It’s been a sad time for funny books, with Terry Pratchett’s recent passing. He was a big part of my reading life; my Dad had a load of Discworld novels that I borrowed after he’d finished. Sometimes before as well, if he wasn’t quick enough after a trip to Waterstone’s.
I read Wyrd Sisters first and remember laughing out loud within three pages; after that I was hooked. From Pratchett I moved on to Robert Rankin and obviously the hilarious Douglas Adams. The books were easy to read and comforting. Funny books are the sort of thing you take on holiday, or you turn to when you want to read something you can escape into, something that isn’t going to be depressing. But Pratchett’s books, like Adam’s, aren’t just escapism. They’re clever too; they often reference classical texts as well as satirising contemporary life and can be sad and touching at times. But they’re no work to read and work on the surface level without any need for deeper reading, if that’s what you want, which is probably what makes them so popular.
Does that popularity, however, make them less worthy than serious literary fiction? I doubt there are many readers who still exist strictly on a literary diet of serious fiction only, because that would be really hard work and reading is a voluntary leisure activity people do for entertainment, rather than as a variety of intellectual masochism. Some books can seem like self-flagellation but can be ultimately rewarding: Crime and Punishment wasn’t exactly the most fun I’d ever had when I read it for my degree but it stuck with me afterwards and you know, helped me pass the module. Similarly, A Girl is a Half Formed Thing by Eimear McBride was hard going but excellent and more than worth the effort it took to get used to the style, and cope with the somewhat challenging subject matter. No matter the eventual rewards though I couldn’t have managed to read these books back to back, and there have been loads of times I’ve given up on a book just because it’s too soon after another difficult read. Funny books are a great way to break up more arduous novels and reading something amusing can be really refreshing after having to go through the details of incest, brain tumours, donkey torture and old woman murdering.
Perhaps that makes funny or lighter books the supporting act to the main event. So is, say, McBride’s contribution to literature more important than Pratchett’s? I suppose it depends how you judge it. If you’re looking for the author most likely to be remembered in the future, then at the moment Pratchett is ahead by miles. If you’re thinking in terms of experimental and thought-provoking writing that moves the boundaries, then it’s clearly going to be McBride. Of course, no one’s really pitting them against each other because that would be completely pointless. But we judge books all the time – trashy novels are relegated to beach reading, some people only read stuff like Proust and Nabakov and feel totally justified with that decision. They’d probably guffaw wildly at the idea of reading a Discworld book, and not for the right reasons.
There shouldn’t be any book-based snobbery, I mean if you’re reading you’re not mainlining the whole of first series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the fourth time on Netflix, which is real dedication. Pratchett and Adams were both adept at sneaking in little barbs that make you think yeah, why is that like that? It could be argued that this sort of book are more clever and definitely more subtle than any in your face book that openly explores an issue or idea. Coming to an idea by yourself instead o being led there is much more effective – you’re more likely to really think about it if the idea has blossomed organically in your mind rather than being inserted on a placard and waved around aggressively.
It’s easy to put books, or any type of culture, into one box or another and decide how worthwhile they are, but ultimately that’s not how it really works. The distinctions only exist in the limited mind of the judgemental. I loved Terry Pratchett’s novels and I’m glad he was around to enlighten my reading life. Thanks, Terry.