on July 31, 2005


Terry Pratchett came along (quite by accident!) to my 18th birthday bash. He brought along a handy briefcase of fine liquors, and a carefree, fun, approachable attitude. It was a blast. This was in the 1980s, before he had achieved what, before Rowling, was probably the greatest success in the UK fantasy genre.

Over the next few years, as he carefully cultivated his fan base, surrounded himself with adoring acolytes, and grew more full of himself, he became more distant and significantly less fun to be around. He was all business. This mealy-mouthed article confirms it.

I've never read this Potter stuff, but it seems harmless young adult fiction material. Rowling does stand, however, in a long line of successful writers desperately and vaingloriously denying their genre heritage in an effort to widen their sales appeal.

I am reminded of Moorcock on Tolkien: Epic Pooh.
Like Chesterton, and other orthodox Christian writers who substituted faith for artistic rigour [Tolkien] sees the petit bourgeoisie, the honest artisans and peasants, as the bulwark against Chaos. These people are always sentimentalized in such fiction because traditionally, they are always the last to complain about any deficiencies in the social status quo ... High Tory Anglican beliefs permeate the book as thoroughly as they do the books of Charles Williams and C. S. Lewis, who, consciously or unconsciously, promoted their orthodox Toryism in everything they wrote.
posted by meehawl at 8:32 AM on July 31, 2005


I can see why other authors get miffed by the attention she gets. They probably think that if they had a monolithic towers of their book at massively cut down prices in front of nearly every supermarket (even ones that don't usually carry books) they too could be selling the number of books she is.
posted by Navek Rednam at 8:37 AM on July 31, 2005


I have read three or four of Prachett's and the first Potter. Pratchett had more wit and Rowling more humanity. It's absurd to argue depth in the kiddie pool and we are comparing apple and oranges here.

Sour grapes for sure. And a naked publicity ploy. On her birthday, for shame!
posted by pointilist at 8:37 AM on July 31, 2005


Do they really treat her as a Goddess of Lit? (like she's a fab writer?) Here it's more about the phenomenon and less about the actual writing. I'd agree that Rowling's chockful of nostalgia and cliches, even more so for us readers here, who don't recognize the boarding school stuff anyway and immediately see it as set in an exotic and "other" place. Even that orig Times article is about her and the issues she deals with more than the writing. The issues--race, class, evil, etc..--are usually what's talked about, i find.

Her books are good reads; Pratchett's are good reads too but looser and funnier (more Dickens, i think). (most of his are on p2p too, if you've never read em)
posted by amberglow at 8:38 AM on July 31, 2005


I would respectfully suggest that Discworld and Potter are slightly incomparable. Potter may be fantasy, but a least the earlier novels are certainly aimed at children in a way that Diskworld is not. All the earlier media attention in the U.S. framed Pottermania as an expression of utter surprise that children were actually reading. Even the last round of media attention here tended to represent Potter as a children's series, despite the fact that I have almost exclusively seen adults reading it. I don't have as strong an impression of how it has been represented in the U.K., but presumably the fan base is simply not the same as that of Pratchett, despite the fact that Pratchett himself has huge media appeal.

Where they are certainly comparable is in the degree of romanticism they contain. Pratchett may thumb his nose at the Genre, but morris dances, bad food, poor hygeine, crime, and benevolent dictatorship are all quaint when placed in his hands. For her part, as much as Rowling seeks to undermine ideas of noble birth, etc., the world she creates is effectively a caste system with muggles occupying the bottom rung. I like both series, but neither is particularly progressive.
posted by Dr_Johnson at 8:38 AM on July 31, 2005


waldo - Presumably you dismiss Neil Gaiman the same way. Good Omens is atypical for both of them, but I like it a lot anyway.

Pratchett does have a bit of a bee in his bonnet about this, and the representation of fantasy in the media in general, and it's a shame. The Harry Potter books are currently overhyped, but then they got to their current prominence by word of mouth, the same way Pratchett's books did.

I get given Pratchett's newest books for Christmas every year by a parent, and every three years or so I catch up, and am always surprised that I don't make time to read him more often. I tend to overdose when I do read him.

What I did read were his recent children's books - The Amazing Maurice, and the two about nascent witch Tiffany Aching (Wee Free Men and Hat Full of Sky) - which I thought were wonderful and darker and more thoughtful somehow than the more grown-up books. But then I've not read Going Postal or Monstrous Regiment or Night Watch yet.

As a popular writer I'd put him in the same class (though not the same genre, obviously) as Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiassen, rather than John Grisham. And a better writer than Douglas Adams (speaking as an Adams fan and someone who followed Hitchhiker from the broadcast of the second episode of the radio series and bought the original paperback when it came out), particularly in terms of structure and plot.

If you have that kind of sense of humour (and many people don't), his books are extremely funny. The thing I appreciate about them is that they're not just funny, and often pack a strong dramatic or even political punch as well - for example, Small Gods, Lords and Ladies or Maurice. If you're putting him in the kiddie pool, I do sort of need to know who's going in the proper swimming pool.

In fact I think I'll read one now. Thanks for reminding me.
posted by Grangousier at 8:54 AM on July 31, 2005


I should add that, IMHO, the most criminally overlooked modern fantasy writers were Fritz Leiber (his Lankhmar stories form much more of a template for modern edgy fantasy, RPGs, and MMOGs than the Tolkien stuff) and Jack Vance (his Dying Earth stories are the template for any number of eschaton-obsessed fantasy works and quests).

Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, of course, stands singularly alone as the À la recherche du temps perdu of the genre.
posted by meehawl at 8:57 AM on July 31, 2005


Terry Pratchett is completely right about this. Rowling is a good writer, but not a great one, and actually a terrible fantasist. Her strength is not in world creation (or characterisation, for that matter), but in plotting. Her world is a stereotypical pastiche which doesn't even have internal consistency (how can wizards live in Muggle towns - there is only one all wizard town - and not know how to use a telephone? Where do they go to school before age 11?). How anyone can claim she has revitalised fantasy (children's or adult) is beyond me - though she certainly has revitalised financial interest in publishing fantasy. But if you want to see original fantasy, there is far better published before and after Rowling (for wizards, you could start with So you want to be a wizard).

The characterisation in Harry Potter was most interesting in the first book (though, of course borrowed very heavily from Roald Dahl) - since then, the characters seem to be drifting towards some muddy middle of teenage angst. And the latest book was like Sweet Valley High goes to Hogwarts, what with all the dating (without much actual emotional tension).

But she is brilliant at plotting - I don't care about the iinconsistencies, the increasingly inane attempts to capture the dark undertones of teenage sexuality while still excising that darkness - because I goddam want to know what happens next. You never get bored - her pacing is impeccable. And this is what sells, to children, to adults.
That, and the fact that they are very unchallenging to read - kids of all reading abilities can read them. Many better fantasy novels are at a higher literacy level (e.g. Narnia).

Pratchett's objection is not about how many books she has sold - he is extremely wealthy and quite comfortable (just had a lovely new library built) - but about the way the article implied she has improved fantasy as a genre. As an adventure series, Harry Potter is terrific; as fantasy, it's terrible. Even Discworld has more consistency, though Pratchett claims it was never suposed to be consistent.

As for whether Pratchett's novels are "more pastiches and parodies of the genre than whole-hearted fantasy novels themselves..." - they stopped being that after the first few books. He continues to have much parody, but more often of Shakespeare, history, myth and classic lliterature than any modern fantasy (though when fantasy slips it, it's with love for the genre). But really, they are social satires disguised as fantasy I can't imagine he even intended to write serious fantasy. His books should be shelved with Tom Sharpe not J.R.R. Tolkien. (The British covers are designed to reflect this). Though his is actually the most insightful and touching satire I have ever read - the most insightful and touching books I have read recently. How many comedy books can give you goosebumps at certain moments?

