This article first appeared on The Oxford Student website on 22 March 2015. This is kind of a bittersweet article for me. I found out that Terry Pratchett had died the same day I learned that Marcus and I would be editing the Arts and Lit section the following term. As soon as that meeting was over, I said to Marcus – ‘We have to do a Pratchett obituary, and I want to write it’. I wrote this the following week through an extremely nasty bout of flu. Finishing it, I felt much better – sometimes writing can be part of the healing process. At the very least, I hope this was a fitting tribute to one of the great comic novelists of the last thirty years.
The 12th of March saw the death of one of Britain’s most beloved authors, as the great Terry Pratchett died at his home in Wiltshire, at the age of 66. This followed a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, or “the embuggerance”, as he called it, diagnosed back in 2007. Since the diagnosis, Pratchett had become a staunch campaigner in favour of right-to-die legislation, as well as helping to raise awareness of the disease.
Pratchett enjoyed a long, and extremely prolific, literary career. His first novel, The Carpet People, was published in 1971, but it was in 1983 that the Discworld series, for which he is best know, began publication with the excellent The Colour of Magic. A gleefully subversive take on the fantasy genre, the series became a smash-hit, spawning over 40 novels out of more than 70 produced during his career as a whole. Pratchett was an extraordinary prose-smith, with an admirable, no-nonsense attitude to writing. In his own words, “If you trust in yourself and believe in your dreams and follow your star, you’ll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy.” At his peak he was cranking out two Discworld novels a year, all the more astounding when one considers the sheer quality of his work. Pratchett was an immensely skilled prose stylist, with a knack for the comedic turn of phrase and a great ability at assembling silly, yet deeply thoughtful plots. When it came to satire he could give Douglas Adams a run for his money, and he rivalled P.G. Wodehouse for sheer readability. He was, quite simply, one of Britain’s finest comic novelists, and his work ethic was such that, even after his death, he still has two more novels yet to be published, the fourth book in his Long Earth series with Stephen Baxter, and the final Discworld instalment.
In the 1990s Pratchett was Britain’s single best-selling author, and only lost that title when J.K. Rowling came along to nick his crown a few years later. His work was widely loved, as the flood of tributes over the last two weeks have shown, and when one considers his body of work, it’s not hard to see why. His stock in trade was the strange and fantastical– witches, ghosts, time travel, all that jazz. Hell, his most popular series was about a world consisting of a flat disc perched on the backs of four giant elephants riding through space on the back of a giant turtle – ‘silly’ is kind of the name of the game. But for all their weirdness, his novels always maintain a solid grounding in the material world. Pratchett places his examination and parody of genre tropes and the conventions alongside observational humour about real-world institutions and phenomena. Good Omens is simultaneously a novel about the end of the world and an eccentric odd-couple trying to do their best in the face of it. Guards! Guards! is a story about a stereotypical fantasy City Watch, and also a story about a bunch of deadbeat civil servants working for an underfunded government department. Johnny and the Bomb is an examination of the nature of time travel, and also a story about what it’s like to grow up in a dead-end Northern town. Pratchett’s novels are just as parodic of the real world as they are of fictional ones.
Pratchett was able to balance these real-world concerns with an extraordinary gift for comedy. His novels are immensely quotable – I had cause to quote him in an article just last month – and that degree of quotability is the mark of a skilled and powerful writer whose works stick with their readers. And Pratchett has undeniably left a mark on those who have read him – look no further than the fundraising campaign set up in his name for the The Research Institute for the Care of Older People (RICE). In just over a week it’s managed to raise over £40,000, and frankly, I can’t think of a better tribute. Terry Pratchett was a writer who inspired his readers to try and do some good in the world. And really, what more could a writer ask for?
PHOTO/ Luigi Novi