Why Jonathan Jones is wrong about more than just Terry Pratchett

As I write this, Twitter is getting very excited about a hatchet job Jonathan Jones did on Terry Pratchett over at the Guardian.  The article is so utterly awful that it could almost be a parody of someone with his head up his ass. Unfortunately, it appears to be genuine.

Jones had quite a bit of criticism about Pratchett, despite admitting that he hasn’t read any (although he ‘did flick through a book by him in a shop’). Well, there you go.

I can’t quote the utter head-in-assness of the thing in its entirety, but here are a few choice quotes:

‘Everyone reads trash sometimes, but why are we now pretending, as a culture, that it is the same thing as literature? The two are utterly different.’

‘A middlebrow cult of the popular is holding literature to ransom’

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’

Not everyone is a fan of Terry Pratchett. Fair enough. There is no such a thing as an author everyone likes. Sir Terry is so popular that genuine literary criticism would have made an interesting read.

Jones’ article wasn’t literary criticism. It wasn’t anything other than pure snobbery and nastiness. He hasn’t read Pratchett and appears to be basing his dislike purely on the fact that Terry Pratchett is popular. The clear connotation is that any book worth reading couldn’t be appreciated by the rabble.

So what, you say. There are idiots in the world, and plenty of them are on the internet. This isn’t news.

Why does it matter? Because Jones was right about one thing:

…all great books, can change your life, your beliefs, your perceptions.

Great literature has the power to change the world. Stories make us human. Stories are the reason we strive. Stories make us more than animals. Every great advance in human history happened because someone imagined the world could be different.

Popularity has nothing to do with whether something is great literature. Dickens was popular, so was Austen. And er…so is E.L. James.

Harry Potter is popular. Is it literature? I think so. Harry Potter fired millions of imaginations across the world and helped turn an entire generation of children into readers. Those children are now reading other books. Some are writing books. Maybe even books Jonathan Jones would approve of. Every time someone loses themselves in a book, it sparks that creativity and love of stories.

This is why Jonathan Jones is not only wrong, but his attitude is hugely damaging to great literature. All writers start small, even the great ones. Maybe one of those Harry Potter readers was made to feel ashamed of enjoying escapist fiction and that’s one more reader lost, one more writer.

I’m a writer. I run a writing group. I critique manuscripts on an almost daily basis. Good writers are insecure by nature. They question their assumptions, spend hours researching their topics and then pick over every sentence and every word. They’re never happy.

That’s part of the process of growing as a writer. We all have different levels of innate talent, but no one writes great literature in their first draft. The only way to become a great writer is to keep banging your head against that wall, fighting to make it better every step of the way.

I met a writer yesterday who described the necessity of having a ‘bubble of delusion’, which is a term I adore. Soft little writer souls need to believe that with enough work their books can be the wonderful thing they dream it will be. Some will never be great. Others will be. Attitudes like those of Jonathan Jones pop that bubble: that our precious little work in progress may never be good enough. That the writers we love aren’t ‘real’ authors. That even if we write as we dream, someone will come along with a sneer.

I know people will argue that if we truly love writing, we’ll do it no matter what some numpty on the internet says, but I don’t think that’s true. Writing is hard. Writing well is even harder and we need that bubble. It’s all too easy to give up.

If only the confident and the brash write books, the literary landscape would be depressingly dull. My experience is that the more confident the writer, the worse their book is. Neurosis appears to go hand-in-hand with good writing.

Book snobbery is hugely damaging. It puts people off reading. It puts writers off writing. It contributes nothing of value to the world.

And for the record? Terry Pratchett’s books changed my life, my beliefs and my perceptions. Maybe if Jones actually made the effort to read one, he’d realise he was wrong.

The twitterati have their knickers in a knot about this, and the comments over at the Grauniad are going strong. There’s already a change.org petition calling on Jones to apologise. I suspect the Graun will take a different tack. They’ll get him to read a Pratchett book and then write another article. I don’t care if he does. I don’t particularly want him to apologise either. My first thought was that Jones should stick to his guns and never read any Pratchett, but then I felt bad. That’s a terrible punishment for someone who claims to be a lover of great literature. No one deserves that, no matter how snobby they might be.



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