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August 01, 2005


Bitchy, bitchy, bitchy...

Pratchett takes swipe at Rowling

Writer Terry Pratchett has poked fun at Harry Potter author JK Rowling for saying she did not realise she was writing a fantasy novel.

He wrote to the Sunday Times:"I would have thought that the wizards, witches, trolls, unicorns, hidden worlds... would have given her a clue?"... [BBC]

...and not because "Rowling is now PTerry's bitch."

In a recent interview with Time magazine, Rowling said she was "not a huge fan of fantasy" and was trying to "subvert" the genre.

The magazine also said Rowling reinvented fantasy fiction, which was previously stuck in "an idealised, romanticised, pseudofeudal world, where knights and ladies morris-dance to Greensleeves". [BBC, cont'd]

Brilliant. JK Rowling has reduced "PTerry" and to incoherent rage and Neil Gaiman to grim rumination.

On the one hand, they want to claim the Harry Potter books as fantasy. It really pisses them off that such a huge commercial success isn't counted squarely as a coup for the fantasy genre.

On the other hand, they really don't like the fact that a card carrying non-fanboy is kicking asses all over the best seller lists. Evidently, PTerry has some long standing insecurities in this department.

PTerry thinks it's just obvious that books with trolls and broomsticks must be fantasy, and furthermore that Rowling is stupid to say that she didn't realize she was writing a fantasy novel. But that doesn't stop him from berating Rowling for not knowing anything about the fantasy genre. Because, obviously, if she knew anything about fantasy, she'd know that just because you've got a dragon in your book doesn't mean you're not keeping it grittily REAL.

If you want to claim an author's work for your genre, you've got to at least credit the author with knowing basic genre conventions. PTerry should make up his mind. He can either accuse Rowling of being a dilettante who doesn't know anything about fantasy, or he can call her a traitor who actually writes fantasy but pretends that she doesn't. He can't have it both ways.

I don't really have an opinion on any genre fight in any medium. However, I do admire this post by an aspiring fantasy writer about why fantasy writing tends to suck.


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The apparent views of JK Rowling strike me as far more irreconcilable than anything Terry Pratchet said in response. How do you "not realize you are writing a fantasy novel," at [Read More]

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J.K. Rowling is far and away a better writer than Terry Pratchett! No getting around it. Harry Potter rules! Hogwarts rocks! Discworld is so over. (I just want me some of what Majikthise's got going.) [Read More]


er, Neil Gaiman wasn't really "reduced to incoherent rage." Or rather, wasn't at all. He quoted a letter he received, which quoted Terry Pratchett being really pissy, and then said that the Time article was pretty crappy. But he's not really pissed at J.K Rowling, just thinks that Time sucks, which I can agree with.

And really, Pratchett is kinda snarky, but not nearly as "incoherent" as you paint him.

Have you read one of Terry Pratchett's books?
Good Omens for instance (joint with Gaiman).
He is a much better writer than Rowling (they both are)

I didn't see Pratchett saying anything particularly bad about Rowling's books or her understanding of fantasy; I don't see where you get the second part of his supposed contradiction. Gaiman doesn't say or imply anything negative about Rowling whatsover, as far as I see.

Also, the Time article's claim that Rowling is some kind of fantasy revolutionary is frankly ridiculous. Her work is full of genre cliches - she has a near-magical talent for making them fresh, so this is not a criticism - but... Voldemort (Vader) is classic hubristic, pure-evil bad guy, while Dumbledore (Obi-Wan) is a classic wise old mentor; the hidden magic world in ours is pretty much the same idea as Susan Cooper's, among many others; the magical system, with books, wands, and Latinate incantations, is about as standard as it gets, and so is much of the creature selection; the Dursleys and the whole introduction of Sorcerer's Stone are straight out of James and the Giant Peach; not-so-subtle parallelism to the real world is a strength of Pratchett's, for one. I could go on, but I think my point is made.

Gene Wolfe, Steven Brust, Roger Zelazny, Stephen Donaldson, China Mieville, and Pratchett and Gaiman themselves (off the top of my head) all have better claims to be subversive fantasists. Which again, is nothing against the Harry Potter series, which is still great children's fantasy.

I haven't read JK Rowling or Terry Pratchett.

