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If you only had a brain

scarecrow-in-fieldFarah Mendlesohn called my attention to this bit of fuckwittery from The Guardian, in which their art critic Jonathan Jones opines that the late Terry Pratchett wrote “trash” while the equally late Günter Grass was a “true titan of the novel,” so why is everyone more sad about the passing of Sir Terry? The dumbness of this point–let’s start with the fact that more people love Pratchett’s books more than people love Grass’s–is exacerbated by the fact that Jones admits, nay, crows, that he’s never read a word of Pratchett and doesn’t intend to.

I have only read about half a dozen of Pratchett’s books and none of Grass’s, so I have no opinion of their comparative merits. (That didn’t stop Jones but I haven’t passed judgment on a book I haven’t read since that time I put Red Shift on a syllabus but never got around to reading it before the class began. I was younger then.) But his argument is straw-man specious: as far as I can tell, the only person comparing Pratchett to Grass is Jones.

He is right, though, that critical discourse is now both puffed-up and flattened. I blame the internet, although God knows even The Horn Book has tossed around words like “brilliant” and “ground-breaking” for books that are in hindsight “smart” and “different from those other books we’ve been seeing lately.” But not only has the internet brought together readers, critics, creators, fans, and publicists in what can be an orgy of self-serving hyperbole, it has leveled distinctions between high, middlebrow, and disposable culture, with TV episodes, for example, dissected with the same assiduousness as, well, the works of Pratchett or Grass. It makes me think of Anne Lamott writing in Bird by Bird about her brief but over-reaching career as a restaurant reviewer, where one of her friends had to remind her gently that “Annie, it’s just a bit of cake.”

It is a peculiarity of books for youth–along with speculative fiction and romance novels–that its devotees frequently feel burdened by the genre’s putatively second-class status of not being “real literature.” The defensiveness is certainly warranted–witness critics like Jonathan Jones!–but it can also lead to claims of greatness than only resound in the choir loft. If I were to write “Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books are awfully good children’s books” (talk about clickbait) I would inevitably be scolded for putting limits on their goodness. But can’t it be enough that something be an awfully good children’s book without claiming it stands among the titans of literature writ large?

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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Comments

  1. When I read that article, I thought, Haven’t I read this in The Guardian before? But it was written by someone else? And it involved other authors? It seems as if they have a template for this article and just plug in different names.

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