Saturday, November 19, 2011

Snuff by Terry Pratchett

After six years of writing about him, it feels as if I've developed a certain patter where Terry Pratchett, and particularly his Discworld novels, are concerned.  Though I've liked some of his novels better and others worse, my reaction to them in the years since I've been keeping this blog has been a near-uniform mix of fondness and exasperation, the former in recognition of the sheer breadth of accomplishment that is Discworld, and of the inventiveness that still goes into it, and the latter in sad cognizance that the series is growing increasingly stale, and that its inventiveness is, more and more often, watered down with recycled themes, gags, and character arcs.  This has been especially true of the books featuring Sam Vimes, arguably Pratchett's most enduring, most iconic character.  More than any of the other Discworld series, the Vimes novels stick closely to a formula, which sees the erstwhile policeman thrust into unfamiliar settings to investigate murders that just happen to shed a light on prejudice and regressive social practices.  In recent years, Pratchett himself seemed to realize that he'd gone to this well too many times, and Vimes has been relegated to supporting, if not entirely supportive, roles in novels featuring newer characters, like Making Money, Unseen Academicals, and I Shall Wear Midnight.  So when I heard that Snuff, the latest Discworld novel, was another straight-up Vimes novel, I couldn't suppress a sigh, anticipating a by-the-numbers plot, familiar character beats, with just the barest hint of newness to justify them.  I wish I'd been right in my expectations, because sadly Snuff is something so much worse than familiar, recycled Pratchett--it's just plain bad.

By that I mean, first and foremost, badly written.  Pratchett has never been a great stylist but he's always had a distinctive style, a sardonic, wildly inventive, and of course quite funny narrative voice with which he establishes a setting, a character, and a mood in a few quick sentences or a line of dialogue.  That sharpness is missing from Snuff, and particularly from its first hundred pages, in which its scene and premise are established.  Instead we get long, belabored paragraphs that lay their information before us inelegantly and with little flair.  Take, for example, the following bit of dialogue:
"I have no objection to people taking substances that make them feel better or more contented, or, for that matter, see little dancing purple fairies--or even their god if it comes to it.  It's their brain, after all, and society can have no claim on it, providing they're not operating heavy machinery at the time.  However, to sell drugs to trolls that actually make their heads explode is simply murder, the capital crime.  I am glad to say that Commander Vimes fully agrees with me on this issue."
There are a number of things wrong with this paragraph.  First, and most obviously, it's not funny, and what little bit of joke there was to begin with is smothered to death by the long, circuitous, increasingly pious route that the argument takes on its way to the punchline, piling sub-clause upon sub-clause in its haste to establish the Correct position on drugs.  Then there's the completely overblown, overemphasized conclusion--did you know that selling people a substance that kills them is murder, and that murder is a crime?  And that this is a stance on which one would be glad to find others in agreement with one?  And then the obvious deck-stacking involved in the implausible, economically untenable concept of a drug that makes its users' heads explode (later in the novel we're told that this only happens after several hits, but that's still a pretty shoddy business model when you consider that trafficking in these drugs is punishable by death), which is paid off later in the novel when the villains turn out to be drug dealers, whom we can now hate without compromising our libertarian principles.

But what's really wrong with this paragraph is that it is spoken by Vetinari.  The man who in other Discworld novels conveys volumes with a word or even a raised eyebrow is here reduced to so much empty drivel.  Nor is he alone--Snuff is characterized by a tendency to use fifty words where ten would have made the point so much better.  When we first see Vimes, he is miserably trying to alleviate the itching caused by his socks.  A previous Discworld novel would have deemed it sufficient tell us that "For the hundredth time he considered telling his wife that among her sterling qualities, and they were many, knitting did not feature" and leave us to draw the obvious conclusion from the fact that Vimes doesn't.  Snuff not only feels it incumbent upon it to explain that to malign her knitting would break Sybil's heart, but goes on to explain that
Samuel Vimes, who had never gone into a place of worship with religious aforethought, worshiped Lady Sybil, and not a day went past without his being amazed that she seemed to do the same to him.  He had made her his wife and she had made him a millionaire; with her behind him the sad, desolate, penniless and cynical copper was a rich and powerful duke.
Even if we take this as a potted introduction to both characters, it's terribly awkward and creates an impression of them that is sadly borne out by the rest of the book, in which the Vimes marriage, delicately established in previous books as a loving bond between two complicated people who value and respect each other's individuality, is turned into a no less loving, but much more aggravating, stream of marital clichés--Sybil is "a higher power," Vimes muses that there is "no point in arguing with Sybil, because even if you thought that you'd won, it would turn out, by some magic unavailable to husbands, that you had, in fact, been totally misinformed" while Sybil "took the view that her darling husband's word was law for the City Watch while, in her own case, it was a polite suggestion to be graciously considered", and much is made of her ironclad control over Vimes's diet.

Snuff begins with Sybil having exerted her Little Woman powers to shanghai Vimes into a vacation in the country, where she is a major landowner.  Or rather, where Vimes is the landowner, Sybil having transferred her estates to him upon their marriage.  At first glance, this is actually a rather brilliant premise.  Vimes's trajectory throughout the Discworld series has been one of meteoric ascent, from Captain to Commander, from Commander to Knight, from Knight to Duke.  These last two should pose a problem for the staunchly republican Vimes, but Pratchett has been careful to use his elevated circumstances to bring Vimes in contact with an increasingly prominent class of criminals.  Every time he rises in rank, his opponents rise as well--as Sir Samuel, he bumps heads with the Ankh Morpork aristocracy; as His Grace, the Duke of Ankh, he deals with foreign heads of state--and they treat him with the same familiar disdain, thus validating Vimes's self-image as an underdog, and justifying his participation in the aristocratic system by arguing that the title opens doors and enables his police work (from which, to Vimes's mind, his only true authority stems).  Snuff reverses this trend.  It strips the vacationing Vimes of his policeman's badge and confronts him with people who are not only his social inferiors but his actual tenants.  Which is obviously a very meaty, fresh angle on the character, and when Jethro, the local blacksmith, confronts Vimes, who is gingerly trying on the role of magnanimous landlord, with the simple fact that he has become something he used to hate, and challenges him to explain by what right he should have so much while others have so little, it really seems as if the novel might do something new with the character.