PTerry's remarks are simply incoherent. On the one hand, he's adamant that Harry Potter is definitely fantasy. Yet he's criticizing Rowling's claim to have been subverting the fantasy genre. According to PTerry, Rowling doesn't know enough about the fantasy genre to realize that she isn't subverting it. Rowling's alleged ignorance of fantasy undercuts PTerry's claim that her work belongs in the genre.

JKD, you're right about Neil Gaiman wasn't really raging. He was just ruminating. I edited the original post accordingly.

I don't see how any of Pratchett's statements below count as incoherent rage. I also don't see where he makes any of the self-contradictory claims that you claim he does, and the only insecurity in the link you posted comes from the comments, not the interview quotes. You seem to be reading a lot into this for someone with no opinions on any genre fight.


Pratchett, whose first fantasy novel was published 34 years ago and has since sold more than 40 million books, said in his letter that the genre had always been "edgy and inventive".

"Ever since The Lord of the Rings revitalised the genre, writers have played with it, reinvented it, subverted it and bent it to their times," he wrote.

"It has also contained come of the very best, most accessible writing for children, by writers who seldom get the acknowledgement they deserve."

His full response to Rowling's admission that she did not think Harry Potter was fantasy as she was writing it, was:

"I would have thought that the wizards, witches, trolls, unicorns, hidden worlds, jumping chocolate frogs, owl mail, magic food, ghosts, broomsticks and spells would have given her a clue?"

Not that I'm a fanboy or anything...

halifax' post was interesting. Those are plausible explanations for a very high percentage of suck I've noticed too. When I think about the books I like, the solution most of them seem to use is simply to go for a different mythology. You need that mythic resonance for good fantasy, usually, but if you write too much like other modern authors you sound cliched. So non-English myths, or myths Tolkein and derivative authors don't much touch like Arthurian legends or church mysticism or New Agey stuff, can work. Even just very simple elements that aren't really part of any set of myths can go a long way with a little development, like the mystery of abandoned buildings/cities in Wolfe or the spooky sound of bells in Garth Nix' Sabriel stories.

halifax... the aspiring fantasy writer makes some good points about how most fantasy writing sucks, but in some respect he misses the point. Its not that writing about elves or goblins and knights that make them bad, it is what they do and how they interrelate that makes the difference.

I worked for a studio where the owner had a copy of the original script for starwars. It was in reality "phantom menace", which I nick named phantom mayonnaise because it was so bad. If it had been the first Starwars film made it would have been the last one too.

What made the difference was that Lucas understood writing as opposed to story telling. He hired the master story teller/anthropologist Joseph Campbell as a script consultant.

What Campbell brought to the party was a deep understanding of myths and legends and the human psyche. He didn't just divorce himself from reality and scribble pap as most fantasy writers do. He dealt with archetypal themes and subplots that are to be found in the Greek tragedies and classical literature.

Rowling for what ever can be said of her writing, has drawn on her own experience in such a way that it transcends her own limited experience but draws on her own deep childhood memories. From a time when the the barrier between her conscious mind and her collective imagery from the unconscious was quite thin.

Her characters and situations resonate with the young in a way that makes other fantasy writers tales seem stale and flat.

I don't know what her influences are. I have seen a number of her interviews and she says that she draws on her memories of childhood games she used to play.

I don't claim that her writing is great literature, only that it has a way of captivating her audience. Whether it will stand the test of time is another whole matter... but for now she is the fantasy writer's version of the perfect storm.

"According to PTerry, Rowling doesn't know enough about the fantasy genre to realize that she isn't subverting it."

Maybe I'm dumb, but I just don't see this. Are you reading a fuller selection of quotes from the interview or something? :

Is J.K. Rowling a good writer?

He hesitates. "I've never actually been asked that question." With a marked change in vocal tone, he says: "I think of her as a good and competent writer, a phrase that I would apply to myself as well."

A very diplomatic answer. "I am being political simply because I'm painfully aware that not you, but plenty of people would love, 'Pratchett slams Rowling' as a headline. I've given what I consider a true answer.

"Easing on to a slightly easier facet of that situation is, people say, 'aren't you jealous of J.K. Rowling?' to which my reply is, 'I never dreamed I'd make any kind of money out of writing fantasy because not many people do. I never dreamt I'd become a millionaire out of writing fantasy."
[Emphasis added.]

Let's look at your description of his argument.

1. he's adamant that Harry Potter is definitely fantasy.

True, Harry Potter is fantasy.

