Lately, things around my office have been a little hectic. After using my brain all day, usually in the fire-extinguisher capacity, I find that when I come home, all I want to do is curl up with light entertainment. Something funny and possibly a little silly, to watch or to read.
This, my friends, is an environment that fair cries out for Terry Pratchett.
What’s that? Some of you don’t know Terry Pratchett? Well, I suppose it makes sense. His brand of absurdity (that isn’t actually all that absurd, when you get down to it) is one that will not appeal to everyone. Of course, in this case, Not Everyone would mean the portion of the population that did not buy one of the seventy million copies of his books in any of their thirty-seven languages. (To be fair, I’m betting some of those languages exist only in the minds of Terry Pratchett and some of his more obsessive fans.) His book sales accounted for only 2% of all the fiction sold in the U.K., after all, and probably an even smaller percentage of the fiction sold in the U.S., so it is possible that you inhabit the earth at this moment in time, meet regulation literary standards beyond the second grade, and have never encountered his work. Plus, he did take that big popularity hit a few years back. He was the #1 British fiction author, BHP. (Before Harry Potter.) Well, the number one living British fiction author. Comparison with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien really wouldn’t be fair. The dead have a clear advantage when it comes to marketing. They whisper in your ear as you sleep to read their works and it’s called haunting, and it’s considered sort of romantic. If you are still alive, this approach is referred to as subliminal advertising and it’s illegal. (Unless of course you are married to or closely related to the people you are selling to, in which case it’s variously called annoying as hell or grounds for justifiable homicide, depending on the current state of jurisprudence and exactly how badly your target needs to get some sleep.)
I’m going off on a tangent, but Mr. Pratchett – excuse me, Sir Terry – would appreciate that, I think. Most of his books appear to be a continuous series of tangents bound together by a non sequitur. In reality, they are satire of the most skillful sort – the kind that raises the threat of making you think, and then interrupts itself before you can actually get around to it. In fact, your foundational thinking may have altered by the time you come to the end of the volume without you actually having noticed. It’s a good idea to leave some sort of test on your nightstand, to see whether, somewhere in between chuckles and full-on belly laughs, you may have been the victim of an involuntary paradigm shift.
Now that we’re all on the same page, I can get back to that point I wanted to make in the beginning. (My tombstone is probably going to read I did have a point in there somewhere.) Here begins the rest of the tale, involving worrying, Wyrd Sisters, and wisdom wandering in from a foreign land…
The other day, a complete stranger wandered into my website and emailed me, asking me to send her the rest of one of my books. This was both flattering and nerve-wracking. Everyone who had asked to read my books up till then had been a friend or family member, someone who would go into the experience trying to like my book, or would at least try hard to spare my feelings if they didn’t. (I’ll give them this, to date no one has been reduced to “it was…um…interesting.”) I had asked for feedback, as I always do. But what if this person didn’t like my book? What if they told me a whole bunch of stuff that was wrong with it? What if, in fact, at the end of the day, the book just wasn’t any good?
What if my writing actually just wasn’t any good?
The same evening as I thought all of these things, I was reading one of Sir Terry’s books – Wyrd Sisters, to be specific - and came across a passage where a court jester explains how he was trained in foolery, particularly juggling:
Brother Jape, a man with a soul like cold boiled string, taught juggling. It wasn’t that the Fool was bad at juggling that reduced him to incoherent fury. Fools were expected to be bad at juggling, especially if juggling inherently funny items like custard pies, flaming torches or extremely sharp cleavers. What had Brother Jape laying about him in red-hot, clanging rage was the fact that the Fool was bad at juggling because he wasn’t any good at it.
I laughed myself silly at this contradiction, which, when you think about it, isn’t really contradictory at all. Like Picasso’s works – we’re all fine with you doing that weird stuff, as long as underneath, we know you could paint a nice, proper picture if you wanted to.
But then I started to think about my writing again, and was suddenly struck by a thought – the reader had read the first chapter, and she wanted to read more. People read my website, and they come back and read more. I’m closing in on 7,000 hits (okay, I’m still over 300 hits away, but it’s a lot closer to 7,000 than it used to be) and they can’t all be from my family and friends. (As my dear friend Diana explained to me, “It’s not that we don’t love you enough to sit and push the button over and over again, we just don’t have the time.”) Some people, at least at some times, want to read the stuff that I write.
And really, it doesn’t matter if the stuff I write is any good. It matters if people want to read it.
If you’re thinking this sounds like a chicken/egg proposition, you’re not wrong. Writing, like all creative endeavors, is not like math. There is not a right and wrong answer. There is no measurement against which it can be graded. It is good if people decide they get something out of reading it. Take my beloved Jane Austen as an example – I think her writing is amazing both as storytelling and as subtly biting (nibbling?) commentary of the society in which she lived. Mark Twain, on the other hand, once remarked that any library that didn’t have Jane Austen had at least one thing to recommend it. [Author's note: the exact quote seems to be "Just that one omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn't a book in it," according to the Virginia Quarterly Review.] Mr. Twain and I have agreed to disagree, but the point remains – you can never be so good as an artist that everyone must acknowledge that you shine. Everyone gets to weigh in, and all opinions are equal, because they really only matter to the person saying them.
So, in the end, it really doesn’t matter if my writing is empirically good, or fundamentally puree of crap. As long as a few people somewhere want to curl up with it at the end of a long day, I’ll be happy.
Hey, even if no one likes it, at least it gives all the words in my head somewhere to go. Let’s face it, the words will keep coming whether I write them down or not, and if I don’t release some of them, my brain will explode.
Kimberly is happy, since some people sometimes do want to curl up with her writing. She could only be happier if her research on Terry Pratchett had not informed her that he is suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s. Lord, please send him a cure. Those long days keep coming, for Kimberly and everyone else. The world needs more Terry Pratchett to get through.