Way back when I was doing my undergrad degree, I did a subject called Popular Fiction. I was excited to be reading popular fiction and calling it work for uni! I was less excited when I got to the first tutorial to discover that, of about 20 of us, I think only 2 or 3 admitted to actually reading popular fiction regularly… everyone else said they were doing the subject “to know what other people read” (I paraphrase).* This made me a bit bullheaded. So did the lecturer insisting on differentiating between the reading/appreciating of literature, versus the consumption of popular fiction. This one still makes me angry, although I do wonder now how much the younger me missed nuances here; the lecturer was definitely cluey enough to understand Austen and Shakespeare as originating in the popular sphere. So perhaps I overreacted and/or misunderstood some aspect.

Anyway, over time I have come to terms with the fact that yes, actually, I am a consumer of popular culture, and that is OK. It does not make that culture bad, it does not mean that I am no appreciating it properly, etc etc. Basically I have grown up, and grown into my skin. So I am quite happy to say that hell yes I consume Terry Pratchett books. I devour them: I read them quickly, in concentrated blocks of time; they don’t require me to stop and worry over words or sentences that don’t make sense. That said, I tend to treat Literature (when I have to read it) in much the same way. At the very same time, though, as Anita Sarkeesian rightly insists, just because you enjoy a product of popular culture doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be critically analysed (again, I paraphrase).


This is the long way round to saying “I read Snuff! It was awesome!”

… and dealt with some big issues in clever ways, as you would expect. (There are some spoilers below.)

Pratchett has dealt with racism, via speciesism, before: human reactions to werewolves, vampires, dwarves, trolls, zombies, etc etc – these have all been coded as racial. And, from memory, generally done well (I could be wrong there; it’s been a while). In Snuff Pratchett makes this the central issue, because the main problem revolves around goblins and whether they ought to be treated as sentient, sapient, creatures. For a long time they have been regarded as vermin, and many people have treated them in ways matching that perception. But now Sam Vimes and family are off for a Holiday, and there are Hints that all is not well in the bucolic surrounds he finds himself in. Not least the difficulty of understanding crockett, and having to confront horses.

I’ve had to think carefully about the way Pratchett portrays the goblins. One of the crescendo moments is a goblin, Tears of the Mushroom, playing the harp for a huge crowd in Ankh-Morpok. That is, a member of a subjected race, wearing ‘civilised’ clothes, goes to the heart of civilisation and plays an instrument that is coded as approaching the zenith of musical accomplishment, and there impresses the (civilised) bigwigs. This could all be seen as uncomfortably close to recreating the classic idea of the western civilising mission.

… Except. Except that the goblins have already been shown, very clearly, to have their own culture and don’t need ‘civilising’. They have a rich language, evidenced clearly by their names (Tears of the Mushroom!); they make art (some of which is so precious that humans who regard the goblins as little better than animals will steal it); they care for one another and about justice. They are wretches in that they are wretched – through no fault of their own. And Tears of the Mushroom plays her own composition, and is in no way dismayed by the audience before her. By the time Tears of the Mushroom plays, the reader should be so convinced about the sentience and sapience of the goblins that any of the characters doubting it should cause serious eye-rolling. Many of the human characters are also convinced early on, which is also intended to convince the audience, just in case you missed all of the other very obvious signs.

Thus what Pratchett is doing is showing, to some extent, an example of the old westernising/civilising mission – there’s no doubt that’s what Miss Beadle is doing, whatever her intentions – and then… not entirely sending it up, but certainly undermining it, and definitely showing that is is quite unnecessary for the sake of the goblins themselves. Although maybe it’s necessary for the acknowledged-as-civilised, to make them realise what they are doing to this race.

There are other issues under examination here too. The place of landed gentry and inherited titles (written after all by Sir Pratchett), with a lovely sneaky homage to Jane Austen; and how a copper manages to love both his work and his family. Pratchett has delved into Sam Vimes’ head a few times in the recent books and I think his ideas about policing etc are utterly intriguing. I especially loved here the abstracted notion of the Street as something that stays with people like Vimes, and helps him to be who he is.

I love the Discworld. I think the books are, as a whole, getting better. I wish I thought there were many more to come.

*I was also less excited about having a Jackie Collins novel on the booklist. In three years of English at uni, this is one of the few books I just did not read.**

** One of the others was Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle.***

*** I also didn’t finish James Joyce’s Ulysses. Peh; bad taste in the mouth.

4 responses

  1. I love this post!

    By the way, what did you think of the House Elves in Harry Potter, from this point of view? I could never figure out exactly what J K Rowling was trying to get at there. Slavery is ok… sometimes? When it’s consensual? The whole thing made me pretty uncomfortable.

    1. Thanks Alice!
      It’s been ages since I read Harry Potter but I wonder if there’s an idea that slavery can become so ingrained that there’s an attempt to find dignity in it?? I dunno, and I don’t know whether that makes it ok either. Le Guin does something similar-ish in Four Ways to Forgiveness, suggesting that some of the oppressed people find ways of it working for them… I’m probably not the right person to be commenting on the issue 😀

      1. Hm, I’ll have to read that Le Guin.

        By the way, I love this discussion of the common failure mode of SF/Fantasy analogies to real life issues:

  2. […] Snuff, Terry Pratchett; Thor: the Dark World; Tooth and Claw, Jo […]

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