Saturday, November 29, 2008

Slightly Behind

Due to marking beyond my control, Japes for Owre Tymes will be taking a short break this weekend. You may already have noticed the beginning of this break happening yesterday. That portion of the break occurred accidentally. The rest will be occurring on purpose.

I apologise for any inconvenience, though if you are truly inconvenienced by the lack of Middle English comics, our funny pages are in an even worse state than I keep implying.

With luck, I shall get enough work done tomorrow that I won't feel guilty about resuming my daily Japes on Monday. Until then, happy weekend. May your piles of marking not be as hideously enormous as mine.

Yours in the midst of another headache,

Angry Kem.
P.S.: To tide you over, here is a picture I drew for my class. You probably recognise Harry Potter...but the guy on the left is Sam Vimes from Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. We were discussing the Pratchett/Rowling clash that took place after Rowling announced that she didn't particularly like fantasy and hadn't thought of her books as belonging to the fantasy genre until after she had finished the first one. There is really no reason for me to post this picture, but I was feeling all empty and wrong about publishing a post that did not contain any images. I think I may have issues.*

*Oh, all right...I know I do have issues.


The Prettiest said...

That is an awesome Vimes.

The Prettiest said...

I wish there were a way to edit comments. Oh well. Here goes: this may also explain Vimes's distaste for magic.

Jessica said...


You've made previous references to producing a webcomic; at what interweb location may we behold it?

(Perhaps I'm asking a silly questions, and have overlooked a large red flashing "Kem's Webcomic Here!" link)

Angry Kem said...

Jessica: There's no big flashing link. As I've said before, I feel silly about mocking newspaper comics while waving my hands about and going, "Hey, everyone...I draw a comic too!" However, on the understanding that I recognise my own comic's potential for medievalisation, I'll give you the URL here:

Michael said...

I much prefer Pratchett's books to Rowling's. Pratchett is writing for adults and his books are more social satire than anything else.

Rowling's a mixed blessing. On one hand, she should be congratulated for getting so many children to read. On the other, she needs to actually read a genre before she's critical of it and makes statements like she's "subverting" it. She's obviously never even attempted anything but Lewis and Tolkien.

I think the niche she's found is that she's the first person in a long time to write very accessible, easy to read fantasy for children. Children's literature either tends to be puerile rubbish, or darker and more serious and therefore with less mass appeal. She's hit that lucky medium (with her first couple of books, anyway) that appeals to lots of kids, without talking down to them. Lewis still knocks her into a cocked hat though. People who complain about his religious iconography seem to forget that there are seven Narnia books, not just The Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe.

As for adult fantasy, which Rowling looks down on, she doesn't hold a candle to the majority of authors out there, including Pratchett.

Angry Kem said...

Michael: Don't be so quick to dismiss children's literature. There is certainly some "puerile rubbish," but I could say the same about any "adult" genre as well. There is some fantastic kids' lit out there, and a lot of it is just as accessible as Rowling's stuff. My class has actually been discussing this whole issue lately, and the students have been leaning towards the right-place-at-the-right-time theory. Rowling came along after a decade of publishers and readers moving sharply away from fantasy; Pratchett was possibly the exception that proved the rule. She gave us what was basically a straight-up mythic hero, unencumbered by irony; people seemed to be ready for one of those. Unfortunately, the other kids' fantasists who had been producing astounding stuff for decades suddenly found themselves playing second fiddle to someone who had happened upon a winning formula at the strategic moment.

I like the HP books, but I agree that they're not the paragons of perfection a lot of people seem to think they are. Kids' fantasy is an interest of mine, and I wish the public's devotion to Rowling didn't shove so many good authors into the shadows (though admittedly, quite a few kids' fantasies that were out of print before Rowling came along have been brought out in new editions because kids and adults are needing their fantasy fix).

In my pop-lit class, we studied both Guards! Guards! and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. The students belong to the HP generation; in other words, they grew up with the HP books, which they started reading in about 1999. Most of them vastly prefer Rowling to Pratchett, of whom they have never heard. I tried to stir up some Pratchett love, but many of the students dismissed him as "confusing" or "inaccessible to people who didn't read fantasy." One of them even called him sexist (we had a long, spirited discussion about that one).

Sorry for the long comment, but this issue fascinates me. You can probably tell.

Oh...and I'd just like to note that the religious iconography continues all the way through the Narnia books. The Last Battle is pretty startling to anyone who knows anything about the Antichrist story.

Interestingly, Rowling has claimed that she hasn't been able to get very far with either Lewis or Tolkien.

The Prettiest said...

What age group are we talking about, your students? Because I would have thought I was about their age, and I was actually scared off of Harry Potter for a while because it was marketed and written about as "children's" literature. I stuck with Pratchett (and Asimov, though that's a slightly different kind of fantastic lit), and had read LoTR years earlier, so I'm curious about people who are so close to my age who didn't encounter "real" fantasy first.

Angry Kem said...

The Prettiest: Most of the students are in the first or second year of university. From what I could tell when I asked the question in class, a lot of them first encountered Harry Potter when they were in grade five (in 1999) through Scholastic book orders (this would have been the American edition; some of them brought their old American copies to class). They were, in fact, children, and therefore were not afraid of reading children's literature.