2. Yet he's criticizing Rowling's claim to have been subverting the fantasy genre.

No problem yet. A work of fantasy doesn't have to subvert the genre to be a fantasy novel.

3. According to PTerry, Rowling doesn't know enough about the fantasy genre to realize that she isn't subverting it. Rowling's alleged ignorance of fantasy undercuts PTerry's claim that her work belongs in the genre.

Why do you think this undercuts his claim? Plenty of people who know little about particular genres write novels in them just the same. Look at all the role playing game novels in the fantasy section at your average bookstore. They're clearly fantasy novels, but most of them display no knowledge of the genre beyond stuff written in the first half of the 20th century by Fritz Lieber and JRR Tolkien.

Kalkin, I strongly agree that you need mythic resonance for good fantasy, which most fantasy authors don't have. Only a few authors, like JRR Tolkien's in Lord of the Rings, Neil Gaiman's with Sandman, and Teresa Edgerton's with her Celtic stories, do this well. Perhaps an even smaller number of authors, like Lois McMaster Bujold in The Paladin of Souls can create a mythology themselves and have the reader feel the same resonance. Modern fantasy has a long history and a number of authors that I enjoy like Emma Bull, Diane Duane, Mercedes Lackey, and JK Rowling, but it does seem to lack the mythic resonance of the fantasy works that I love.

Looking at the part you bolded:

He says that he's being polite because he doesn't want to give the media the chance to start a fight, then he says that he's not jealous because he never dreamed of making millions (which I take it Rowling has). The first paragraph certainly isn't complementary, but doesn't suggest anything specific. The only accusation of ignorance I can possibly read into the second is if he's implying that she was too ignorant of the genre to realize that making millions isn't typical or maybe isn't compatible with being a real fantasy author... which seems like a stretch.

James: That's interesting. I always felt Emma Bull's writing had some of that sense of myth, coming out of the scary, alien, selfish elves of various old stories and children's tales, while Bujold's fantasy work was not quite at the pinnacle of the genre despite the superiority of her writing to almost everyone else's, precisely because her invented mythology doesn't pull as strongly at those strings.

I don't see why you think that Terry Pratchett is being incoherent. What he's saying, basically, is "Rowling thinks she's writing something totally original, because she isn't aware of what's been going on in fantasy, but really she's a good-but-conventional fantasy writer. She should realize that there's more to fantasy than J. R. R. Tolkein and George R. R. Martin." This is not incoherent at all. It's a common problem in literature, philosophy, economics, science, and... well... everything. Arno Peters thought he invented a wonderfully original equal area projection. He hadn't. He had duplicated a projection invented 200 years ago in general format (by Johann Heinrich Lambert), and 120 years ago in its exact standard parallels (by James Gall). He was a historian, not a cartographer, and real cartographers saw immediately that he didn't know what he was talking about. I'm confident that you can think of examples in philosophy as well. Terry Pratchett was being petty, but not incoherent.


I think you are pretty dead on. Although it is not the topic of this post, here is a related idea:

Fantasy almost always sucks. The reason, it seems, is because it has story writing backwards. Good writing starts with a story and builds the world around it. For Tolkien, it was about the story, and the world was merely a location that brought its themes forward in the best light (friendship, honour, courage); the same can be said for Rowlings.

Fantasy, in most cases, however, is all about the cool worlds that the stories take place in. The story, it seems, gets in the way of the world it takes place in. But no world, no matter how interesting, is enough to base a novel on, with the story as window dressing.

Therefore, fantasy sucks because it focuses on the fictional worlds in which stories take place, rather than focusing on the story and building the world around it.

Writers with limited knowledge of a genre who decide to write in that genre often think that they're being breathtakingly original or subverting the genre. In most cases what they're writing is pretty stock genre stuff.

By the way, Terry Pratchet was probably referring to himself when he talked about making millions writing fantasy. While he's not in Rowling's league, he's sold plenty of books.

"Terry Pratchet was probably referring to himself when he talked about making millions writing fantasy."

I thought that was likely, but I was trying to find some basis, however stretched, for the interpretation - which doesn't seem to be just Linsay's - that he said Rowling is ignorant of fantasy.

Lucas couldn't write his way out of a paper bag. His dialogue is atrocious. The original trilogy was saved by good acting and directing. The new trilogy didn't have them.

