In defence of "mediocre literature"

September 28, 2015

(Photo courtesy of Brad Wakefield)


In a recent Guardian article entitled "Get Real. Terry Pratchett is not a literary genius", critic Jonathan Jones said that "our obsession with mediocre writers is a very disturbing cultural phenomenon".


Throughout the article, Sir Terry Pratchett is lumped into the category of "mediocre writers", and Discworld dismissed – a far cry from "literature". The basis of his argument? A brief flick through a paragraph or two, after accidentally straying into the fantasy section. This has undoubtledly prickled me, and more so because no doubt my own books are also lumped into the same pile.


In my opinion, this smacks loudly and proudly of book snobbery. I fail to understand why Discworld books cannot be considered literature, and why Sir Terry cannot be thought of as a genius. I believe people like Jones are missing the true definition of literature, and that's just criminal to me.


What is literature, at its core? Usually, the term implies works of lasting artistic merit – books that I would refer to as "classics". Your Christmas Carols. Your Pride and Prejudices. Your Catchers in the Rye. These books are great, they truly are, but refusing to acknowledge any other caste of book simply because it is not a classic is to take a narrow view of the written craft. It's like being shown a huge buffet and only trusting to one dish. To me, literature simply means the written word. From your "trash" to your Mansfield Parks, it's all literature. But that doesn't seem to fit with the view of Mr Jones.


Jones examples his view of "actual" literature early on in the article. When talking about authors Gabriel García Márquez and Günter Gras he says: "Their books, like all great books, can change your life, your beliefs, your perceptions." And later: "Great books become part of your experience. They enrich the very fabric of reality."


Spot on. Exactly right. To me, great literature is any book that has the power to turn simple, inked words into emotion, into physical pain, joy, frustration, or anger. I don't care who put the words there, or when they were written, but if mere words can evoke a physical reaction in me, then they have power. That power is what lies at the core of great literature.


And yet there is a clear resistance to the view that, gods forbid, a person might actually be moved or brought to tears by a Discworld novel. (Those of us who have will know better.) Should we succumb, it's because "our eyes have been blurred by eBooks and social media". Right.


It seems that if a book wasn't written a 100 years ago, isn't incredibly difficult to read, or doesn't take a long time to get through, it is therefore mediocre and consequently not literature. This is evidenced by such comments as: "Actual literature may be harder to get to grips with than a Discworld novel", and "This summer I finally finished Mansfield Park". Sorry, Mr Jones, but all of this is absolute tripe to me. You can't know a book's true quality by seeing how much dust it's got in its covers. To not pay a story the attention it deserves is to admit ignorance of a its true value.


As to whether an author should be considered a genius or not, well surely that should be measured by how many readers he or she can move. In the case of Sir Terry, that's a heck of a lot of people.


Of course, what moves me won't necessarily move my nextdoor neighbour. For instance, I wasn't moved by Lord of the Flies. I wouldn't discredit it, however, or call it trash. My point is the world is a treasure trove of literature, just waiting to be discovered. Don't simply flick through a page or two in a bookstore, throw together a rough opinion, and dismiss it as a "disturbing cultural phenomenon". The only disturbing thing here is that such snobbery refuses to dip their toes in something with a little imagination. Or in Sir Pratchett's case, bucket-loads of it. My opinion? They're missing out, and that's a true shame.


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Ben Galley is an award-winning dark and epic fantasy author who currently hails from Victoria in Canada. Find out more:


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September 19, 2019

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