And his recent children's books (The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, The Wee Free Men - I am still eagerly waiting to read Hat Full of Sky) are rougher, realer, with more emotion and thought than most adult novels (as good children's novels should be, of course.) These are the books I want to save for my children.

On preview:

Where they are certainly comparable is in the degree of romanticism they contain. Pratchett may thumb his nose at the Genre, but morris dances, bad food, poor hygeine, crime, and benevolent dictatorship are all quaint when placed in his hands.

Have you actually read any Pratchett? Yes, morris dancing is quaint (because it is in reality - nothing like men dancing with sticks for a good time), but he writes scathingly against poverty, dictatorship (note that most leaders but the Patrician and the King in the witches series are evil - they are not evil because they try not to interfeer - and the more the leader thinks they are right in all things, the more evil they are), inequality, racism. He's anti-monarchy in the Guards books (which as a loyal subject of the Queen shocks me, but I love Vimes, so I forgive him), and promotes tolerance and multiculturalism - maybe the way the world is going, this is now conservative, but in that case, call me conservative.
posted by jb at 9:06 AM on July 31, 2005


Yes, I have read QUITE a bit of Pratchett, and while he is an avowed opponent of racism and poverty, and Ankh Morpork is about as multicultural as you can get, Pratchett obviously loves his creation warts and all, and to suggest that there aren't any warts would be misrepresenting the series. Vetinari IS something of a benevolent dictator, though his goal is to allow the city to go on as much as possible as if he wasn't an active part of it. The shades may be one of my favorite parts of the city, but it is certainly a den of iniquity, and Pratchett seems to have no real problems with the alarming rate of homicide there. And we won't even get started on Wee Free Men or his romanticized fondness for a certain species of rural life.

Diskworld is conservative in a historical sense (I believe how we are all using the term here?), not a political sense.
posted by Dr_Johnson at 9:20 AM on July 31, 2005


Ventinari is the only example of a benevolent dictator, and it is repeated over and over again how he is so strange and that dictators are a priori bad (actually the darkest bits of discworld are the implications of what other dictators have done). The shades are not my favorite part of the city, and I've always found it to be a very dark den of iniquity. And as someone who studies historical rural poverty, I've always found Pratchett to be one of the more sensitive writers on these issues. Perhaps not quite as poignant as his image of "respectable" urban poverty, which rings absolutely true. Acknowledging that he is a novelist, and not a historian or an activist, I would say that you have unreasonable expectations, and that anyone would be hard pressed to find large numbers of novels in any genre to be more progressive.

From my husband - more on Pratchett's response to Rowling:
"There is a well known tendency, when genre writers get successful, for them to turn on their fan base and attack their genre in order to appear more mainstream. Genre fans, and other genre writers, get pissed off at this, because they see successful writers as a good way of convincing non-fans that the genre trancends its steriotypes. Rowling is a successful fantasy writer, and is bringing a new respectibility to fantasy writers in general. So when she openly attacks, or appears to attack, her genre, it behoves the second most successful fantasy writer alive, a man who refuses to abandon his genre herratage and fanbase, to call her out."
posted by jb at 9:43 AM on July 31, 2005


My respect for Pratchett has dropped considerably from this. (as a fair-weather semi-fan of the Discworld books)

Harry Potter HAS opened up a lot of young eyes to books and fantasy. Young eyes that could quite possibly be interested in reading the Discworld books, seeing that their basic worldviews aren't entirely dissimilar. (and would certainly be more accessible to a Potter graduate than, say, trying to plod through Lord of the Rings or (god forbid) The Wheel of Time)

But instead Pratchett has, apparently, nothing better to do than write snarky letters to the Times and make sure this HUGE potential reader base hates him.

Yep. Good going, Terry.
posted by InnocentBystander at 9:46 AM on July 31, 2005


Here's Pratchett's letter, for those who can't follow the link:

Why is it felt that the continued elevation of J K Rowling can only be achieved at the expense of other writers (Mistress of magic, News Review, last week)? Now we learn that prior to Harry Potter the world of fantasy was plagued with “knights and ladies morris-dancing to Greensleeves.”

In fact the best of it has always been edgy and inventive, with “the dark heart of the real world” being exactly what, underneath the top dressing, it is all about. Ever since The Lord of the Rings revitalised the genre, writers have played with it, reinvented it, subverted it and bent it to the times. It has also contained some of the very best, most accessible writing for children, by writers who seldom get the acknowledgement they deserve.

Rowling says that she didn’t realise that the first Potter book was fantasy until after it was published. I’m not the world’s greatest expert, but I would have thought that the wizards, witches, trolls, unicorns, hidden worlds, jumping chocolate frogs, owl mail, magic food, ghosts, broomsticks and spells would have given her a clue?


Paragraph one objects to the way non-Rowling fantasy is stereotyped in media stories about Rowling, not to Rowling herself or to the level of promotion her work has been getting. Paragraph two points out that there's a lot more going on in the genre than the stereotype. And paragraph three points out that Rowling is a fantasy writer, even if she didn't recognise it herself at first. Only the last paragraph carries any hint of a dig at Rowling, and if Pratchett hadn't said it somebody should have: how can you write about wizards and not know that you're writing fantasy?

There's no suggestion that Pratchett feels his books aren't selling well enough or anything like that. It's just a fantasy-writer equivalent of the common science-fiction writers' complaint that the history of the genre gets ignored by mainstream reviewers every time a non-SF author writes a book set in the future.
posted by rory at 10:02 AM on July 31, 2005


"how can you write about wizards and not know that you're writing fantasy?"

When you're actually in the middle of writing a book, if you earnestly have a story to tell, you don't think about genre. It never once occurred to me that a story about a 13 year old girl being haunted down in a Louisiana bayou was Young Adult or Southern Gothic while I was writing it. I was downright shocked when one of my beta readers suggested it was YA, and polled more than a couple other people to find out if they agreed

I sat down to write a book about the secrets families keep; as far as I was concerned, that's what I had written-- but it also happened to be a Southern Gothic YA novel. What may seem obvious on the outside of a story is not necessarily that obvious at all from the inside. It's a different view from there.
posted by headspace at 10:18 AM on July 31, 2005


headspace : "It never once occurred to me that a story about a 13 year old girl being haunted down in a Louisiana bayou was Young Adult or Southern Gothic while I was writing it. I was downright shocked when one of my beta readers suggested it was YA, and polled more than a couple other people to find out if they agreed"

Understandable, but there's quite a big gap in terms of scale. The two expressions to look for are probably "wizard" and "lazer gun".
posted by Bugbread at 10:21 AM on July 31, 2005


how can you write about wizards and not know that you're writing fantasy?

Perhaps because unlike Pratchett and other traditional fantasy writers she's not working within the genre. A genre is almost by definition self-referential. Rowling borrowed classic fantasy tropes (and she's been heavily criticised for that) and fantasy suits her imagination, but her books are independent of the genre and some of her best inventions (like the Umbridge character) are not fantasy-based at all, which probably explains why the Potter books have an audience that goes beyond the fantasy readership.
posted by elgilito at 10:44 AM on July 31, 2005


elgilito : "Perhaps because unlike Pratchett and other traditional fantasy writers she's not working within the genre."