Unfortunately, doing something new with Vimes doesn't seem to be on Pratchett's to do list.  He undercuts Jethro by depicting him as a bullying oaf, and by showing us that many of the people he claims to speak for actually value the feudal system (which is, obviously, an important part of the debate about class, but not when that debate is as one-sided as it is in Snuff).  Later, when the novel's actual plot emerges, the class issue is shoved to the side.  Jethro is kidnapped, Vimes rescues him, and it turns out that his dislike of nobility stems from a run-in with the other, bad aristocrats, who just happen to be the villains of the novel and the people Vimes is about to arrest. True, at Snuff's end, Jethro is still distrustful of the aristocracy.  But he's also become a local constable and accepts Vimes's superiority as a policeman.  The message seems to be that as long as there is a law, and that law is applied equally to rich and poor alike, it doesn't matter if one man lives in a castle and the other in a hovel, or if the class system tells both that one is better than the other.  This is iffy in itself, but it also has the effect of making Vimes seem like a smaller, pettier person than he used to be.  He spends the early portions of the novel halfheartedly poking at the injustice of the feudal system, but it soon becomes clear that what's bothering him is the possibility that someone might mistake him for a willing, rather than grudging, participant in it.  When a tenant recalls his grandfather's gratitude to the former lord for giving him a half-dollar, Vimes "squirmed inside, knowing that the supposedly generous old drunkard would have had more money than you could ever imagine, and here was a working man pathetically grateful for a hand-out from the old piss artist." The rage that characterizes Vimes is replaced with this squirming embarrassment, which prioritizes his own ability to feel good about himself over the question of whether there actually is something to feel good about.

In light of this, it's perhaps fortunate that the class warfare angle is dropped almost as soon as it is introduced (nor is this the only plot element in Snuff to be so unceremoniously discarded; an early scene acts as an extended Pride and Prejudice parody and even involves Vimes inspiring the Discworld equivalent of Jane Austen, but all the characters involved disappear until the novel's epilogue, where their sole purpose is to be part of an especially clunky joke).  This is in favor of that perennial Discworld, and particularly Sam Vimes, theme, A Reviled Non-Human Species is Oppressed, Now Let's Learn That Prejudice is Wrong.  Having gone over this ground with dwarfs, trolls, golems, vampires, werewolves, zombies, gnomes, orcs, and even women, Pratchett seems content to throw a few of the template's greatest hits at the page, and the result is muddled and contradictory.

The Reviled Non-Human Species this time around are goblins, who are apparently viewed as vermin for their disgusting superstitions about bodily fluids.  Or maybe they're viewed as vermin because their desperate conditions force them to live in squalor.  Several characters comment on the goblins' downtrodden demeanor, the way that they've bought into society's disdain for them, but then a local author informs Vimes that they actually have a rich, complicated culture that they conceal from humans (naturally, she disappears from the narrative after imparting this information).  Slavery comes into the story at one point, but so halfheartedly that its sole purpose seems to be to make the rather obvious point that Slavery is Wrong, without exploring any of the reasons that it is nevertheless tolerated--despite drawing a connection between slavery and luxury goods like tobacco, Snuff avoids the question of society's complicity in slavery, and by embracing the canonical, 18th and 19th century form of slavery is lets its readers, most of whom benefit from slave labor, off the hook.  Instead, Snuff roots slavery in the dehumanization of the goblins, who are viewed so universally as un-people that it is necessary to pass a law that makes it illegal to enslave them.  But then it tells us that it is possible to reverse this prejudice in a single night, when Sybil arranges for a concert of goblin music, which is apparently ethereally beautiful.

It would have been possible, I suppose, to weave these contradictory strands together into a whole, but Pratchett doesn't seem terribly interested in creating a coherent, compelling goblin culture (there are, for example, very few speaking goblin characters in the novel, and most of the ones we get are rather bland).  The goblins are merely an excuse, a justification for Vimes to do his thing, and a means of his further glorification.  Most of Snuff is spent extolling the virtues of Sam Vimes--her simpering adoration of him is one of the many ways in which the novel lobotomizes Sybil--and many insufferable passages are given over to achieving this end.  In a particularly galling instance, the local constable, Feeney, arrives at the hall to arrest Vimes on a trumped-up charge.  Vimes responds with what is essentially "do you know who I am, boy?" to which Feeney responds by quoting a speech by Vimes to new policemen telling them exactly where that kind of statement should be stuffed.  And yet somehow, Vimes not only feels no shame at having been called out in this manner, but manages to wrest the moral high ground away from Feeney, and is later validated in this by both the young constable and the narrative.  Pratchett seems to feel that he can counteract this celebration of all things Vimes by stressing Vimes's awareness of the darkness that lies within him.
It was just his own human darkness and internal enemy, which knew his every thought, which knew that every time Commander Vimes dragged some vicious and inventive murderer to such mercy or justice as the law in its erratic wisdom determined, there was another Vimes, a ghost Vimes, whose urge to chop that creature into pieces  on the spot had to be chained.  This, regrettably, was harder every time, and he wondered if one day that darkness would break out and claim its heritage, and he wouldn't know ... the brakes and chains and doors and locks in his head would have vanished and he wouldn't know.
The problem is that we've heard this too many times before.  It wasn't terribly believable the first time--Pratchett almost certainly wasn't going to drag his favorite character so low--and by now we know that Vimes isn't going to give into his darkness, and especially not in a novel in which that darkness, and Vimes's signature rage, feel so muted and so paper-thin.  The effect is to make both Vimes and Pratchett seem like posers, who like to talk about darkness but have no real idea of what it is.  And, of course, it means that there's no contrast to the entirely pro-Vimes slant of the rest of the novel.

