Monday, October 12, 2015

Why Jonathan Jones’ Hatred of Terry Pratchett Struck a Nerve

Does anyone know how not to be condescending? I’m asking for a friend.

If I ever come off to you as arrogant, then you’re a pretty good judge of character. But when it comes how I see others, if I sound condescending, it’s likely to be an accident. I may have the ego comparable to Trump’s, but rarely have found someone I would consider an idiot. Uninformed, rash, or easily influenced by wishful thinking and excuses, yes, I have accused people of those things, but actually stupid? Rarely. I think highly of myself, but I usually think highly of others as well. I believe strongly that the only fools in the world are the liars, and everyone has opinions of some value.

That being said, Jonathan Jones is an idiot.

An art “critic,” he recently posted a “review” on the Guardian about Terry Pratchett’s work, “Get Real.Terry Pratchett is Not a Literary Genius.

He started with the telling paragraph, “I have never read a single one of his books and I never plan to. Life’s too short,” and proceeded to explain why it was a waste of time to read potboilers like the mediocre Pratchett.

And, oh my God, the hate mail poured in.

I’d like to think he expected it, that it was part of the plan, of course. The post received over a thousand comments compared to the three hundred on his next most popular hit. It seemed like click-bait written by a knowledgeable troll, but that’s only if I’m giving him credit. His only other claims to fame have been equally hateful and unthoughtout criticisms, like when he called an art piece “just bad,” and people again thought he was a moron. If you read his Wikipedia page, the only time people cared about what he had to say was when he said something they didn’t agree with.

Even though I have never read Pratchett (though I do intend to at some point), and have yet to develop an opinion of my own on his work, I was also pissed at Jones’ statements. The writer’s condemnation didn’t anger people because of who he was disparaging, but the way he went about it.

Jones wrote a follow up piece soon after. “I've Read Pratchett Now: It's More Entertainment than Art.”

In it, he gives some lip service to his readers, saying, “Now I am better read, and can admire his clever wordplay,” before standing strong, “But I still believe the best prose lives in the real world.”

Jones completely misses the point.

I used to produce plays in Los Angeles. Small time, community theatre sort of things, often very low budget, I would manage to create the art I wanted to primarily by means of networking. On most occasions, I would work my ass off to help someone do their project, and in return they would give me a space, costuming, props, or maybe—and only maybe—their actual service in return. The thing I learned while trying to get people to help me was that I much preferred people who were in it for the money; the people who were in it for the art tended to make art not happen.

When trying to get a space from a business person, all you had to do was convince them it wouldn’t be any inconvenience to them, or even it would make them some money. That was it. You had to know them, of course, or be really brave (which I am not), but mostly just prove that it won’t cost them anything to help you out.

When trying to get a space from an artistic person, they had to question the integrity of the project. Did it promote the reputation they were going for? Did it make them look good? Did its meaning and the way it went about proving that meaning coincide with how they believe art should be?

Sometimes, it’s a reasonable question. The things that were performed in the space were associated with the space. The average audience member does not know the difference between company and theatre. And, if you can get them on board, the artistic minded person will be more likely to do more to support you than the business person who you convinced wouldn’t even know you were there. They have a right to ask.

The problem was that it’s much harder to do, especially because non-profit theatres have boards of usually about ten people you have to convince, and all you need is one pretentious asshole who thinks other people’s art is beneath him to stop you in your tracks. And there’s a lot of people like that. It’s not just that they won’t offer to help if they’re not interested in the project, but there are people who refuse to create new art because they can’t develop their own opinion without having others tell them what to think. It’s not uncommon for an artistic person to refuse to do anything but Gogol and Beckett, never taking a chance on something new.

Jonathan Jones’ opinion on Terry Pratchett falls right into this mentality.

“Life is too short to waste on ordinary potboilers – and our obsession with mediocre writers is a very disturbing cultural phenomenon,” he says.

In essence, he is suggesting that only good books should be written and read, but by “good” it is by his definition alone. Even though he hasn’t actually read Pratchett, he finds his opinion to be more valuable than everyone else's. I have to say, when most people disagree with you on a work that you haven’t actually experienced, you should probably assume that you’re missing something. You may not be wrong, but you should still consider that there’s a reason for your difference of opinion.

When it comes to “bad” books that are popular, it’s important for anyone who works in the literary field—either as a critic or a writer—to be open minded and not just write it off as everyone else being stupid. No, I wouldn’t suggest to Jones that he should read Pratchett, or to any E.L. James hater that they have to read Fifty Shades of Grey. While I don’t agree that “life’s too short” for fluff, I do think it’s too short to be reading things you really don’t want to be, and there’s a lot of books we can learn from and shouldn’t be limited to the crap we really can’t stand. But, I also believe that you shouldn’t be passing an absolute and uninformed opinion on it either.