Maybe it's because I've not read much fantasy since primary school or junior high, or because I've only read the first Potter book and watched the first 3 movies, but from my ignorant layman's perspective, Harry Potter seems to fall squarely within the genre. Witches, magic, castles, unicorns, centaurs, giant snakes (but not from radiation or other scientific testing), giant spiders (but not from radiation or other scientific testing)...It's not the "valiant warriors slay dragons" school of fantasy, but that difference seems just as germaine to not noticing that something is fantasy as the difference between writing Poul Anderson style hard science fiction versus Star Wars style soft science fiction: sure, they're different subgenres, but pretty much anyone would be able without even thinking to identify them as both being science fiction.
posted by Bugbread at 10:52 AM on July 31, 2005


Fair enough, headspace, although those are more specific genres: I can understand someone writing a science fiction book, say, without knowing that they'd written steampunk. But even if she was thinking of herself as a children's writer first and foremost, somewhere along the way the fantasy aspect would surely have been noticed - if not by her then by a friend, an agent, or an editor.
posted by rory at 10:56 AM on July 31, 2005


lou reed pretended to hate bob dylan during the VU days -- now he praises him

prachett is a fuckin crybaby
posted by Satapher at 11:05 AM on July 31, 2005


I find Pratchett amusing, sometimes, but he has beaten the same tropes over the head too often to really entertain any longer. I don't consider him a fantasy writer at all; he writes more in the vein of Tom Sharpe, or even PG Wodehouse.

Rowling tells a pleasant story, but artistically she is a mess, and I am one of those readers who finds it impossible to enjoy a novel that isn't written by a prose stylist. If you want to read YA novels that contain good story AND are written by master stylists, then try Philip Pullman or Garth Nix. For Pullman, I recommend starting with The Golden Compass; for Nix, start with Sabriel. If you want to read Rowling-esque fiction written pre-Rowling, try Jill Murphy's The Worst Witch. The writing is even a bit sub-Rowling, but I haven't noticed that stylistic concerns are on the radar of Rowling fans, so I still recommend them for anybody who is curious as to what might have/probably inspired the creation of Harry Potter.

I'm glad for the Rowling marketing machine. I'm always happy to see non-readers clutching books. I don't know that any marketing machine would have been as successful in getting people to actually READ the books if the author had been more complicated than Rowling. I'm thrilled for the Rowling marketing success because I believe that thousands of new readers have been brought into the world, and that, to me, is a very good thing.
posted by Chasuk at 11:07 AM on July 31, 2005


Odd. I've never considered Pratchett to be "fantasy" so much as "social satire," and especially so in his earlier (and, IMO, much better) stories.

I'd compare him more to Swift than Grisham or Elmore Leonard.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:12 AM on July 31, 2005


Do they really treat her as a Goddess of Lit? (like she's a fab writer?) Here it's more about the phenomenon and less about the actual writing.


amberglow leave JK alone. She's a great storyteller which is more than most "good writers" will ever achieve. Plus anyone who gets kids to read a 700 page book deserves a certain amount of worship.
posted by three blind mice at 11:14 AM on July 31, 2005


harlequin: This view strikes me as utter hogwash. I too went off fantasy, (for some of the same reasons), but Harry Potter is if anything, even more dripping with nostalgia for a world that never was. Everything from the quant idealised old school traditions and uniforms, journey by steam train to boarding school for term, to the use of quills, everything, everything looks backwards to an idealized romanticized oldworld, to an extent that equals or exceeds the most cliche fantasy books. (And I've read a few).

I'd disagree with this. Granted I'm a few books behind on the Potter series, but I think the saving grace for me is that she turns a critical eye to the social and political shadow world she created. The socitey of the wizards is not nostalgic and utopian, it's backwards and bigoted. It's a culture that supports and creates Voldemort because of its isolation and prejudices, discriminates against Hagrid because of his mixed ethnicity, and is dependent on a caste system. It wouldn't surprise me if Rowling's backstory does not have the whole scam fall to bits at some point in the future. Their technology may be quaint, but the political conflicts are post-modern.

elgilito: Rowling borrowed classic fantasy tropes (and she's been heavily criticised for that) and fantasy suits her imagination, but her books are independent of the genre and some of her best inventions (like the Umbridge character) are not fantasy-based at all, which probably explains why the Potter books have an audience that goes beyond the fantasy readership.

Well, I think part of the problem is that fantasy in the English language has developed in the shadow of two giants: Tolkein and Lewis, and a lot of works that are derivative of those authors. But there were a lot of other influences on modern fantasy fiction as well such as Lovecraft and Dahl. "Fantasy" is often improperly characterized as "swords and sorcery," when more properly the genre can be defined as stories in which the magical or supernatural is critical to plot, character or setting.

Umbridge (at least from the character description) does strike me as at least as much of a fantasy character as Prachet's Vimes, or Dahl's Willie Wonka and BFG, which combine archetypical elements of folklore with contemporary twists. Contemporary fantasy is as much Modern Mythic Fiction such as DeLint, Crowley, Windling, Bull, Shetterly, Straub, Barker, and King, as wizards and unicorns.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:14 AM on July 31, 2005


I'm sure Rowling won't mind if Pratchett takes over the title "Mistress of Magic".
posted by mischief at 11:18 AM on July 31, 2005


headspace:

Blow your own trumpet here. What is the title of your Southern Gothic YA novel? I have been to your webpage, and I saw your review of Luna. As a male who has always disliked being so, I loved Luna, and wish it had existed when I was still a teen. Since you show the discernment of having liked Luna, I might enjoy your novel(s), as well.

Share, please.
posted by Chasuk at 11:26 AM on July 31, 2005


anyone would be hard pressed to find large numbers of novels in any genre to be more progressive.

I'm as much a fan of Pratchett as anyone, but you have got to be kidding me.
posted by Dr_Johnson at 11:31 AM on July 31, 2005


Fantasy readers new and old needed a shake up and Rowling provided the prod that many need to get into or back into the genre.

Ha. The only thing JK did to shake up the fantasy "establishment" was put the genre into easy-to-digest serials. Harry Potter is a soap opera for kids. If you want to read another (better) example of dummified fantasy, check out Steven King's The Eyes of the Dragon.

I also liked Good Omens when I first read it.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:40 AM on July 31, 2005


bugbread: but from my ignorant layman's perspective, Harry Potter seems to fall squarely within the genre

As I said, she uses the fantasy genre, and truely the Potter books are a catalogue of every possible fantasy character/gizmo/situation ever written. The last book even have zombies in it. But the perspective is different. The Potter series are primarily a 7-episode story set in world that happens to be a fantasy one. Genre writing is usually about the imaginary world itself : the writer describes a universe (fantasy, sci-fi, noir), and then stuff happens in it according to the genre logic, sometimes again and again and again. I can only draw a comparison with the Buffy TV show (and Potter and Buffy share a lot of thematic similarities) which was supposedly about vampires, though, as any Buffy fan knows, it always about the characters, their changes, interactions etc.

KirkJobSluder: except for her few sadistic uses of magic, Dolores Umbridge would fit perfectly in a 100% mainstream novel (or non-fiction...) set in any academic environment, and she'd be still as scary.
posted by elgilito at 11:49 AM on July 31, 2005


elgilito : "As I said, she uses the fantasy genre...[b]ut the perspective is different. The Potter series are primarily a 7-episode story set in world that happens to be a fantasy one. Genre writing is usually about the imaginary world itself"

This may explain the gap, then, as well: as a layman who isn't into fantasy, I wasn't aware of that distinction. It may be possible that, for the same reasons, she was unaware that what she was writing would be considered fantasy, as the definition she used factored in that perspective difference. Unfortunately, what with the malleability of terminology, there may not be a correct answer. To me, using my definition, it is clear as the nose on my face that Harry Potter is fantasy. To her, using a different definition, it may not be that obvious.

Normally, terminology usage would be decided by majority (or some amount greater than majority). If everyone says a certain vehicle is a car, and one guy says it's a truck, he's wrong. If a bunch of people say it's a truck, but the vast, vast majority say it's a car, he's still probably wrong. But if he and his bunch of people are all automotive engineers...well, then it becomes difficult. His expertise adds weight to his definition. But the quantity of people calling it a car add weight to their definition. To each, the other side seems wrong, and there isn't really an arbiter to determine who is right. (Ok, in that case, there may be a standards body that actually does decide, but you see what I'm getting at).

