Friday, 8 June 2012

Book Comments

Authors: Terry Pratchett and Terry Pratchett
Publication Date: 1992 (and 1971)

What follows isn't a review. Just some thoughts that occurred to me while reading one of my favourite author's more mysterious books.

First, a disclaimer: I love Terry Pratchett's fiction. Seriously. Love. It. I went in with high hopes and a full expectation to enjoy the book. What I did not expect was to spend so much time pondering the introduction. Not that there weren't many other clever 'Pratchettie' things going on in this book, because there definitely were. Tongue-in-cheek jokes about how to take over an empire using currency instead of swords, jabs at philosophers (that one hit close to home, given my degree in philosophy!) and a fascinating race known as the wights who can remember the future, that is, until one day they can't! (Cue existential crisis).

But, as I said, what I want to focus on is the introduction, where Pratchett tells us that this book was written by two authors, and both of them have the same name. One is seventeen-year-old Terry Pratchett. The other is forty-three year old Terry Pratchett, established author of the Discworld novels. Pratchett tells his readers that, when the Discworld novels became popular, people rediscovered this little book. By then the book was out of print, but the fans began pestering the publishing company for a copy of this book, if it was indeed by the same author as the Discworld. The question was, was it by the same author?

The answer in this case is a bit complicated. On the one hand, yes it was by the same author in a strictly legal and practical sense. But, in a more personal sense, no, the author was no longer the same. Pratchett tells us that he looked at the old manuscript and found that many of his ideas had changed in the intervening years. He thought differently about what made a good story in general, and what made a good fantasy story in particular. He decided a few things needed to be changed here and there, and ultimately ended up rewriting the entire book. So, the 1992 edition isn't quite the sort of book that the forty-three year old Pratchett would write if he were to approach the same subject matter again, and it isn't the same book that the seventeen-year-old Pratchett wrote in 1971. It's a collaborative effort. But, jokes Pratchett, at least he doesn't have to split the royalty cheque with the other author!

This introduction fascinated me. As I read the book, I wondered about which aspects were the seventeen-year-old Pratchett's contribution, and which were the forty-three-year-old's. I wondered about what the book looked like in its 1971 incarnation. I wondered if we all grow to fundamentally disagree with our earlier selves. And, finally, I wondered about the self itself. What is it that makes us who we are? (Cue existential crisis! I know, I know, there's a joke about philosophers lurking here somewhere.)

It's curious to me that Pratchett couldn't let the book stay as his seventeen-year-old self had written it. Writers often talk about their books as their babies, that they are unwilling to send out into the world. But in a sense, these books can be something else as well; they are often parts of the writer's self. The 1971 book could tell us something about what seventeen-year-old Pratchett thought about the world, what he valued, and what he found funny. The 1992 book mixes this up, leaving me curious and bewildered.

Identity, persona and authorship are all tricky concepts. Did Pratchett have a right to rewrite the book? Legally, of course he did. But part of me is left with an image in my head of a forty-three-year-old man muzzling a seventeen-year-old boy. Or is it a forty-three-year-old man guiding and refining a seventeen-year-old's rough ideas?

Whether muzzling or mentoring, I cannot say. But I enjoyed trying to puzzle it out. Now I wonder whether all writers cringe at the efforts of their younger selves. Maybe growing up is just growing embarrassed.

If so, I guess we only have ourselves to blame.

No comments:

Post a Comment