By "real fantasy," do you mean high fantasy (or sword-and-sorcery fantasy, which is similar)? There are a lot of other types...but yes, I can see how sword-and-sorcery-type stuff might be jarring to someone who thought all fantasy was like HP.

Michael said...

My major objection to Rowling is she's not a particularly good writer. In his early books, Pratchett wasn't either. The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic are readable, but nowhere near the same level as Thud or the Tiffany Aching books.

I can understand why some of your students don't care for Pratchett. Going Postal satirizes both bureaucracies and anarcho-capitalists.* Thud considers racism, specifically how ethnic minorities react with each other.

Let me consider racism as handled by Rowling and Pratchett. The racism in Harry Potter is stereotypical racism, portrayed in black and white. It's the whole reason of existence for the bad guys. It is pronounced so blatantly and obvious, and by characters who Rowling goes to great lengths to portray as petty and stupid: In Harry Potter, all racists are either stupid or evil. The racists are different from "us," because we readers, like the main characters with whom we identify, are the smart and good guys. In the end, Rowling doesn't really criticize anyone. She doesn't tell us anything, she just makes us feel good because we're so obviously not racists.

What Pratchett portrays, starting in the Ankh-Morpork books, is the everyday racism of passive prejudice and discrimination of which we're all guilty. Ankh-Morpork faces a very real challenge: Increasing immigration of foreign ethnic groups, inevitably changing the demography and culture of the city, and people acting in response to that. The Human-Dwarf-Troll relations are all about normal people trying to lead entirely normal lives; not stupid or evil, just people, like us. Furthermore, in Rowling's HP, the victims of racism remain just that, victims. They sit idly and wait for the good guys to liberate them from hate and violence. In Ankh-Morpork, the alienation and frustration leads the Dwarves and the Trolls into forming aggressive countercultural groups (vividly described in Thud), very much like many Muslims in today's West. Pratchett explores not just racist expressions, but also the reasons for them and their consequences for society.

*It's obvious where Pratchett's sympathies lie on the question of libertarianism.

The Prettiest said...

Kem: I started reading Pratchett only a little before HP came out*, and at that time I was about 13, which should be about Rowling's wheelhouse. I was a "child" in the same sense as Harry Potter being "children's" literature. Once I finally read the HP books I was quite pleased with them (becoming progressively less so as the series progressed past the third book, but I still see the time reading them as well spent), but I still preferred Pratchett. Now for the footnote.

*I started with Feet of Clay, which may have helped my enjoyment. I've since read all the others except the first two. If I had to start with Guards! Guards! I might not have been so taken, but it was still quite good. The first two, though, I've never been able to work my way through; they're drek. Eric also is execrable, but short enough that by the time I figured out it had nothing of interest it was over.

PFN by "real" fantasy I mean both swords-and-dragons Tolkien-esque stuff and more nuanced takes like Pratchett's. Basically "real" is the same distinction Rowling draws, but in scare quotes because I fail to see that great a distinction.

Angry Kem said...

The Prettiest: I think most of my students were ten or eleven when they started reading the books. You seem to be a few years older than them. They were children, quite literally. It is highly doubtful any of them would have had a chance to be exposed to Pratchett (in fact, I'm not sure there's a single student in either of my classes who has encountered Pratchett before this year. Yes, I do find that sad). Some of them are familiar with Lewis and Tolkien, and a few read other fantasy. Several are into that new Twilight series, which I haven't read and, in fact, have no desire to read (my sister tells me that it involves a helpless female protagonist and far too many pointless love scenes); one even enthusiastically declared that Twilight was the new Harry Potter.

I agree with Michael that Pratchett's stuff is more nuanced than Rowling's, though I also agree with The Prettiest that Pratchett's writing varies widely in quality. I made the mistake of starting with The Colour of Magic; I couldn't get more than a few pages into it and abandoned Pratchett until a few years later, when someone recommended Mort. I'm not sure Guards! Guards! is the best starting point, though it's one of my favourites; however, we've been discussing heroes a lot this term, and it was instructive to compare Vimes and Carrot (and even, as a couple of students pointed out, Errol) to the other heroes on the course. I would really have liked to do Night Watch, but it's pretty inaccessible to someone who isn't already familiar with the Watch books.

Thud isn't really my favourite book. It does some great stuff with the species/race issue, but it also gets pretty preachy. I do, however, have an extreme fondness for the scene in which a bloodstained, deranged Vimes screams out the entirety of Where's My Cow?

Michael said...

One of the tropes discussed at the TV Tropes* website is the Crowning Moment of Awesome. Vimes facing down a group of armed dwarves, one with a flame thrower, while shrieking "THAT IS NOT MY COW!", is such a moment.

My favorite Crowning Moment of Awesome in Pratchett's books is in The Last Hero. Fate rolls a six on a die and challenges Genghis Cohen to beat it. Cohen tosses the die in the air, whips out his sword, and cuts the die in half. Both halves land cut side down, showing a six and a one. Cohen rolls a natural seven on a six-sided die. That is awesome.

*Warning: TV Tropes is one of those websites where you can waste hours. Proceed to there with caution.

Pope Lizbet said...

That rocks my socks. Especially your Vimesy.