Which, of course, brings me back to the eternal struggle against folks who don't listen to jungle and say that jungle and drum'n'bass are the same. I win in terms of expertise, they win in terms of sheer numerical quantity. Bastards.
posted by Bugbread at 12:20 PM on July 31, 2005


I'm with rory and meehawl FWIW. The Harry Potter books bore me to tears. I couldn't bring myself to finish the first one, much less attempt the rest.

I'd MUCH rather read Fritz Leiber. Or Neil Gaiman, among others.
posted by keptwench at 12:25 PM on July 31, 2005


You give far too much weight to numerical quantity. Years ago, I was in an argument with my family in which they all insisted that Welsh Rabbit actually contained rabbit as an ingredient. As the only one of their number who had actually eaten Welsh Rabbit (which consists of a cheese sauce on toast), I knew otherwise, but my "expertise" bore no weight with them.

I value an informed opinion (of the educated minority) over an ignorant opinion (of the uneducated majority) nearly 100% of the time.
posted by Chasuk at 12:35 PM on July 31, 2005


Erm, the above was intended for bugbread, which I failed to indicate in the message.

Sorry.

To keptwench:

Ditto the Leiber and Gaiman. My favorite Gaiman, perhaps oddly, are his ostensible juveniles, The Wolves in the Walls and Coraline. If you haven't read them, I recommend them highly.
posted by Chasuk at 12:43 PM on July 31, 2005


Chasuk : "You give far too much weight to numerical quantity.

I value an informed opinion (of the educated minority) over an ignorant opinion (of the uneducated majority) nearly 100% of the time."


Whoah, I think you missed a key point in what I was talking about: the usage of language. Majority rule does not determine reality (whether or not Welsh Rabbit contains rabbit or not). It does determine, in part, what words mean (whether "the shit" means something is good or means something is bad). So, for things like genres, whether something fits in genre A or not is contingent on what "genre A" means, and unless there's a standards body to decide, numerical quantity carries a lot of weight.
posted by Bugbread at 12:58 PM on July 31, 2005


Pratchett is huge in many countries, but not in the US. Here, his books are hard to find, and most fantasy-interested people I've met either haven't heard of him, or have heard of him through the internet, but haven't read any of his stuff.

I've also heard Pratchett himself talk about it, or more specifically, about the problems of getting his books published in the US. It sounds like there is a bit of a publisher fear over brit-humour =! US-humor thing going on, compounded by editors that want to change the text to make it more US-digestable (as they see it), but do so in some stunningly bad ways (up to and including changing pubchlines so they no-longer work).
Or to put it another way, the Pratchett books sold in the US are not the same as the Pratchett books sold worldwide, and in his view, they're not as good. I've bought a few for friends here, but haven't read any here to compare with ones I've read overseas. I imagine the differences would be noticable mainly to Pratchett, but for those of noting you've never heard of Pratchett, it's most likely because you're living in America. :)
posted by -harlequin- at 1:00 PM on July 31, 2005


elgilito: The last book even have zombies in it. But the perspective is different. The Potter series are primarily a 7-episode story set in world that happens to be a fantasy one. Genre writing is usually about the imaginary world itself : the writer describes a universe (fantasy, sci-fi, noir), and then stuff happens in it according to the genre logic, sometimes again and again and again.

Well, I think you are really underestimating genre fiction in general, and fantasy in particular. For example, in The Lord of the Rings the fantasy elements drive the primary theme of the story: power corrupts unless checked by virtue (and even then, virtue sometimes has a hard time with it). LeGuin's Earthsea trilogy is about how the human desire to change the universe frequently results in unintended negative consequences. Pratchett's Night Watch is about how ordinarily law-abiding people can find themselves in open revolution. And for that matter, Narnia just exists for whatever theological parable that is central to each individual novel.

I can only draw a comparison with the Buffy TV show (and Potter and Buffy share a lot of thematic similarities) which was supposedly about vampires, though, as any Buffy fan knows, it always about the characters, their changes, interactions etc.

Most fantasy novels are also about characters, their changes and interactions. I mean, for all practical purposes a large section of The Lord of the Rings centers on an exhausted Frodo and Sam confronting their own mortality and the realization that they will probably never return home. You could write a historic fiction about the death of Robert Falcon Scott that would be very similar.

except for her few sadistic uses of magic, Dolores Umbridge would fit perfectly in a 100% mainstream novel (or non-fiction...) set in any academic environment, and she'd be still as scary.

Many characters in fantasy can. That does not make them not fantasy characters.

But, unlike the Jetsons or the Flintstones, neither Potter nor Buffy are simply translations of one genre into another genre's setting. For both, the fact the characters does affect what goes on.

bugbread: This may explain the gap, then, as well: as a layman who isn't into fantasy, I wasn't aware of that distinction.

Primarily because it is a distinction that if properly applied would exclude many classic works of fantasy, and one which many contemporary fantasy authors would disagree with.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:07 PM on July 31, 2005


Thanks Rory for posting the letter.
Reading the thread, I was dissapointed in Pratchett's sour grapes attitude, but being able to read the letter, I think it's legimate. Lionizing Rowling by shitting on fantasy is an entirely legimate complaint - even more damning because you don;t need to shit on fantasy to lionize Rowling - she has done plenty of merit, there is no need to drag anything down to make her look better in comparison.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:08 PM on July 31, 2005


anyone would be hard pressed to find large numbers of novels in any genre to be more progressive.

I'm as much a fan of Pratchett as anyone, but you have got to be kidding me.
posted by Dr_Johnson at 11:31 AM PST on July 31 [!]


No, I'm not kidding. What other big sellers are on the shelves? Romance novels - we all need a strong handsome man. Chick lit? Even worse - it's like a romance novel in feminist drag, but even fluffier and more reinforcing of gender roles. Spy thrillers and military history - how are those socially progressive?

I wasn't saying there weren't more socially progressive novels, but most have very small audiences and, frankly, I have read many earnest issue books which just fail to actually explore the issue well. Whereas Pratchetts are just about some of the most socially concerned best sellers around. They leave Star Trek in the dust, and those writers were actually trying (though didn't have the critical eye Pratchett brings). How many fiction books really look at the problem of war and jingoism - Pratchett has two recently, and one came out in 1997 but was eerily prescient.

The Potter series are primarily a 7-episode story set in world that happens to be a fantasy one. Genre writing is usually about the imaginary world itself : the writer describes a universe (fantasy, sci-fi, noir), and then stuff happens in it according to the genre logic, sometimes again and again and again. I can only draw a comparison with the Buffy TV show (and Potter and Buffy share a lot of thematic similarities) which was supposedly about vampires, though, as any Buffy fan knows, it always about the characters, their changes, interactions etc.

Actually, the majority of fantasy isn't about the world creation (that is more common in hard-SF), but about characterisation. There are some exceptions - Gaimen's Neverwhere is really about the environment (the secret London); but the majority of his Sandman series was about the people. The fantasy genre does allow a certain freedom, an environment in which the writer can raise the stakes, explore new situations, recast situations to make them fresh. I have read SF and fantasy novels about race, about slavery, about peasant rebellions, about gender, about growing up, about love, about friendship, about committment - all of these could have been written outside of the genre, but there was a certain oomph added within the genre. Some things that would be very harder to explore outside the genre - myth, destiny, mystery, the ineffable of life. These are what draw me to fantasy.

In other, more elegant words: what KirkJobSluder said.
posted by jb at 1:14 PM on July 31, 2005


Just to add - I don't think that myth, destiny, ineffableness, etc cannot be explored outside the genre, just that it's a bit harder. There is fiction that does, though a lot of it is actually magic realism, a fancy word for fantasy that literary critics like.