As that paragraph demonstrates, Snuff's prose stabilizes quite a bit after its first hundred pages--with fewer infodumps and character and setting introductions, Pratchett settles into a by-now familiar rhythm.  But this doesn't make Snuff a particularly funny novel.  The main recurring gag involves Vimes's manservant Wilkins.  Originally introduced as a caricature of the proper English butler who could just barely suppress his sneer at Vimes's uncouthness and his gauche insistence on doing things like shaving himself, Wilkins was transformed into a gung-ho soldier in 1997's Jingo, and in Snuff he's a former street tough whose propriety is a thin gloss concealing terrifyingly inventive killer instincts, and whose main function is as Vimes's bodyguard.  Though I found the Jingo-era Wilkins more interesting than the effortlessly lethal Wilkins in Snuff, I might have been willing to tolerate him on the grounds that this sort of drift is common to secondary characters in Pratchett novels.  But on top of being overused as a plot device (particularly as a way of allowing Vimes to avoid ethical quandaries without letting the bad guys get away unpunished), Wilkins is overused as a joke.  When you consider that the first "proper English butler is actually a berserk street tough" joke about this character was made three Vimes books and fourteen years ago, harping on it again and again throughout Snuff just seems lazy.  The freshest jokes in Snuff revolve around Young Sam, here a scientifically-minded, poo-obsessed six-year-old, but they have the effect of recalling the superior use of this character in the previous Vimes novel, Thud!, where another of his obsessions (with the picture book Where's My Cow?) drew roars of laughter where Snuff's repeated scenes of Young Sam searching out exotic specimens of excrement elicit only chuckles.

I fell in love with Terry Pratchett's writing nearly twenty years ago, but that infatuation has faded, and for the better part of the last decade I've felt a little like someone who lets fondness and the memory of better days blind her to the fact that the spark isn't there any more.  I don't know if Snuff is my breakup novel.  Maybe I'll stop reading Pratchett entirely.  Maybe I'll stop reading Vimes novels.  And maybe by the time his next book comes out the good memories will have won out over the bad.  What I do know is that after this book I'll never be able to approach a Pratchett novel with the same expectations--modest as they were--that I did before, and that there's a part of me that wishes I'd given him up before this book, and left myself with rosier memories.

42 comments:

Alexander said...

Interesting review, seems persuasive enough to impact on or inhibit my own reading of Snuff. I only started on Pratchett over the past two years and have read mostly the more recent stuff, so the nostalgia/disappointment factor was somewhat removed for me. I recognize that Guards! Guards, Mort and others are a lot better than the more recent material, but also haven't experienced them as sinking under their own repetitiveness in the way you have. Your analysis on the unfortunate implications of Pratchett's easy humanism and progressive narrative of history seems right on the money, though.

I'm curious, did you have a more positive reaction to Night Watch than, say, Thud? It seemed to be trying something new and deliberately downplaying humor as a strategy, although it seems that the approach of dystopia as prologue reinforces some of your arguments about Ankh-Morpork's history as overly facile.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I read Night Watch around the time it came out in 2002, so my memories of it are rather hazy. At the time I was only just starting to come out of my honeymoon phase with Pratchett, and Night Watch's deviation from the Vimes formula (which even at the time was getting a little hoary) was very refreshing. I do, however, remember feeling that the book suffered from the absence of the other Watch characters, which is something that later Vimes books, and Snuff in particular, are also the worse for.

You're right, though, that Night Watch is one of the earliest and most persuasive examples of what's troubling about Pratchett's humanist vision. It doesn't matter that Vetinari is a tyrant, because he's a good tyrant, and in Night Watch we see the kind of bad tyrant he replaced (this is probably why neither Pratchett nor Vetinari ever seem to have given any thought to what happens to Ankh Morpork after his death). And in Snuff, it doesn't matter that Vimes has so much power, or that there is, among policemen, such a cult of personality surrounding him, because he would never abuse his powers - except in the way that he does in the book.

Unknown said...

Speaking only to your comment about the Patrician: I have thought since as far back as Going Postal that it was obvious that Vetinari was grooming Moist to be his successor. I don't know what impact Pratchett's health is/will have on that, and it may not have been true. But it certainly seems to me in those books that Vetinari has an undercurrent of awareness of his own mortality.

Unknown said...

Huh. That should have been signed James A. I think I've decided to hate social networking.

lizbee said...

I've heard, although from a second-hand source, that Pratchett's Alzheimers forced him to dictate this novel, and then he was unable to edit it as much as usual. That would explain a lot of the shoddier writing (and the strange absence of Death), but I almost hope it's not true, for the sake of his cognitive health.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

James:

I'd forgotten about Moist. I got the same vibe off him (less from Going Postal than from Making Money, though), but I'm not sure I agree that Vetinari, or anyone around him, seems aware of his mortality and of the need for another leader. And, of course, replacing one tyrant with another doesn't solve the inherent problems of Pratchett's worldbuilding - if anything, it exacerbates them.

lizbee:

I hadn't even clocked that Death wasn't in Snuff. Don't know if that's related to Pratchett's illness (which may very well be the reason that the earlier parts of the novel are so poorly written), but it certainly doesn't help with the sense that permeates the novel that there is very little at stake.

Kit said...

Ugh, Snuff sounds dire. I hated Thud!- I actually discovered this blog because I was desperately trawling the internet for someone else who felt it was as stale and Vimes Marty Stu-ifying as I did, and to date you remain the only person who seems to share my low opinion of it- so I'm sorry to hear that Snuff is even worse, especially because I felt Unseen Academicals was flawed but tolerable.