I don't believe there's any such thing as a timeless story. Shakespeare's often lionized as the author of timeless stories. Read Shakespeare's Henry V -- are you really as enthusiastic about England's invasion of France as Shakespeare's original audiences would have been?

Campbell was a complete hack, and his pretentious books all boil down to the idea that there's only one story, and it's a story about how an adolescent boy becomes his father. It's really tedious and trite.

To hell with this nonsense. Let's have a little Pratchett/Gaiman

The lights went up. The Power Cable (Nebraska) Evangelical Choir launched into “Jesus is the Telephone Repairman on the Switchboard of My Life”, and almost drowned out the sound of the rising wind.

Marin O. Bagman adjusted his tie, checked his grin in the mirror, patted the bottom of his personal assistant (Miss Cindi Kellerhals, Penthouse Pet of the month three years ago last July; but she had put it all behind her when she got Career), and he walked out onto the studio floor.

Jesus won’t cut you off before you’re through
With him you won’t ever get a crossed line,
And when your bill comes it’ll all be properly itemized
He’s the telephone repairman of the switchboard of my life

the choir sang. Marvin was fond of that song. He had written it himself.

Other songs he had written included “Happy Mister Jesus”
“Jesus, Can I come and stay at your place?”, “That Ol’ Fiery Cross”
Jesus is the Sticker on the Bumper of My Soul,” and
“When I’m Swept Up by th Rapture Grab the Wheel of My Pick-UP” They were available on “Jesus is My Buddy” (LP, cassette, and CD), and were advertised every 4 minutes on Bagman’s evangelical network.

Despite the fact that the lyrics didn’t rhyme, or, as a rule, make any sense, and that Marvin, who was not particularly musical, had stolen all the tunes from old country songs, “Jesus Is My Buddy” had sold over 4 million copies.

Marvin had started off as a country singer, singing old Conway Twitty and Johnny Cash songs.

He had done regular live concerts from San Quentin jail until the civil right people got him under the Cruel and Unusual Punishment clause.

It was then that Marvin got religion. Not the quiet, personal kind, that involves doing food deeds and living a better life; not even the kind that involves putting on a suit and ringing people’s doorbells; but the kind that involves having your own TV network and getting people to send you money.

The world is a lot more complicated than most people believe. Many people believe, for example, that Marvin was not a true Believer because he made so much money out of it. They were wrong. He believed with all his heart. He believed utterly, and spent a lot of the money that flooded in on what he really thought was the Lord’s work.

“Brothers and sisters, I’ve got a message for you all, and urgent message from our Lord, for you all, man woman and little babes, friends let me tell you about the Apocalypse. It’s all there in your bible, in the Revelation…”

“War. Plague. Famine. Death. Rivers urv blurd … Horrible times are comin’, brothers and sisters. And there is only one way to avoid ‘em.”

“Before the Destruction comes—before the 4 horsemen of the apocalypse ride out—before the nukerler missles rain down on the unbelievers – there will come the Raptures.”

“When the Rapture comes, brothers and sisters, all the True Believers will be swept up in the air—it don’t mind what you’re doin’ you …
Suddenly you’ll be up in the air lookin ‘ down at the world as the years of destruction arrive. Only the faithful will be saved, only those of you who have been born again will avoid the pain and the death and the horror and the burnin’. Then will come the great war between Heaven and Hell, and Heaven will destroy the forces of Hell,…”

He stopped, suddenly.

“Well, nice try,” he said in a completely different voice, “only it won’t be like that at all. Not really”

“I mean, you’re right about the fire and war, all that. But that Rapture stuff—well if you could see them all in Heaven—serried ranks of them as far as the mind can follow and beyond, league after league of us, flaming swords, all that, well, what I’m trying to say is who has time to go round picking up people and popping them up in the air to sneer at the people dying of radiation sickness on the parched and burning earth below them? If that’s you idea of a morally acceptable time, I might add.”

“ And as for that stuff about Heaven inevitably winning; well to be honest, if it were that cut and dried, there wouldn’t be a Celestial War in the first place, would there? It’s propaganda. Pure and simple. We’ve got no more than a 50% chance of coming out on top. You might just as well send money to a Satanist hotline to cover your bets, although to be frank when the fire falls and the seas of blood rise you lot are all going to be civilian casualties either way. Between our war and your war, they’re going to kill everyone and let God sort it out—right?”