(Yes, I know that magic realism is a distinct genre, but it is more properly categorised as a branch of fantasy, where fantastical elements blend seamlessly with real, than as not fantasy).
posted by jb at 1:18 PM on July 31, 2005


Pratchetts are just about some of the most socially concerned best sellers around. They leave Star Trek in the dust

Worst... Argument... Ever!!!!

I'm sorry, but that's just the most comically funny Comic Book Guy-style quote I've seen in a few days. Reading the Pratchett foks diss the Rowling folks diss the Star Trek folks is like watching penguin gymnastics.
posted by meehawl at 1:24 PM on July 31, 2005


Oh, and just to add another datapoint. Ursula LeGuin's short story collection Changing Planes centers on a perfectly normal character living in America who just happens to have learned the ability to travel to other planes. (Inspired by the discomfort of airports.) To me, this fits in quite obviously within the "travelogue" sub-genre of people who accidentally find themselves able to travel to another fantasy world.

On preview, to riff of jb, one of the primary advantages to fantasy is that you can use it to reify an abstract concept into a physical one. A Wizard of Earthsea for example is about confronting the fear of death. However, the fantasy setting makes it possible to give Ged's death a physical form that can chase and be chased.

A common motif throughout Tolkien's works from The Silmarillion through The Return of the King is to have objects that are so desirable that they create conflict between entire armies.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:27 PM on July 31, 2005


I love how Lord Vetinari is represented here as benevolent, when he's not only obviously read a few chapters of The Prince, he could probably have written them. The man was always (entertainingly) represented as the most dangerous person in Ankh Morpork -- whenever there's a Vetinari bit in the books, it's always like an internal cue, for me, to listen up and listen good.

I mean, it's obvious that he IS benevolent. He just goes about the benevolence in such a malevolent way....

But anyway, I'd noticed that Pratchett's new U.S. publishers had a big push to drive the series in the States a few books back. I'm assuming it didn't work?
posted by JHarris at 1:30 PM on July 31, 2005


How many fiction books really look at the problem of war and jingoism

Stendahl, Tolstoy, Erich Maria Remarque, Gunter Grass, Doblin, Celine, Ford Maddox Ford, just to name very few. Though I suppose none of these are big sellers...
posted by Dr_Johnson at 1:36 PM on July 31, 2005


I know that magic realism is a distinct genre, but it is more properly categorised as a branch of fantasy, where fantastical elements blend seamlessly with real, than as not fantasy

I have a strong suspicion that both Rushdie and Garcia Marquez would disagree with this assessment, if for no other reason than the very distinction between 'fantastic' and 'real' is blurred in the texts. It is neither fantasy nor realism, it is 'magical realism'- it lacks the many of the qualities of realism of a writer like Zola, but maintains an emphasis on detail, accounting, and narrative consistent with the realist genre.
posted by Dr_Johnson at 1:40 PM on July 31, 2005


jb : "I wasn't saying there weren't more socially progressive novels, but most have very small audiences"

I suspect that's what you wanted to say, but it wasn't what you actually were saying. But, ok, now it's said, so digression over.
posted by Bugbread at 1:47 PM on July 31, 2005


Screw the haters. Pratchett 4EVAR!!! Good Omens was brilliant, as is the entire Discworld universe. i have not read any of the Potter stories, but i enjoy the movies and i feel that they alone are enough to have made fantasy more accessable to the masses. i don't think it is at all unreasonable to think that at some point, kids and adults who have read the Potter series will think 'hmm, i want me some more of that wizard stuff' and seek out different (and probably more sophisticated) works on the subject. Like Pratchett.

My greatest fear actually is that they will try to make some of Pratchett's works into movies. i know that they have been toying with the idea of making Good Omens for a few years now and i just can't bring myself to believe anything put on the screen will hold up to what i love about that book. But then, Lord of the Rings pulled it off, Potter clearly has worked, and for the non-purists, Hitchhikers Guide was pretty good too. So perhaps i should just wait and see.

And if the comments that rory duplicated here are what every one is so pissed about, i'm sorry, but i don't see what he said that was so bad. But i'm an admitted fanboy and therefore biased.
posted by quin at 1:48 PM on July 31, 2005


Dr_Johnson : "I have a strong suspicion that both Rushdie and Garcia Marquez would disagree with this assessment, if for no other reason than the very distinction between 'fantastic' and 'real' is blurred in the texts."

I suspect they'd disagree with the assessment as well, but I somewhat doubt that would be their rationale, as the distinction between 'fantastic' and 'real' is blurred within the texts of much standard fantasy as well.
posted by Bugbread at 1:48 PM on July 31, 2005


Um, take a look at any critical work assessing the genre of magical realism, and you will probaby see something akin to what I have said. Magical realism is rendered distinct by its stylistic adherence to certain realism standards, coupled with the incorporation of 'non-realist' elements like ghosts on magic carpets, etc.
posted by Dr_Johnson at 1:53 PM on July 31, 2005


Oh, and the Time author should be twacked for historic accuracy. Morris traditionally excludes ladies, probably wasn't practiced much by lords either, and you don't do it to Greensleeves. (For that matter, does anyone dance to Greensleeves?)
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:55 PM on July 31, 2005


Dr_Johnson : "Um, take a look at any critical work assessing the genre of magical realism, and you will probaby see something akin to what I have said."

Ok. Can you link me up?
posted by Bugbread at 1:57 PM on July 31, 2005


This definition applies more specifically to Pietri and the Latin American wing of the movement, but note this particular aspect: "A secondary trait [of magical realism] was the characteristic attitude of narrators toward the subject matter: they frequently appeared to accept events contrary to the usual operating laws of the universe as natural, even unremarkable. Though the tellers of astonishing tales, they themselves expressed little or no surprise." This sort of naturalistic narrative is characteristic of the realist movement as well- think of pieces like "Germinal" or "The Dealth of Ivan Illich."

Here are a hell of a lot more definitions, some of which are rather 'magically real" in their own right. Note Fredrick Jameson's however: "Magical realism--is not a realism to be transfigured by the supplement of a magical perspective, but a reality which is already in and of itself magical or fantastic." This is its foundation as a distinct genre, irreducible to either the purely fantastic or the purely real. (Note the lovely music on the site!)
posted by Dr_Johnson at 2:13 PM on July 31, 2005


Oh, and Garcia Marquez' own view of this is also illuminating: "Garcia Marquez maintains that realism is a kind of premeditated literature that offers too static and exclusive a vision of reality. However good or bad they may be, they are books which finish on the last page. Disproportion is part of our reality too. Our reality is in itself all out of proportion. In other words, Garcia Marquez suggests that the magic text is, paradoxically, more realistic than the realist text."
posted by Dr_Johnson at 2:18 PM on July 31, 2005


Waldo: I was perhaps more annoyed with Gaiman for "Good Omens," because I know that he knows better.

Grangousier: Presumably you dismiss Neil Gaiman the same way. Good Omens is atypical for both of them, but I like it a lot anyway.

Not at all -- I think Gaiman is a genius. I discovered him via Sandman, and went on to read things like "The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish," enjoying each Gaiman story more than the previous. Save, of course, for "Good Omens." :)
posted by waldo at 2:19 PM on July 31, 2005


Thanks, Dr_Jonson
posted by Bugbread at 3:09 PM on July 31, 2005


I wonder if the difference between the early Pratchett and late Pratchett books -- and the difference between those of us here who enjoy his work and those who do not like it -- is due to the US-ization of his writing, ie. dumbing down.