In Thud! there's this one scene where Vimes is running late for his 6:00 Where's My Cow? reading and he actually has the Watch stop the traffic so his coach can race down a clear street to get him home in time. I remember thinking at the time that a) this was exactly the kind of privileged bullshit- a noble inconveniencing the entire city to spare himself the consequences of his own bad timekeeping- that would once have made Vimes go spare, and b) that this, not his overplayed dark side/demonic possessor, was the internal enemy he needed to fight in future books. It's incredibly frustrating and depressing to learn that not only did Pratchett fail to address this, he actually flaunted the failure by giving Vimes frickin' tenants and then refusing to have any intelligent discussion of the feudal or class systems.

Re. Vetinari's succession, to Vetinari's credit (though possibly not to Pratchett's), he seems to be making a substantial effort to create a more pluralistic society. It's clear from Night Watch that the Patricians have always served at the pleasure of the City Council, and when they want a new one they remove the current one from office and the mortal coil. But it also seems clear that the guilds and other NGOs are much more powerful now than they were in Winder's time, and the powers of the Palace have correspondingly diminished. Ankh-Morpork now has a powerful and independent press, which is hugely important for a free society, and various groups like the seamstresses who didn't have representation on the Council now do. While the city still doesn't have an elected legislature or an independent judiciary, the Watch have become much more independent of the Patrician, to the point where law enforcement is almost politically neutral. By opening up the city to other races who don't respect the old human power structures Vetinari has stripped the nobles of much of their historical authority: power now rests primarily in the hands of commercial interests, rather than the nobility.

It's still a far cry from democracy, but it's becoming a much more inclusive oligarchy. Whoever Vetinari's successor may be (and Moist does seem like the most likely candidate) he will be much less powerful than Vetinari was initially, because Vetinari has been steadily dispersing the Palace's powers for most of his tenure.

Whether or not Pratchett himself has noticed this is open to question, especially given what you say about Snuff. But if he were never to write another Discworld book, the overall message of Vetinari's plot arc would not be that benevolent tyranny is the best form of government, but that the benevolence of tyrants can be discerned in their efforts to push their cities towards democracy.

Aishwarya said...

Thanks for this, Abigail. You've touched on a lot of what made made me uncomfortable with Snuff - even though I did enjoy it on the whole.

I didn't think Sybil was quite as badly done as you did; the marital cliches grated rather a lot, but I thought we saw more of her as an actual, flawed character than in earlier books. Or it's entirely possible that I read it this way because I was so frustrated by the slavery aspects of the plot. I wanted very much to *like* this book more.

Anonymous said...

Do you think this may have anything to do with his illness? Just a question - no judgement on your review is intended but it could be a possible factor in the decline in quality. I believe that there was a pretty distinct change in Iris Murdoch's writing as her disease progressed.

Erin said...

I've also heard that Pratchett is dictating rather than writing because of his Alzheimer's -- though I heard it said about I Shall Wear Midnight. I was really disappointed with the writing in that book, and I attributed to the fact that it was dictated (and likely not rewritten and edited to his usual standard). I haven't read Snuff yet, but it makes sense to me that Pratchett's medical issues would be affecting his writing.

Which makes me feel guilty for criticizing, but I can't help noticing the decline in quality -- and while his illness may help explain your first point, that Snuff is poorly written, it probably has less to do with the other points you made about characterizations and the repetitiveness of the Vimes plots. It makes me sad, though, to realize that we're unlikely to ever get another Pratchett novel up the standards of his past books (which I think I liked more than you).

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Kit:

That's a nice potted history of the changes in Ankh Morpork, though I'm not sure I'm convinced by your final conclusion. Or, more accurately, your final conclusion draws my attention even more strongly to how implausible Pratchett's thesis is, precisely because the changes you describe are so familiar from our own 19th century. I also can't forget the fact that Pratchett ultimately comes down against populism in a lot of his stories - the fact that Vetinari, or Vimes, are so good at their jobs often justifies their doing those jobs with little oversight or accountability (and in Vimes's case, the increasingly risible argument that it's all OK because he's accountable to himself). It feels as if, at the same time that Pratchett may be creating a world moving towards democracy, his tendency to idealize his characters as Great Men devalues the notion of a government by the people.

Aishwarya:

Your point about Sybil (particularly in your post here) is interesting, but I'm not convinced that we're meant to see her as flawed. After all, Sybil's flaws, if they exist, are the same as Vimes's - a thoughtless acceptance of her privilege (admittedly, she's the one who encourages Vimes in this, but the narrative doesn't call either of them on it) and an inability to see anything wrong with killing and enslaving goblins until they do something that benefits her (make beautiful music). Given how glorified Vimes is in Snuff, it's hard to see Sybil's behavior as indicative of a flaw. The closest she comes is in apologizing to him after hearing the goblin music, but what she's apologizing for is stopping him from pursuing his investigation (or rather trying, rather halfheartedly, and failing), not being prejudiced.

That said, I do agree that Sybil is an underserved character who ought to have her own stories, but I liked her better in previous books when she felt like more of her own person within the Vimes marriage, even if she wasn't a terribly well-rounded person on her own.

Anon.:

I had a lot of discussions with myself and others about this question, and whether I ought to mention Pratchett's illness in this review (and whether, in light of that illness, I should publish the review at all). As I say to lizbee above it seems likely that the problems with prose in the earlier parts of the book are related to his disease, but whether the general staleness of the story and regressive message are rooted in it as well is, as Erin says below, less clear. These latter changes have been increasingly noticeable in Pratchett's writing for several years, and after all they're exactly the sort of problems you'd expect a writer who has been writing the same world for nearly three decades and nearly forty books to experience, disease or no. On the other hand, it may very well be that Pratchett's Alzheimer's has been affecting his writing since long before his diagnosis.

The truth is that I don't know, and because a lot of what I had to say about Snuff felt less obviously rooted in the disease (an obviousness that may, again, be nothing more than conjecture) I decided not to say anything about Pratchett's Alzheimer's in the review.