“Anyway, sorry to stand here wittering, I’ve just a quick question—where am I?”

Marvin O. Bagman was gradually going purple.

“It’s the devil! Lord protect me! The devil is speakin’ through me!” he erupted, and interrupted himself, “Oh no, quite the opposite in fact. I’m an angel. Ah. This has to be America, doesn’t it? So sorry, can’t stay…”

There was a pause. Marvin tried to open his mouth, but nothing happened. Whatever was in his head looked around. He looked at the studio crew, those who weren’t phoning the police, or sobbing in corners. He looked at the gray-faced cameramen.

“Gosh” he said, “am I on television?”

And Brendan, Tolkien was a professional linguist. He'd invented several dialects of Elvish, and some other related languages, as a hobby, then invented a history to explain the development of the language. The stories came out of the history.

Tolkien invented the world first. He's distinct in that he went into greater depth and detail, based on an aspect he really understood, then any other fantasy authors have.

Fantasy sucks because of the same reason all other genre fiction sucks: the writers suck.

The Patrick O'Bryan Aubrey/Maturin series is fantastic because the man could write. In his previous careers he translated Simone de Beauvoir. After reading those novels I couldn't stand genre fiction.

But that doesn't stop him from berating Rowling for not knowing anything about the fantasy genre.

I'd be surprised if Terry said anything like that. He's not really an elitist about the genre. (on preview, it looks like other people in the thread are saying the same.)

I remember once reading an interview with Terry about getting fed up with Harry Potter fans. He'd go to conventions and strangers would charge him with plagiarism and copycatism. One lady pointed to a cutout of Rincewind and said, "That's a ripoff of Harry Potter, right?" Terry explained that the character was created years before the first Potter book came out. The lady responded, "Oh, so it's just a coincidence then."

I imagine Terry gets this kind of thing thrown in his face all the time. I can understand his bitchiness. Rowling used to say she liked fantasy (the Narnia books in particular). If she starts buying into the hype surrounding herself and makes comments about transcending the medium, it's sure to feel like a personal slight to authors who do identify with the genre.

Thanks for the link to the halifax post, Lindsay - that was great.
It strikes me that the big problem for a writer who wants to attempt a persuasive or a compelling fantasy is escaping the weight of influence from the great ones, because the great ones are obsessive or crazy or both. Tolkien, for example, may have built his alt history around invented languages (being a professional philologist), but the ur-Tolkien stories - his earliest sketches - are as pretty and sugared as an Edwardian nursery tale. He cast that off, and let the cold stone and iron of old Anglo-Saxon fragments come forward - why and how I can't address here, but it was a very private enterprise, for a long time, and he had small expectation that anyone else would be very interested in it. A lot of people weren't; he used to read his stuff to his buds at Oxford, and one guy in the group is recorded as moaning, "Not another fucking elf!" That was in some article in the NYRB years ago, and I have looked and looked, but I can't find it - but as much as I love JRRT, I know what he meant.
Another interesting case is David Lindsay, who produced A Voyage to Arcturus in 1920. Extremely weird book - lots of sexy Ovidian metamorphosis, couple of new colors in the light spectrum - but I would refer you to Harold Bloom, who re-wrote it as "The Flight to Lucifer." Nice try, but Bloom just wasn't nuts enough to bring it off. A fine example of how love for the genre - or even a one-off - isn't enough to save you from being derivative, a pale copy, no matter how smart you are.
Rowling (to get back to the source of this thread) is no stylist, and the HP world is only a step or two to the side of the world we all live in - it's a mirror fantasy, for all the meticulous and nifty details that set it apart. Based on her own statements, I see no pretensions to anything else - she was struck with a story idea, and she worked it out, and it found - to her great fortune - an enormous and satisfied audience. There's some glory in that.

I can't believe, in all this discussion about whether fantasy is derivative and who / where it derives from, that noboby has mentioned Dunsany yet. He's only the inventor of the entire genre...

FWIW, Pratchett responded to a crosspost on and, part of which is below:

"And the BBC website put a nice little spin on thing on things with a
headline suggesting I'm directing a tirade at J K Rowling, rather than
expressing annoyance at the habits of journalists and specifically
one telling phrase* clearly used by someone else*."

As I posted there, I think genre categorization is not very exact. I consider Rowling's work to be juvenile mysteries with well-integrated mythological elements.

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