I'll have to check where my library's copies of his works were published. If I find that his last half-dozen or so were US adaptations, it would explain a whole lot.
posted by five fresh fish at 3:09 PM on July 31, 2005


Oh, no, there is a real difference, and the early books (not the first two, though. I'd nominate Equal Rites, Mort and Wyrd Sisters in particular) are definitely more something. There's a bunch in the middle that I enjoyed, but not as much, and that seemed a lot more formulaic (Feet of Clay for example, or Interesting Times and then the more recent ones - Thief of Time, The Truth and The Fifth Elephant along with the children's books mentioned above (which are better than them), I liked a lot more.

Someone else will disagree with me completely about the newer books (they'll like Interesting Times but hate The Truth), but we'll all probably agree about the early ones. To me, though, despite the fact I love Equal Rites, put next to Wee Free Men (which I think is very similar in subject matter), and the later book is a much more skillful work, by a much better writer. IMHO.

It's just a question of personal taste, frankly.

What I meant by the Elmore Leonard comparison is that he's another author who I think transcends his genre without spurning it, although it's a completely different genre and totally different books. But that's probably just me. Grisham, as far as I can tell, is wet cardboard.

Oh, and the Bromeliad trilogy - Truckers, Diggers and Wings - those are excellent.
posted by Grangousier at 3:57 PM on July 31, 2005


How many fiction books really look at the problem of war and jingoism

Stendahl, Tolstoy, Erich Maria Remarque, Gunter Grass, Doblin, Celine, Ford Maddox Ford, just to name very few. Though I suppose none of these are big sellers...
posted by Dr_Johnson at 1:36 PM PST on July 31


Nor are many of them recent works. Perhaps I should have been more specific - how many popular or light fiction books of the type that average people buy to take on holiday deal with such issues? Pratchett is more profound in his light comedy than just about any serious novel I've read recently.

I have a strong suspicion that both Rushdie and Garcia Marquez would disagree with this assessment, if for no other reason than the very distinction between 'fantastic' and 'real' is blurred in the texts. It is neither fantasy nor realism, it is 'magical realism'- it lacks the many of the qualities of realism of a writer like Zola, but maintains an emphasis on detail, accounting, and narrative consistent with the realist genre.

Yes, there is a great deal of difference between describing the genre as "blending fantasy and reality seamlessly" and saying that the "fantastic" and the "real" are blurred in the text. I have read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and I was thinking of his writing when I used the words "seamlessly". I'll remember next time to use "blurred" so as not to be so terribly inaccurate.

In style, magic realism has never struck me as being like realism, but I was taught Canadian realism, not European. It's stylistic differences are likely as due to the fact that the genre is dominated by non-English writers from a variety of language backgrounds. However, magic realism is not the only fantastical genre to adhere stylistically to "certain realism standards, coupled with the incorporation of 'non-realist' elements like ghosts on magic carpets, etc." - if by those standards you mean "an emphasis on detail, accounting, and narrative consistent with the realist genre." Much of Clive Barker's work would fit that description, as would some of Geoff Ryman.

There is also the genre of what I think of as fusion fantasy - like Gaimen, de Lint - fantasy in connection with the real and present world. It's not magic realism, but it isn't high fantasy either. Is there a name for that?
posted by jb at 4:21 PM on July 31, 2005


jb: There is also the genre of what I think of as fusion fantasy - like Gaimen, de Lint - fantasy in connection with the real and present world. It's not magic realism, but it isn't high fantasy either. Is there a name for that?

Well, Teri Windling and de Lint have coined "modern mythic", and "mythic fiction." But also there seems to be the term "urban fantasy" rolling around. de Lint seems to have been given credit for starting it, but there seems to be a reasonably interconnected school of writers who have worked in it.

And of course, you have China Mieville's King Rat which is sort of but not quite in there. And the uneasy status of leGuin's Lathe of Heaven which has some SciFi elements mixed in with some classic Lovecraftian fantasy themes.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:36 PM on July 31, 2005



Fusion fantasy seems to work quite well.

I believe what I took issue with was the attribution of magical realism to the fantasy genre. As the definitions I introduced suggest, it is wholly its own genre, which in large measure deconstructs the very notions of fantastic and real. For Marquez, this was something of the point. the magically real ends up being more 'real' for most of our experiences than actual realist literature.

Some fantasy and sci fi achieve that result too, I believe. In his essay-introduction to "Crash," J.G. Ballard suggests that as hyper-real and over the top as science fiction often tends to be, at least metaphorically it resonates more with everyday experience for most people than a hell of a lot of purely realist fiction. Thus the Robinson Crusoe-like short story "Concrete Island," in which a man crashes his car and becomes permanently stranded on the median, fits better with much of our alienated experience of urban living than a good deal of contemporary 'realist' fiction. Perhaps this is equally fusionist.
posted by Dr_Johnson at 4:50 PM on July 31, 2005


how many popular or light fiction books of the type that average people buy to take on holiday deal with such issues?

You need to get out more. Just off the top of my head...

Lorraine Adams - Harbor
Susanna Clarke - Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Elizabeth Kostova - The Historian
Andrew Greer - The Confessions of Max Tivoli
John Harrison - Light
Ken McLeod - Newton's Wake

and an oldie but goodie...

Harry Harrison - Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers

etc etc.
posted by meehawl at 4:56 PM on July 31, 2005


meehawl, Harry Harrison is freakin' great. Thank you for bringing him to this discussion. In my mind Bill the Galactic Hero is one of the finest examples of genius masquerading as blind stupidity.
posted by quin at 5:19 PM on July 31, 2005


meehawl: Epic Pooh is interesting. There is something to do with Pooh in Tolkien, but Tolkien cares less about bringing the magical world to vibrant happy life than showing how these worlds must fade, fail and be forgotten. There's more to Lord of the Rings than Pooh writ large, and Moorcock's dismissal reads to me like willful blindness. He just wants to get in his cheap shots. He even invokes Godwin, although by that time it's unclear whether he hates LotR beause it reminds him of the Tories or vice versa.

Another thing Moorcock's wrong about: "little wit and much whimsy" describes Harry Potter perfectly. Over 85% of the calories in the Harry Potter books come from tedious whimsy.

Actually I think Rowling uses her own fantasy insipidness quite well. You slog through pages of chocolate frogs and "Diagon Alley" and Bumblebore and Hagrid's pets and Weasley brothers and Dark Arts teachers so that when finally an interesting twist of plot comes you get very excited, like a dog who finally gets to go outside after a comfortable but dull day indoors. So then you have the action sequence, and Harry wins, and the mild wrongs are put to right, and the villain is foiled to return another day.

All that said, I enjoy the books. But then I'm the sort of person who cried at The Natural so it's clear that I'll endure any amount of hackneyed crap for a good climax.
posted by fleacircus at 5:20 PM on July 31, 2005


bugbread:

Whoah, I think you missed a key point in what I was talking about:

Yes, I did. Sorry. A part of me does suspect that more "pleasure" synapses (I am theorizing their existence) fire when drinking Guinness versus drinking Coors, which might allow me to claim that Guinness is better objectively, but that is probably just wishful thinking, or elitism, or both.
posted by Chasuk at 5:24 PM on July 31, 2005


If we're comparing authors to beers, IMO Rowling is a Bud Light, while most of the other authors mentioned so far are, at the very least, a full-on beer (and some of them are excellent dark microbrew ales).

I read a Rowling book once, and lived to regret it. Her work was in desperate need of an editor, her ideas were mainly unoriginal, and it was - worst of all - excrutiatingly boring. I have also had the misfortune of watching the movies. Ugh.

YMMV, obviously.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:21 PM on July 31, 2005


I am surprised not many have defended Rowling and I"m surprised there aren't more attackers of Pratchett who seemed to me to be a cut-rate version of Douglas Adams writing in Fantasy rather than sci-fi.

I've only read three of his books (Good Omens, Small Gods, and one whose name has completely lost me) and Pratchett's problem is that he starts with a really funny idea but can't seem to maintain the sense of parody and the endings of the books seemed quite muddled to me as they degenerate into these really boring adventure stories where he starts treating the characters seriously and parody/satire/slapstick mostly go out the window.