Erin:

I liked I Shall Wear Midnight a little better than you, though I also found it disappointing. I don't remember reacting very strongly to the writing, though I did feel that the novel was flatter and less vivid than previous Tiffany Aching books - which I ascribed to the limitations of the character, as I recall.

vet said...

Abigail: I've been a keen follower of Pratchett for about as long as you. I haven't yet read Snuff, but I have shared your disillusionment with the decay of Sam Vimes. For me, the last decent Vimes novel was 'The Fifth Elephant', and even then Vimes was one of the weaker links in the story.

I didn't share your enjoyment of 'Night Watch', which seemed to me to miss its opportunity to explore the relationship between the Patrician and the Watch, in favour of reinforcing the halos over both Vimes and Vetinari. In particular, I thought it squandered the opportunity to show why Vetinari is considered ruthless and dangerous, when he's never actually been portrayed as doing anything worse than uttering veiled threats (which as far as we've seen, are *never* followed up on).

I guess this is a roundabout way of saying: thank you for your considered and intelligent review. I'll be reading the book anyway, and will form an opinion then on whether your detailed critique is fair, but either way I appreciate your taking the time to form and express it so clearly.

Anonymous said...

Just to add my first impressions after listening to the audiobook:

I felt that there was not enough changing between scenes, ie going from what was happening with Vimes to what was happening in other parts of the discworld and focused far too much on Vimes.

I also missed the almost rambling, digression language of the other discworld novels, throwing in funny discworld facts and asides in the same paragraph. This book tended to be very dialogue heavy.

I love the discworld series. I am a bit disappointed with this book. I feel in terms of quality, it is well below any of the other books.

Michael Grosberg said...

Abigail, I mostly agree with your review of the book - except for the first hundred pages and the description of Vimes' and Sybil's marriage. As I read it, I was under the impression that Pratchett was trying to evoke the style and feel of a late-19th or early 20th century humorists. I was reminded of Jerome K, Jerome's description of the married life in Three Men on the Bummel, and also of P. G. Wodehouse. I was actually expecting the plot to be some sort of Agatha Christye style Manor murder mystery, possibly with the Jane Austen analogue participating in the investigation. It could have been such an interesting novel! but instead all we got was the Public Service Announcement once again.

michael said...

...I thought this review was pretty much spot on. I've been reading Pratchett for, I guess, 15 years, and the last few have been a far cry from the high-points. Pratchett was always preachy, but even on re-readings of the ones from way-back-when, I find it a lot less in-your-face.

The Vetinari quote was a good pick - I literally had to put the book down for a little while after I read that.....and similarly, I don't recall Vimes soliloquizing quite so...boorishly and boringly.

I'm really stumped as to whether I'll even finish it at this point...200 pages in I had to go check online to see had anyone else noticed it was crap - and I hadn't yet even come across the vile and cheap-sounding "goblin concert" yet..


Ugh :(

Cat Valente said...

I heard Pratchett (or more properly his assistant) read form Snuff at a DC convention this year. I was amazed to meet him and all ready to be wowed--only to have my frown get deeper and deeper as it went on. The scene read was the Pride and Prejudice bit where Vimes obnoxiously tells the sisters that they're all idiots for caring about marriage and dowries (when Pratchett has never really set up Discworld as a place much different from Austen's time, and independent women are usually governesses, witches, or aristocracy, but rarely just Folks with Jobs).

I thought it was just mean and petty. And Vimes came off as a boar, putting his feet on the table and telling these girls to get a job, without once considering their limitations and ability to care for themselves within their society (as men often do, but the text was clearly on Vimes' side) all the while suggesting they could become a nurse to meet a nice doctor to marry which is just...lemon juice in the wound. Get a job, but you can't be a doctor because that's men's work, and if you do get a job it's only to meet a nice man so why is Vimes complaining about their interest in marriage and society? Confine women and then berate them for filling the roles you deign to grant them--classic, and horrible. Add to that the terrible Sybil Men are from Mars, Women Are Bitches jokes and I was shaking my head at the end of the reading.

Not to mention kicking Jane Austen just seems pointless. Very timely, and relevant, and daring! Pride and Extreme Prejudice is a terrible joke but worse, I'm pretty sure I've heard it before, which is not something I ever thought I'd say about Pratchett. But the temerity and obnoxiousness of dropping this character into a parlor and having him abuse Austen for some very thin giggles and a lot of sexism boggles me. I met one of my heroes, only to end up stuck, listening to sexist writing--and he said something vaguely homophobic when I met him which upset me even further.

I love so many Pratchett books. But this one gets the stinkeye. One can argue that the prose issue is up to his illness, but he was quite coherent enough to write the book, go on tour, do documentaries, and talk for an hour, so I'm left with the uncomfortable notion that these regressive ideas represent his genuine thought, and that breaks my heart.

That got long, but I've not had anyone to talk to about the experience yet!

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I had a similarly uneasy reaction to the Pride and Prejudice scene. I think that Pratchett does have something of an out from its air of condescension in that previous Discworld novels have established that women in that world do work and hold proper career-type jobs like policewoman or journalist (as opposed to "acceptably" feminine jobs like housekeeper or barmaid, though of course there are women of this type in the Discworld, and they are perhaps the majority). So you could squint and read that scene as Vimes poking at the characters' class assumptions, which are responsible for their belief that they don't need to work, rather than gender.

The problem is that Snuff is so muddled on issues of class in other respects, and that Vimes in particular comes off so badly on this point, that it's hard to accept that he deserves the moral high ground he claims here rather than being, as you say, condescending and blinded by privilege. Not to mention that trying to swallow feminist issues in issues of class is an old trick - and that looking back on his output and especially his treatment of women, it wouldn't be surprising if Pratchett took this approach - which also leaves a rather unpleasant flavor. And, as you say, the line about becoming a nurse so you can marry a doctor is infuriating, especially given that previous novels have already established the existence of Igorinas.

