Talk about perfect timing.
Last week I republished a piece from my old blog in which I rejected the classification of art into “high” and “low,” the former being real and important and the latter being fluff and meaningless. That post was originally written in response to some stupid things said about music. How was I to know on the very same day someone would come along and provide an even better example from the world of books?
Jonathan Jones is an art critic for The Guardian, which should be a good indication that anything he says about books should be viewed with a grain of salt. I mean, he’s entitled to his opinion as much as any other reader, but he doesn’t really have any authority when it comes to books. Except that most amateur critics (myself included) at least clear the first hurdle – read about what you criticize, particularly if you’re going to talk shit about it.
Last week, Jones wrote a piece titled “Get Real. Terry Pratchett is not a literary genius.” It’s a provocative headline and, to be fair, probably wasn’t Jones’s (writers rarely get to pen their own headlines). In addition, while I and many others are big fans or Pratchett it’s perfectly okay not to be and to even think he’s overrated. As I’ve said before, all art is subjective and things either connect with you or they don’t. It’s not a crime to hold a minority opinion.
Having said that, you really can’t start your piece slagging off on an author like this:
It does not matter to me if Terry Pratchett’s final novel is a worthy epitaph or not, or if he wanted it to be pulped by a steamroller. I have never read a single one of his books and I never plan to. Life’s too short.
Jones does cop to “flick[ing] through a book by him in a shop,” but that’s hardly enough.
I’ll let Sam Jordinson at The Guardian take on Jones on the merits. I’m more interested in the way Jones sets up his argument, because it’s about more than Pratchett:
In the age of social media and eBooks, our concept of literary greatness is being blurred beyond recognition. A middlebrow cult of the popular is holding literature to ransom. Thus, if you judge by the emotional outpourings over their deaths, the greatest writers of recent times were Pratchett and Ray Bradbury. There was far less of an internet splurge when Gabriel García Márquez died in 2014 and Günter Grass this spring. Yet they were true titans of the novel. Their books, like all great books, can change your life, your beliefs, your perceptions. Everyone reads trash sometimes, but why are we now pretending, as a culture, that it is the same thing as literature? The two are utterly different.
In other words, there’s literature and there’s trash. Elitism doesn’t come any more stark than that, though I appreciate that Jones would at least allow everyone to read trash sometimes (if not, I’d never sell another book!).
Here’s a thought – maybe the passing of Pratchett or Bradbury caused more outpourings of grief because they were more popular that Márquez or Grass? It should not come as a huge shock that popular people are mourned more than others, regardless of why they’re popular. Popularity isn’t a marker of quality, anyway, so why does Jones care? Not to mention that history is riddled with artists (of various kinds) who died broke and unknown only to become regarded as masters years later.
I actually don’t disagree with Jones’s concluding thought that “we should stop this pretence that mediocrity is equal to genius.” But in this case, how the fuck would he ever know? He’s labeled Pratchett (and Bradbury and, one suspects, most others who write popular things) as mediocre without bothering to find out if they are.
In short Jonathan Jones – stick to art. And go fuck yourself.