Running around and claiming these books are “just bad” when other people love them suggests an inhibitive hubris. As a writer, you would benefit to understand why they like something when you don’t, why they prioritize things over your main concerns, or if your assumptions/what you’re being told is actually true, and use that knowledge to the best of your ability. You might find that people care more about atmosphere over literary prose, that the difference between your book, Jonathan Jones, being great, and say Jane Austen, who you claim to love, is that she not only has great prose, but also characterization. If we were to argue (and only for the sake of argument) that Pratchett does not have great prose, but good characterization, you’ve just informed yourself via people you love and hate what your book is actually missing.

Does anyone want to live in a world where we perpetuate herd mentality or snobbery instead of a populace that informs themselves and forms a personal opinion? Do you, Jones, want people to say your book is bad just because they read a post by a person who “flicked through a book by him in a shop?”

You’re supposed to be a critic, which requires critical thinking, yet Jones’ criticism of Pratchett has no original thought to it at all.

He believes that literary merit lies strictly in poetic prose, and a simplistic way of speaking cannot be considered genius. Despite my many arguments that poetry can still be alive today if we are more open to it, and my hatred towards people’s insistence that writing be succinct and story oriented, it is because I want a more open minded look on the various styles authors have and not just be a bunch of Hemingway repeats (whom people consider literary because of his simplicity). But his claim that Pratchett isn’t cultured isn’t convincing, whether Pratchett is or not. Restating that his prose isn’t up to master standards, especially because of simplistic lines like, “The sky is blue,” indicates that he doesn’t have a good enough sense of what art is to form a more convincing and thorough argument.

This is further illustrated by his comparisons being writers like Austen, Bukowski, and several winners of the Nobel Peace prize in literature. So, you’re mad that people are paying attention to Pratchett and not the already acclaimed and awarded writers that every English major on the face of planet preaches as being “genius?” Did you seriously just write a piece on a book you haven’t read to tell us to read authors that we’ve already been told to read? Why are you a critic?

Instead, how about you point out a book that is underrated by society? Something that lives in obscurity, something that your fellow literary critics haven’t already told you to believe? How about you tell me an opinion that was made by informing yourself and developing a thought without taking the words out of someone else’s mouth? Oh, that’s right, because you’re not that well read, as you admitted.

There is, of course, a benefit to taking risks on a book that someone else hasn’t said, “You must read it!” And I’m not talking Pratchett here, necessarily. Reading Austen and Bukowski is great, but, again, it would be nice if you discussed reading and finding meaning in something that doesn’t just make you look good.

He writes off Pratchett because it’s science-fiction, because it’s humorous, because it’s not a dense read. You’re confusing the challenge of language with the challenge of thought. You make no effort to discuss how Pratchett made you feel, no effort to prove that Gabriel García Márquez  made you feel or think differently, gave no discussion to what elements made him a true titan of a novel, but instead put up a link that sent me to a cover of one of his books.

Again, I do not know if Pratchett has changed people’s understanding and outlook on bigger scopes, but that’s mostly because you, the alleged reviewer, don’t discuss it. In your entire “apology” claiming it as just entertainment, you don’t delve into any of the elements that I consider important in what makes a book literary versus just entertainment. You claim you “prefer writing that rubs up against the real world, that describes what it is to be alive in all its unpredictability, wild comedy, longing, grotesqueness, exhilaration – and shame,” and all I can think is that you mean you like things that are obviously real. You don’t have the imagination to make parallels to the lives of someone who isn’t just like you, human, a white male, perhaps, living in the world you live in. You can’t see real people in a culture you haven’t experienced, you can’t connect the everyday feelings and metaphor of someone in a science-fiction novel. So, why is it that you like Jane Austen? The experiences of her characters do not fit your own. Their problems aren’t things you experience. Just because she was taking from her real life doesn’t prove that science-fiction doesn’t. You never proved that Pratchett wasn’t predictable, comedic, portraying longing, grotesqueness, exhalation and shame—which I’m assuming at some point it has to do at least some of these things, commercial art focuses on emotions over intellectual stimulation. You commented how you find his prose ordinary and that it isn’t real life, therefore there isn’t real meaning. I’m not sure you can find real meaning for yourself even in a book like Mansfield Park; you need someone else telling you where it is.

And then you leave us with this lie: “All I am saying, and all I was saying, is that I prefer the literary kind.”

Really? Because what you actually said was that society was going downhill for reading science-fiction instead of the critically acclaimed books you probably haven’t read either. It wasn’t what you prefer, it’s that everyone’s an idiot but you, including the more informed readers.

Do you know what I think is making society go downhill? People who are so focused on being artsy, they refuse to give new things a chance and reconsider what art actually is. Instead of being open minded, questioning why their opinion differs from others and being vulnerable to the possibility that their limited view on what real art is could be wrong, allowing for people to experiment and create things of different goals and tactics, they write pretentious and insulting tirades about how stupid everyone else is for not thinking like them—from a man who clearly doesn’t think for himself.

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