Anonymous said...

Not knowing Pratchett personally, it's impossible to know how much is the Alzheimers and how much is his writing growing stale. Having seen how much Alzheimers changes someone, even in its early stages, I can believe that it's mostly the Alzheimers.

Anonymous said...

I found this blog by roaming around the internet trying to find anyone else who thought there were problems with this book. It seems to be some sort of sacrilege to talk honestly about Snuff. I never realized how tight and spare Discworld dialogue was until I read this book - the characters talk and talk and talk until I just want to tell them all to SHUT UP! I heard a radio interview where Pratchett talked about using a computer word recognition program because he can't type and the book seems like it was just put down as he talked to his computer. I really think Alzheimers has affected his ability to handle something as complex as a novel and I wonder if it's affected his personality because the book was just crude and mean. It breaks my heart because I love the Discworld, especially the witches. I'm going to reread some older Discworld and remember him in his prime. Thanks for the blog posting on a touchy subject.

Anonymous said...

Excellent review Abigail. I've started reading the book and was quite disappointed for the same reasons you state. I suspect a ghost writer has been at a book that Pratchett has half finished. I hate it when I think I have been milked by some marketing executive.

Seriously, when has Vetinari every engaged in a) conversation, b)monologue and c)spoke more than a sentence?

One other possibility is that the novel is pushing the Jane Austen/Agatha Christie send up, but if that is the case, I would hope it would be more subtle.

Cheers John

PS It's sad to see a great writer at the end of his career. I don't think I will buy another book if one comes out.

baeraad said...

I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one who didn't like this novel. I've been feeling for a while now that Pratchett isn't the author he used to be (understandable given his condition, of course, but still), but like you, this was the first installment in the series that I genuinely didn't like at all.

Prachett was always opinionated, of course (though I could swear that he used to have different opinions than this - how did we go from "the root of all evil is to treat people as things" to "anyone who has no marketable skills is WORTHLESS, and if you disagree with that you're clearly some sort of wooly-headed feel-good liberal"?), but he used to be very good at letting his stories demonstrate why his views were right. Here, for the first time, I just felt like he was yelling at the reader. "I am perfect in... ahem, I mean *my protagonist* is perfect in every way, and anyone who says otherwise needs to be slapped down, hard! People who are too ruthless and uncaring are scum without any redeeming feature or human worth and need to be put down like mad dogs! Peole who are ruthless and uncaring but within acceptable levels are fine, upstanding entrepreneurs, and how DARE you suggest that there's anything wrong with them?"

And of course, more damning by far - it just wasn't a very good story. The whole rural mystery thing looked like it could have been fun and an interesting change of pace, but then it was aborted halfway through in favour of tons of meaningless action and Vimes beating up yet another personality-deprived scum-of-the-earth villain (what is this, Pratchett's fourth? I remember back when he had villains who, while evil and horrible, had other personality traits beyond "evil" and "horrible").

It's a pity. Pratchett was probably the one author in the world I liked and looked up to the most.

JJG said...

Hi Abigail,

Thanks for the post - you've identified my main problem with Snuff, and with U.A. before it, which is that it just doesn't sound at all like Pratchett's writing, particularly the dialogue. Given his condition, I've been wondering if he's had someone doing doing some of the actual writing, because in the past even when jokes were stale they still sounded like Pratchett; here it feels as though he's lost his voice - his characters' voices, at any rate. How sad.

Anonymous said...

The book left me unsatisfied, but I don't think it's nearly as bad as the review presents it.

Pratchett has always had a pattern of revisiting themes over the course of several novels, such as the Clacks or the PDA. He'll toy around with something in one story, then refine it the next time. Eventually he moves on and it becomes part of Discworld's background lore, referenced occasionally but not dwelt on.

Snuff was Vimes' first foray into the gentrified countryside. In the past, I would have expected further development of the various themes in following novels. Even if Pratchett's health prevents that, there are hints of depth in Snuff's feudal themes, enough that we could imagine a superior followup novel built around them.

The plot is a bit mushy. I didn't notice any loose ends, but quite a few side plots lacked relevance and development. But that's not new either. Reaper Man stuck out as a novel that didn't exactly go anywhere and didn't exactly say much. There have been others like that.

Pratchett's prose remains clear and well structured. There's never any confusion about what's happening. The off-hand comments are amusing as always.

What's changed, more than anything, is the dialogue. I don't remember a book where paragraph monologues dominated every conversation as in Snuff. The best example comes at the climax of Vimes' righteous fury, when he delivers a speech lasting an entire page in an urgent situation. The pacing of the novel's dialogue is all wrong. People recite rather than converse.

Vimes also comes across as a bully. Not in the way he uses his position to get the results he wants; he's always been out for Justice and Order. He just happens to have a good sense of which side to come down on. But in his one-to-one dealings with ordinary people throughout the book, he goes beyond pushy and demonstrates arrogance, disdain, insensitivity and flat out rudeness. Pratchett is a good enough writer that I can credit some of this to the conflict between Vimes' lofty status and his populist ideals. Sometimes Vimes is ham-handed because he's really not sure how to act. But the tone is off. Too many times, Vimes comes across as obnoxious when he's meant to be a level-headed, street-smart good guy. The uninterrupted monologues reinforce this.

As for Pratchett's views on class, feminism, racism, and so on, I can't offer a firm defense. I think, as I said earlier, he is teasing out some of his thoughts as he goes, rather than attempting to deliver a finished treatise. The result is a muddled message that's difficult to define, let alone discuss. Obviously oppressing the weak is frowned on, but what lies underneath that? This is the first Discworld book where I could not think of a pressing social issue that was unique enough to warrant a new race. Showing the goblins learning to dress, talk, and play music like humans only skews the book toward patronizing colonialism.