In terms of actually telling a story and creating an interesting world, Rowling, while not the best in her genre, is head and shoulders above Pratchett. And her somewhat clumsy writing hides a really amazing level of subtlety. I can see how people who have only dabbled in her work would see it as a bit of nostalgic wankery for some bourgeoise past and present.

But thats not what she's saying at all. The magical world is revealed to have a beauracracy which is at times ineffecttual, at times incredibly cruel (Azkaban is much worse than Guantanamo, full of innocents wrongly condemned, and run by the "good guys"), at times corrupt. There's no real democracy on either side in the wizarding world. There's often no clear answers about what should be done.

In a way, she's more subversive than Pullman or Mieville, two writers whose worldview and predjudices are apparent immediately,

Rowling instead builds up a world which seems hopelessly happy and innocent and twee in the first couple of books, then proceeds to tear every institution down in the subsequent books. Almost no one escapes. The government doesn't work. The matyred saintly father is revealed to have been a petty bully in his youth. The seemingly evil Snape and Malfoy are not quite what they seem. Harry Potter is shown to have some fairly serious blinders which would cause everything to be lost if he were running things.

And, with the last book, she's really established herself as a master of continuity. Lots of small details in the previous books are shown to have had a meaning far greater than they seemed at the time. Most of the pieces fit and she's gone to the trouble to bring everything together in a mostly logical way.

Again, its really a pity the hamfisted writing style makes many readers and non-readers of her work miss the deep subtlety of the whole thing.
posted by pandaharma at 7:36 PM on July 31, 2005


It sounds very much like she has significantly improved as a storyteller since the first book. Has the quality of her writing -- the presentation of themes, scenes, ideas and interactions without muddling it - improved?

I mean, when I think of good writing, I'm thinking Pat Conroy, James Clavell, Anne McCaffery, Leon Uris, Neal Stephenson, Neil Gaiman, PG Wodehouse, Carol Shields, Elmore Leonard, William Goldman -- a whole range of authors who consistently write immersive books, books where fiction becomes reality.

Pratchett is in there with several excellent books that spoof reality, much as Wodehouse did. Gaiman writes excellent books that provide a fantasy reality, much as -- for me -- Rowling did not.

OTOH, and perhaps the failure in my opinion here, is that I think Anne Rice wrote some excellent fantasy books, and I rather strongly suspect she's an atrocious writer...
posted by five fresh fish at 8:09 PM on July 31, 2005


FFF:

I'm not sure if I would say the actual texture of her writing has gotten better. From a purely stylistic viewpoint, I think she's still probably as poor as she was at the beginning.

But the story is compelling enough, at least for me, to ignore the stylistic deficiencies.

I would recommend you giving her work another chance. Yes, I'd agree with you that the first two books are really annoying at times. However, its easier to take when you realize she's attempting to portray everything from the viewpoint of one character.

Therefore, the first two books are a bit overwhelming in their twee factor because Potter, whose only life experiences were spent in a hateful house in a boring suburb, is exposed to love, wonder, and joy for the first time in his life. And he's only eleven at the beginning, which is also a very limiting factor. But this viewpoint doesn't stay static. He and his view on the world evolves as he gains self-awareness and as he starts to see how things are deeply flawed. Its an interesting evolution.

If I had to compare her to anyone, I'd put her in the company of J. Michael Stracynski and Babylon 5, and Ronald Moore's incarnation of Battlestar Galactica.

I know thats a somewhat odd comparison, considering the extremely different genres. But, what they have in common, is the lack of an ideological axe to grind (again, what killed Pullman and Mieville's initially promising work) and a matter-of-fact presentation of an intricate world where things are because they are. There is the implied statement that whatever the heroes do to solve the problem at hand will not really make things better in the long run.

Defeat Voldemort and you're still left with a stagnant wizard culture which is deeply myopic and corrupt and on the verge of being surpassed by the muggles (which is a really nice way of turning that cliched Clarke quote on its head). Defeat the shadows and the humans / aliens will still find reasons to fight with each other. Defeat the cyclons and find earth and humans will still be a bunch of greedy murdering bastards.

And, like these two arc-based sci-fi series, Rowling creates a world where characters can surprise you and yet remain consistent with their characterization, And where minor details in season one become earth-shattering by season four. What seemed to be a loose thread was actually part of the main story all along. There is a great internal consistency which most writers can't seem to pull off.
posted by pandaharma at 9:09 PM on July 31, 2005


Pratchett is a mean-spirited little man.

Here he is - this guy who has sold millions of books and is richer than most of us could ever dream of because of it - clearly envious of Rowling for selling even more.
My ex used to adore the Discworld series and religiously bought each new one as it came out. I think I read maybe the first eight. I enjoyed them at first although I never thought they were better than moderately entertaining and occasionally witty. But by the time I'd finished the eighth or whatever it was I thought, "Okay Pratchett, your shtick is stale, you're repeating ideas, jokes, character types...it's over, man. Knock it on the head while your reputation as a jolly, funny subverter of the fantasy genre is still more-or-less intact." Of course, he did no such thing and successfully milked his Ankh-Morporkian cash cow for - what - he must be nearly on book 30 by now, as far as I can figure it.

I think I first realised what a whiny little dick he is in real life after reading an interview with him, maybe ten years ago. I can't remember where it was printed or even precisely what he was bitching about, but bitching he was, and very grumpily. Such behaviour is extremely unpleasant to witness in one so successful in his chosen field. I took a thorough dislike to the man and this ungracious and thoroughly OTT attack on a fellow writer (and one who I am by no means an admirer of) only confirms it.
posted by Decani at 9:31 PM on July 31, 2005


pandahrma: I think that it really depends on which Prachett you are reading. I found most of the diskworld books underwhelming, but Night Watch seemed to break away from that, primarily because he wasn't trying so hard at being funny.

FFF: OTOH, and perhaps the failure in my opinion here, is that I think Anne Rice wrote some excellent fantasy books, and I rather strongly suspect she's an atrocious writer...

Eh, for me the turn-off with Rice is that I got rather tired of being dragged through her rather gratuitious psychosexual taboo breaking.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:38 PM on July 31, 2005


Pratchett's brilliant; his books are as full of humanity (in all its glory and foibles) as any I've read, and I can't recommend them enough for anyone who likes smart fantasy and sharp satire. That said, opposing him to Rowling (whom I haven't bothered to read yet) just seems silly. Both of them have good points; Rowling's scathing take on C.S. Lewis in the Time article, for instance, is worth a closer look:

Rowling has never finished The Lord of the Rings. She hasn't even read all of C.S. Lewis' Narnia novels, which her books get compared to a lot. There's something about Lewis' sentimentality about children that gets on her nerves. "There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She's become irreligious basically because she found sex," Rowling says. "I have a big problem with that."

Ouch. For his part, Pratchett's absolutely right to scorn the mainstream for its quickness in dismissing pre-Rowling fantasy, and for allowing Rowling to get away with dismissing the genre so cavalierly. But he sure went about expressing his displeasure in the wrong way - I mean, sending a letter to the local paper? Puh-lease.
posted by mediareport at 9:46 PM on July 31, 2005


Night Watch seemed to break away from that

Night Watch is definitely one of the better ones, as is The Truth, a spot-on satire of journalism about Discworld's first newspaper. And Vetinari is just a fantastic character all around - simultaneously scary and highly admirable. It's amazing how Pratchett does that.
posted by mediareport at 9:50 PM on July 31, 2005


For me the turn-off with Rice is that I got rather tired of being dragged through her rather gratuitious psychosexual taboo breaking.

