I’m embarrassed by how long it took me to discover Terry Pratchett. I avoided him during much of my early reading career—I’d read the works of fantastical humorists before, and while I’d always enjoyed the experience, it wasn’t something I intentionally sought out. I didn’t realize I was missing out on what are arguably the best books fantasy has to offer.
It’s hard to describe Pratchett to the uninitiated. His works mostly take place on a fictional world shaped like a disc, and the stories tend to be murder mysteries or thrillers mixed with a healthy dose of satire on the human condition. Like the best works of fantasy, a journey with his trolls, witches, and crusty night watchmen provokes inspection of our own world. But what other authors do with light allusions, Discworld does with a sledgehammer. And with light allusion too. Then it steals your wallet.
Discworld is story, humor, and philosophy all in one. Nowhere else have I been made to laugh so much while being forced to think so much, all while being given a wonderful plot. The closest thing to Pratchett out there is Shakespeare. Yes, really.
Here’s the core of my argument, then. Pratchett isn’t just funny, Pratchett is transcendent. There are lots of funny writers. Some are hilarious. A few are good at making you think at the same time. But most humorists, while brilliant, have trouble with story. If I put their book down, I remember the laughter, but feel no urgency to return. Those narratives don’t get their hooks in me—they don’t have that pull, like gravity, that a good plot builds. In short, they don’t make me think—bleary-eyed at 3:00 a.m.—that I need to read one more chapter.
Pratchett, on the other hand, routinely makes me lose sleep. His best stories (I suggest Going Postal or The Truth) have excellent narrative urgency, but add to it a level of riotous wit. Then, if that weren’t enough, they kick you in the head with moments of poignant commentary—unexpected, brazen, and delightful.
This has to be the highest level of fiction. It does everything that great fiction does—but then makes us laugh too.
Pratchett is by no means under-appreciated. His sales are solid, he has heaps of fans, and there’s also that whole “being knighted” thing that happened to him. However, I can’t help but notice a distinct lack of top-level literature awards in his pocket. One British SF Award, one Locus Award, but no Hugos, Nebulas, or World Fantasy awards (often considered the top three prizes in science fiction and fantasy) let alone any mainstream awards. Could it be that we’re so comfortable with Pratchett that we take him for granted?
Maybe it’s the humor. Long-standing wisdom in Hollywood states that comedies, no matter how brilliant, don’t take top prizes. If you want to sell tickets, you make people laugh. If you want to win awards, you make them cry. As the poet once said, “I can’t get no respect.”
I spent years in a graduate literature program learning what makes great writing, and the only conclusion we came to was that the future of graduate literature programs was safe because nobody is ever going to agree on what makes great writing. However, there are some things that the true greats seem to share.
One of these is conscious use of language. Pratchett has that—boy does he. Each and every word is chosen with precision, stuffing in jokes like kids playing chubby bunny.
Another is subtle use of literary allusion. Again, Pratchett is a genius at this, though instead of alluding to Greek epics (well, in addition to the Greek epics) Pratchett’s allusions tend to center on pop culture and history. (Have a look over at the fan annotations for one of his books on L-Space to get a feel for the level of allusion, often in the form of puns, you’ll find in his books. http://wiki.lspace.org/mediawiki/index.php/Annotations.)
Another measure of great writing is great characters. While it would be easy to dismiss Pratchett here because of the numerous one-sided caricatures who populate Discworld, those aren’t often the meat of the stories. The protagonists at the very center have real heart, emotion, drive, and growth. I find Vimes, Pratchett’s unpretentious captain of the city watch, one of the most complex and endearing characters in fiction. (Night Watch is the height of the Vimes storyline, if you’re interested.)
And then they’re funny. Really, truly funny. The clown makeup distracts us. It makes us smile and draws our attention away from the majesty of the features. I maintain that what Pratchett does is not just great, but unparalleled.
In five hundred years, it won’t be the Nobel laureates who are being studied. It’s going to be this guy.
Thank you, Sir Terry.
Brandon Sanderson is the author of Elantris, The Mistborn Trilogy, The Way of Kings and, with Robert Jordan, the New York Times bestselling The Gathering Storm, Towers of Midnight, and A Memory of Light, the final volumes to the epic Wheel of Time.