That might not be a misreading. I've never enjoyed Discworld's Asia parallels. They usually boil down to making fun of the language, and they don't show much insight into actual Asian culture, just tired Western stereotypes.

Finally, the marriage. I couldn't read Young Sam with a kid's voice until it finally became clear that he was meant to be precocious. But I didn't think Vimes came across as overly henpecked, or his wife as a henpecker. Notice that Vimes doesn't go out of his way to break Sybil's wishes even when she has no way of watching him. Deep down he doesn't mind sacrificing his greasy diet, or his cigars, or tagging along to society events that bore him. And Sybil doesn't mind that he indulges himself, or that he commits social faux pas left and right. They know each other, they agree with each other about important things, and they are willingly setting aside personal preference to make each other happier. I saw freedom of action and mutual respect in their relationship.

Arani Ahmed said...

I agree with absolutely everything you've said in this! I had half a mind to write this exact analysis so I'm glad I stumbled across this first. I have been reading Pratchett for about 15 years (since I was 10!) and so I know exactly what you mean... and it is hard to let go.

Your points about using 50 words where 10 would suffice is exactly what pained me the most in this novel. Especially for dialogue! And especially for Vimes! The Jane Austen-esque 'giving the girls a good talking to' part just had me cringing; it didn't sound at all like Vimes. Not to mention that Sybil was just... so... I mean, where was the Sybil we were first introduced to?

I was quite disappointed in the characterisations of all the female characters in 'Snuff'. They are not 'strong female characters' if you write them as strong despite their being female.

I find it so hard to say a bad word against Pratchett, seeing as his books have been so wonderful over the years, but coming across this has opened me up. The only thing that got me through 'Snuff' was because of my love for the character of Sam Vimes - 'Unseen Academicals' is still half read on my shelf. =/

Unknown said...

The "50 words instead of 10" bit says it all, really. It spoiled the book and destroyed the Vetinari character.
The book is not really bad but the real Pratchett is in another league.
Unseen Academicals was still very good, so I hope this is not a trend as much a sa momentary lapse.

InnocentSinner said...

Thank you for writing this. This book broke my heart, like a million times over. I'm almost of the opinion that Pratchett did NOT write this. He could not have. I mean, Thud! was one of my all time favorite Watch books and the next one we get is...this? It isn't even a Watch book, it s a Sam Vimes book. And Vimes is my favorite character. Not the Vimes in this book, but the Vimes in general. So yeah. This book upset me very very much.
Oh and also, while reading I came across this line "He hated this shit." This book is dead to me.

arkenaten said...

Read Snuff and Unseen Academicals. Reads as if someone else had a hand in them, to be honest. When one considers how well written I shall Wear Midnight is, the other two novels seem out of place.
Either Sir Terry is off the boil because of his illness or a trusted friend was 'peering over his shoulder'

Unknown said...

I agree with this review and just wanted to add that to me the most revolting aspect of this book is the barely concealed discussion of colonialism, racism and slavery. In this respect, as in the case of feudalism, Pratchett makes it clear that he adopts a sort of clasically 19th century "liberal" position on these matters - it's a terrible shame that people are oppressed, but the only way out is for "good" people among the oppressors to stop the "bad" ones and, along the way, teach the oppressed how to be good citizens.

The constant talk of the goblins' smell, the fact that their key "helper" is focused on teaching them to wear "nice" clothes and teach them to play the harp... the parallels with colonial discussions of "natives" (a term that Vimes uses at one point) is so stark that it shocks me that more people don't seem to have noticed it. Do we live in a world that has forgotten the kidnapping of children of Native Americans and Australian aborigines? The words of Lord Macaulay about "Indian education"? Have we all forgotten a century of struggle against racism, colonialism and the white man's burden?

This is extraordinarily nauseating and racist. I always had a dislike of Pratchett because, while his humour and writing make his novels difficult to put down, these themes come up so often in his novels. However, even in this context, Snuff is remarkable. It reads like Rudyard Kipling with worse writing and some funny bits.

alex kipnis said...

Reading this review left me a little puzzled. I guess the author has forgotten after reading Terry Pratchett for so many years, that it's humor and fantasy. Is it as good as his earlier work? No, it's not, but it is not as bad as the review suggests. If you wanted a great dramatic novel you picked the wrong author.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

If you wanted a great dramatic novel you picked the wrong author

Probably a good thing that that's not what I was looking for in this book, then.

I went into this book hoping to find what I had in Pratchett's previous novels - a sharp sense of humor, a well built fantasy world, and insightful social commentary. As I think I demonstrate in this review, I found none of these in Snuff.

steve frog said...

I still haven't managed to read Snuff as i live in a 3rd world country, no not Wales, and don't do ebooks yet).
i often thought there would be a 'ten little Klatchians' book, and assume Snuff is it.
Terry's writing has generally deteriorated, but authors not just pop stars may fall as they age.
ps, I used to live in Bath, infamously detested in its day by Jane Austin for its lack of 'society' skills. Cambodia's like this time.

Triangle Man said...

I've been a fan of the series for at least a decade now, and I have to say that I agree with you that this novel isn't up to Mr. Prachett's usual quality of writing. I found the Paragraph-Long Monologues somewhat grating, I felt like I was being beaten over the head with the themes and characterization (where they existed) and thought that there was too long a denouement between what I thought was the climax and the denouement.

Still had a good time with it, but it was a flawed novel.

...And now I want to go back and re-read some of the earlier books in the series...

Zoue said...

I think the post from Anonymous on June 9th 2012 was bang on the money. I don't have a huge problem with the story line, although I found the general pace to be a little too variable for comfort.