What you want is some Poppy Z. Brite.
posted by Artw at 10:55 PM on July 31, 2005


"I love how Lord Vetinari is represented here as benevolent, when he's not only obviously read a few chapters of The Prince, he could probably have written them."

Have you read The Prince? Do you understand it in context? I'm so tired of this characterization of the book.

Who above talking about prose style? I looked and looked but couldn't find it. Anyway, I have mixed feelings about almost everything everyone says above, but the one thing I know is that I am that person's opposite: I don't read for the quality of the prose in terms of technique and style, I read for the book as a whole. My best friend reads for the writing, and when we discovered this difference between us, much of our disagreements of taste were, though perhaps not resolves, illuminated. (In the same way that many have no patience for bad writers, I have little patience for writers who are ostentatiously writing with great panache. It completely distracts me and seems too smug to me. But not to others. I couldn't read David Foster Wallace's Infinite Ject for a similar reason--not that the prose was so self-conscious, but the whole damn book was so self-conscious.)

I am a proponent of all-around quality at every level, in every sense--and that's why I love Shakespeare. But I don't think very many artists are capable of this kind of achievement and most must make do with finding the one or two things they're good at and hope that this masks their other defects.

Different people have different affinities for different qualities and tend to judge all artists by those favored qualities. I don't think that's right and it's why almost always when I read a sneering put-down of some author or work I'm a bit offended because I can usually see that the basis on which they are being badly judged is the narrow focus of the critic's sensibilities.

I've read a lot of everything, and I can't think of any fantasy novels I'd be willing to defend as serious literature, much less quality serious literature. I haven't read Wolfe's Dying Earth books, but I probably will next month, actually. LoR is very good, but it's not a great book(s). Forget for the moment whether Marquez's fantastic realism could be categorized as "fantasy" and just consider for a moment why, however his books are classified, they're considered literature and not genre fiction. Borges? Morrison? Was Beloved a "novel of the supernatural"? Does it make sense to compare that book to a book by Rice?

As Ebert does with films, judge creative works by what they're trying to be, not by what you'd want them to be or what, out of all possible things, they could have been. Neither the Potter books nor the Discworld books were written with aspirations for being considered serious literature. The first Harry Potter book is a whimsical, light, fantastical work aimed at children. It succeeds. Her later books get more complex and mature, but she's not a serious writer. I applaud her for becoming a better writer and attempting more in each of her books. I've always thought Grisham was vastly inferior to Turrow, but I now think Grisham's underated for quality--he's improved quite a bit as an author. I was impressed with A Painted House. Pulitzer? Well, no.

Pratchett's first discworld books are obviously enormously derivative and not that ambitious. They're clunky. He's gotten better, and I think the Pratchett-haters are underrating him, but these are not really good books. Given their audience, I think it's a virtue that they're (rather obvious) social satire.

I never realized what a novel could really accomplish until I read War and Peace. If I used it as the standard by which I judge all other novels, everything else is shit. How unpleasant it seems to me it would be to see the world of literature that way. Enjoy things for what they are.

By the way, I just finished Cherryh's Morgaine Saga. I liked it. I thought it was in the (broad) upper-tier of fantasies. And it subverted the genre more than a little (imagine if it had been written from Morgaine's viewpoint--all along, Cherryh's daring you to do so and to see the whole universe presented in the books transformed into something quite different). His Dark Materials is surely fantasy, as is Anne Bishop's Black Jewels. No morris-dancing to be found in either. In this way, Pratchett very definitely has a point. But, as said above, it's an old lament from people in his position.

As a footnore, I really, really don't think it's fair to put Elmore Leonard in the same class as Grisham. His extremely lean and action-oriented prose is misleading people, I think. I'd be willing to bet money that people will be reading Leonard for much longer than most contemporary bestselling authors.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:04 AM on August 1, 2005


Spake mediareport:
I mean, sending a letter to the local paper? Puh-lease.
But it was that very paper which had reinforced those stereotypes... I think he complained to exactly the right people.

...

I strongly dislike fantasy or SF writers who deny what they are. It's like gay people who say "But I'm not a drag queen! I'm normal!" Minorities stomping on minorities in order to join the majority.

It's especially grating here because there is a lot of really interesting, frontier-exploring fantasy out there, and Rowling (seemingly) and the media are pretending it doesn't exist.

Pratchett pointed out the fact that the media have persistently ignored fantasy literature, and that Rowling seems to be engaging in just that sort of stomp-on-your-fellows mentality. And he's pointing out that popular stereotypes about fantasy lit (and, indrectly, about fantasy fans) aren't justified. I don't fault him for any of that.
posted by jiawen at 1:31 AM on August 1, 2005


It's absurd to argue depth in the kiddie pool

I haven't seen this phrase before, and I like it. The length of this thread would seem to argue against it, but I like it anyway.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 2:00 AM on August 1, 2005


pandaharma : "I am surprised not many have defended Rowling"

Rowling is popular. Mefi doesn't like popular stuff, some people for good reasons, some people for bad reasons. I'm surprised that you're surprised.
posted by Bugbread at 5:49 AM on August 1, 2005


Bugbear:

I suppose you're right. I was personally surprised at the lack of defense because I have seen serious readers on other blogs sponsor serious discussions of Rowling and gave their approval to her work, despite its sylistic difficulties.

For whatever reason, I thought at least a few people here would share that viewpoint.

Back on thread, in case anyone's still reading, my personal favorite in the fantasy genre would have to be Hakuri Murakami, especially Hard Boiled Wonderland.
posted by pandaharma at 7:08 AM on August 1, 2005


pandaharma: I suppose you're right. I was personally surprised at the lack of defense because I have seen serious readers on other blogs sponsor serious discussions of Rowling and gave their approval to her work, despite its sylistic difficulties.

I don't think much of a defense is needed, because this thread really isn't about Rowling's skill as a writer (which I have mixed feelings about, but that's not here or there) but about how she and journalists talking about her play the game of "oh, she's not really writing in the fantasy genre, Potter is too good for that."

To which, my response is "yes she is, and no it isn't."
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:34 AM on August 1, 2005


I defended Rowling - in the sense that I praise to the highest her plotting ability. She really is a master of making you turn the page. I just don't find her fantasy very original. She began ripping from Roald Dahl, and then tossing in bits from all over fantasy - now the world is quite muddled. I'm still enthralled by the plot, so that's not really a problem, until some idiot magasine starts going on about how original it is.
posted by jb at 8:48 AM on August 1, 2005


Forget for the moment whether Marquez's fantastic realism could be categorized as "fantasy"

Right. Because that question gets right to the heart of your absurdly clear distinction between "literature" and "genre fiction." Best to forget it.

Yeesh. I can't believe anyone still bothers with that kind of rigid category distinction these days.
posted by mediareport at 10:06 AM on August 1, 2005


mediareport - It's absurdly important in terms of which section of shelving your book ends up sitting on.
posted by Artw at 10:26 AM on August 1, 2005


*smacks head*

But of course.
posted by mediareport at 10:36 AM on August 1, 2005


Also if you are "Literary" you get a nicer cover, and not a picture of a dragon or a robot or some shit like that.
posted by Artw at 1:41 PM on August 1, 2005


firstly, i think writers nearly always get themselves in trouble when they spout off in defense or attack of anything involving the world of writing. it's a mysterious act of creation that i find tedious in the discussing. not that i'm opposed to people who like to do the whole criticism thing--i just think that the writers themselves should preserve their dignity and sanity and stay the hell out of it. leave it to the rabble.

secondly, i read everything. and i like both Rowling (for what she is) and Pratchett (for what he is). i kind of think it's funny in light of his protest and the whole "she's better, no he's better" discussion that i just the other day recommended Pratchett to my Rowling-loving, bookless, humor-craving mother.
posted by RedEmma at 2:14 PM on August 1, 2005


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