GUILTY OF LITERATURE
Edited by Andrew M. Butler, Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Humorous literature is often derided as being a light effort. After more than thirty novels in which to hone his satirical wit, Terry Pratchett’s writing is as worthy of serious scholarly study as Mark Twain or Jonathan Swift. In Terry Pratchett: Guilty of Literature, a collection of essays published by the Science Fiction Foundation, eleven authors examine complementary aspects of Pratchett’s writing, both within the Discworld sequence and outside that series, to attempt to spur discussion about Pratchett’s work and the philosophy outlined in his novels.
The authors have divided Pratchett’s work into reasonably neat categories: children’s novels, death, unseen university, the librarian, etc. While this allows the essays to maintain a close focus on their subjects without worry of contradicting the other essayists, it limits the collection by dissuading the authors from comparing themes which appear in the sub-series of novels. There can be no parallels drawn between Verence’s discovery of his Lancre royal blood and the possibility that Carrot is Ankh-Morporkian royalty within the confines of this study.
The strongest essays are those which focus on broad themes using a wide variety of Pratchett’s writing: humor, faith, and narrative spaces. Farah Mendlesohn can draw on all of Pratchett’s works in her discussion of faith and ethics, thereby strengthening the arguments she advances in the final essay. Similarly, Cherith Baldry can look at the children’s books of the Bromeliad series, the Johnny series and The Carpet People to discern common threads between them and examine the way Pratchett plays with these themes and expands on them as he matured as an author. Baldry’s study points to the possibility of a further study of Pratchett’s maturity in an examination of the differences between the original publication of The Carpet People (1971) and its revision in 1992.
Because the essays are brief, in many cases they can only hint at areas which are deserving of further study. Penelope Hill’s comments on the importance of wizards’ hats in her essay on Unseen University begs for a study of the role of magical headwear ranging from the wizards’ and witches’ hats of Discworld to the sorting hat of J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series. Other articles, notably John Clute’s essay on coming of age in Pratchett’s novels, are vague, giving an indication that they are merely the opinions of the author rather than supportable analysis. In any event, Terry Pratchett: Guilty of Literature is clearly the first volley in the analysis of Pratchett’s writing.
Readers already familiar with Pratchett’s writings will get the most out of Terry Pratchett: Guilty of Literature. Although prior knowledge of Pratchett’s characters and situations is not necessary for the collection to be interesting and informative, it does help to have an idea about the topics and characters before beginning to read the extrapolations in the book.