I also disagree with some of the comments on the treatment of women. I think Pratchett has always had very strong women characters in his books: you only have to look at the Witches and Susan Sto Helit to see that. It's just that the world of Discworld has predominantly Victorian attitudes and often their story lines involve the fight against the male dominated hierarchy. Usually, though, the women are shown to be stronger than the men and triumph despite the social restrictions. The best example of this is Monstrous Regiment (and, again, any book with the Witches in it). So if this book does not have a particularly strong woman character I don't see it as anything particularly suspicious or noteworthy. He doesn't have to have one in every book he writes.

Equally I see nothing untoward with his Jane Austen parody. He's done it more than once with Shakespeare (Witches) and Grimm fairy tales (Witches again!), so what's so hallowed about Jane Austen that she should be left untouched, especially given that, as previously mentioned, the Discworld society seems modeled on Victorian times? I saw nothing more sinister than a little tongue in cheek diversion. It was Sam's boorish attitude that grated, not the Jane Austen reference.

However, the dialogue read as though it was read, not spoken. One of the joys of reading Pratchett has always been descriptive prose and his ability to paint a picture of a character's state of mind with just a line or two, but here almost every dialogue is clunky and artificial. Like others, the Patrician's monologue took me by surprise and made me pause: it's quite possibly the longest I've ever heard him speak in any of the Discworld novels and was so out of character that I found it hard to accept it as Vetinari. I tend to lose myself in a book when I read and this caused me to zoom right back out to reality. And Vimes seemed to love the sound of his own voice in this book: again, I don't think I've ever heard him soliloquize so much. It was distracting and too unlike the character to be easily acceptable. I found a similar writing style in Dodger. I found it hard to like then and assumed it was because TP was trying a different style from the Discworld novels. However, now I conclude that it's probably more down to the influence of Alzheimer's on his writing which sadly means that future books may well be similar. I would still read them because the books still contain gems inside, but it would be sad to think that the old writing style may never return. I hope I'm wrong.


However

baeraad said...

what's so hallowed about Jane Austen that she should be left untouched, especially given that, as previously mentioned, the Discworld society seems modeled on Victorian times?

I think the problem is twofold. One, he's taking a cheap shot at the Austen characters by treating them as if they lived in modern times and still behaved as they do in their own story. "Stop waiting for a man and go out and get a job!" is good advice, but only if there are actually career opportunities for women beyond being a wife, which was not really the case in the time and place Jane Austen wrote about.

Secondly, it doesn't even make sense in the context of Discworld, where we are usually told that there also aren't all that many job openings for women beyond wife or "seamstress" - a fact that suddenly changes here and here only, just for the sake of stomping on Jane Austen.

Basically, it seems to me that Pratchett was annoyed with people liking Jane Austen stories and their (from a modern perspective) anti-feminist messages and violated the rules of his own setting just to tell those people how stupid they were. And that makes for one more sour note in a book that is not far from being just one long cranky rant in the first place.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I didn't take the Austen scene as a knock on Austen at all, but as Catherynne Valente noted in a previous comment, the issue with it is that Vimes isn't telling the women "stop waiting for a man and get a job." He's telling them "stop waiting for a man and get a job, like nursing, where you might meet a handsome, rich doctor who will marry you." It's one thing to replace Austen mores with modern ones (although this is also problematic, not least for how Vimes, already quite supercilious in this book, allows himself to lecture the women as if he has any idea what their lives are like). But this scene replaces Austen mores with 50s mores, which is hardly an improvement, and certainly undercuts Vimes's image of himself as the voice of reason.

carlowe said...

I just assumed he hadn't actually written the book at all...it was bitterly disappointing.

carlowe said...

I just can't stand authors who have to tell or overexplain everything. He never used to do that. Poor man.

thecoppercow said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
thecoppercow said...

Sadly, I have to agree with this review - Snuff shocked me as a book. I think you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned the 50 words for 10 point, it really did pinpoint why I felt so uncomfortable with that scene.
I could sort of cope with Unseen Academicals by rationalising it as "well, it's being written by an amanuensis and it's a one-off, of course it'll feel odd" but Snuff just made me want to cry. Everything from the Jane Austen/feminism references to Vetinari's strange reaction to Vimes turning into something of a bully felt wrong.
I really wish he'd ended the series with Night Watch - that would truly have been going out with a bang.

Teppic said...

I agree wholeheartedly with most of the above statements. UA had me worried, Midnight was not the trilogy ending I expected (try explaining what a whore is to that books demographic?) Thud was politically interesting but a bit clunky. But Snuff? Ok, the name itself sent out warnings (unless you take it to mean the Gentrified way of imbibing tobacco) , but for the first 100 pages I had tears in my eyes due to not just the ruination of a character but potentially an author due to a most horrific disease. I have been reading Sir Terry for over 23 years and agree characters, plot lines and the Discworld itself can be restrictive and repetitive. But they were fun! Snuff was painful. I only hope the delay in the new book is for a re-write or edit as I fear I cannot spend the next however many years reading the ghost written bin scrapings of a formerly wonderfully inventive author.

Benjamin Gass said...

This review is right on. Snuff was awful. By the way did anyone else notice that the villain Gavin Rust went completely undeveloped and had no interaction at all? He may as well have been in another book despite all Vimes talk about getting the black snooker ball. The actual villain was just another killer, Stratford is basically a recycled reheated Carcer from Night Watch but without the depth.

Daeghrafen said...

I didn't care for Snuff at all when I first read it (which is hard for me to say, because I adore Pratchett), but when I reread it, I actually liked it quite a bit more than the first time around. Unseen Academicals was the same way for me. Neither is as good as some of the earlier books, but personally, at least, I found that on a reread they were a heck of a lot better than I thought the first time around. Try a second reading if you feel so inclined and see if it makes a difference for you; it did for me. I think in part they were just so different than what I was used to from Pratchett that my perceptions were initially skewed; but they're really not all bad. There are still strong kernels of goodness there. (I still think the plot in Snuff is a bit all over the place, but it worked better for me the second time around; I do think the choice of title was rather unfortunate, though.)

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