This week’s Newspaper Novel abandons the literary historical approach to journalism, and just wallows in satire. Terry Pratchett is one of the most popular and widely-bought British authors, but he is also hardly ever mentioned in the heavyweight literary weeklies because his writing is funny. He was a writer of fantasy fiction, predominantly in the Discworld series, and he was a lean, keen and seasoned satirist with deadly effect. All this does not win him prizes outside genre fiction, and definitely gets him no respect from the London literati on the TV and radio. It simply is not respectable, nor likely to get you repeat gigs on Radio 3 arts programmes, to openly say ‘I would rather read Terry Pratchett than Zadie Smith’, or, ‘Terry Pratchett can say more sensible, and true, things about human society in one page than a whole issue of the London Review of Books’. I’m not bitter. I’m just SO BORED of the British literary establishment snooting at this effective, innovative, profound, clever, and much beloved writer. His slightly risible name didn’t help him in the literary snob stakes. However, he did receive a knighthood, which was very pleasing, and the author A S Byatt is secure enough in her position as an eminent British intellectual and philosopher to be able to say with enthusiasm that she thinks his novels are brilliant, so there is hope.
I will now get back to the point.
The Truth (2000) is a novel set in the largest and most uproarious city on Discworld, Ankh-Mopork. The city is transitioning from medieval squalor straight to the industrial revolution, cautiously. Long-distance communications have been invented in the form of large semaphore towers that go remarkably fast for such a clunky, physical mechanism. The invention of the postal service and the reform of the local currency will happen in the next few books, and the City Watch, the police force, have been reformed for some time, under the command of a cigar-chewing hero with a drink problem, Sam Vimes. The Watch is a microcosm of the city’s population, which fluctuates joyously and wildly as new ways of making money and spending it come and go. Most of the Watch officers are human. Others include a werewolf, a dwarf, some trolls, possibly a golem, and there are not yet vampires on the strength, but they may yet join. Several of the Watch are also female. With that in mind, you observe the city.
Ankh-Mopork is a place of ordinary people doing its business, which is making a living, and trying to earn more to enjoy living it. Naturally there are richer and poorer members of society, and some of the richer ones have lately taken to sending a subscription to a younger son of one of the rich families. He has been writing an intermittent newsletter recounting the events of the city that he thinks they would like to hear about. Society events, political ups and downs, what Lord Vetinari, the Patrician, or benign dictator totally in control, had to say about the Assassins’ Guild last week, and so on. William de Woorde writes this letter, has it engraved painstakingly, and sends the copies off to the subscribers. It’s been getting more mittent, as Pratchett would say, because what he writes about is unaccountably interesting to many people.
One day, William gets knocked over by a runaway cart carrying something extremely heavy, and wakes up in a workshop of anxious dwarves who are inventing a printing press. (Dwarves are the genius inventors and engineers of this society, and can build anything out of anything. One of the things I particularly like about Discworld is that although magic has its place there, it is never used wantonly or without due effect. Magic, as we all ought to know, * is not a daily event. You use magic, you have to pay for it, and in daily life you don’t want to pay for that sort of thing every day. There is no magic in this novel, unless you count what Otto the iconographer does with dark light, or his incessant reconstitutions from a pile of dust.)
The dwarves would like to do business with William. He takes a while to be persuaded, but is persuaded, that printing as a concept is going to be far cheaper, faster, flexible and more easily reproducible than engraving, and so an industry is born. With printing the newsletter is transformed into the newspaper: a daily sheet of stories describing events, sold on the streets, that people begin to quote at breakfast, and rely on as truth because the paper said so. With this simple fact, reflecting our own daily practice, the table of The Truth is spread wide for a satirical smorgasbord.
Who says what is news and what is not? Who controls the news? Why is a story true if it’s printed, but only a rumour if it’s spread verbally in the air? Why do people want to read about things they already know, but not about things that are new and vital and important? Why do people want to look at pictures of malformed vegetables? Why do people want to read a story if it’s got their name in it? At what point does a reporter, or an editor, get personally involved in a story? What is the difference between reporting and recording? Why do people want to read the stories made up in a cellar by a salesman rather than things that really happened? Why and how can a lie run faster around the world before truth can get its boots on? Why are many of the words used in newspaper stories never used in real speech in real life? (‘Rumpus’ and ‘fracas’ are the two that Pratchett cites. I would add ‘slammed’, and allowing alliteration to trump fact. My school-friend Gillian Philip and I were once featured in the Aberdeen Press and Journal as ‘Budding Brontes’ because we’d made the final of a national play-writing competition. I expect the P&J sub-editor knew the Brontes’ plays, because we didn’t.)
The printing press is like a hungry animal: you fill it up with the next issue, it spits out the pages and is quiet for a while, but soon, really too soon, it demands more news, more food, and you have to feed it. (The internet is exactly the same. How often have you checked the online newspaper only an hour or so after you last looked at its headlines? Pre-internet, we just watched the TV news at night, and read the paper in the morning, with a dash of radio headlines in between.) In The Truth, William is supplying a printed record of rumours to a city which had previously only talked about its rumours in conversation. The printed record immediately becomes important because of its permanence, visible for all to see and read. And people want more of it. The small magic of how words are produced from individual lead letters set in boxes in a compositing frame, freaks out some of the more conservative members of the Ankh-Mopork ruling class, because they are used to controlling anything they want, and now they cannot control the words being used to pin down rumours they don’t want made public. Such prolific printing can be dangerous. As Vimes says to William in exasperation, ‘Are you going to print EVERYTHING you hear? Are you going to run around my city like some loose siege weapon?’ William does use his newspaper as a weapon: as a duelling weapon in a battle against an undead lawyer, and as a weapon of investigation and challenge in the mysterious case of the disappearing Patrician. The Truth is a brilliant novel, and makes you think very hard about modern newspaper culture. What Pratchett would have made out of the Impending President-Elect and his manipulation of fact, truth, lies and human gullibility is one of the great unwritten novels of our age.
There is something for everyone in Pratchett’s massive collection of witty novels probing human nature and how society works. You want overgrown schoolboy puns about magic and education? Look at any of the wizard books from the Unseen University. You want slapstick and horror mixed up with drunken old ladies? Witches Abroad for you. You want crime fiction? Follow Commander Vimes. You got problems with feminism? Monstrous Regiment should set you right. You think books about small blue men and teenage girls are just for children? I Shall Wear Midnight is one of the most chilling books about the responsibilities of witchcraft I have ever read. You want Pratchett’s version of Gotham City, and the lunacy of getting a city to run on time? Any of the Ankh-Mopork novels will be a revelation, and should warn you off applying to sit on the local council. And if you’re into aliens and strange creatures, and interracial strife, The Fifth Elephant, and Thud, are masterpieces of inclusiveness politics. He’s a genius: just read him.
* Much as I love J K Rowling, the lack of a magical economy in her world-building irritates me immensely. I follow the Wizard of Earthsea economic system of magical economy, in that there has to be a balance. If we all cooked like Mrs Weasley or Queenie Goldstein, who digs the potatoes, mills the grain, milks and feeds the cow and sets the cream to rise? Using magic without balance or consequences devalues its effects, and makes it, ultimately, unbelievable. Since so much of Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts is profoundly believable, it feels wrong that the magic in that world works as a decorative way to skip over the boring bits of economic theory, or vigilante force, without democratic oversight. For a world in which magic is the whole point, this is weird. In contrast, magic on the Discworld matters, even though very few of its novels actually deal with magic per se, just with magical creatures.
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