A while back, Neil Gaiman heard someone said of Terry Pratchett, "What a jolly old elf Sir Terry is." And that struck his long-time friend and sometime collaborator as absolutely wrong. So Gaiman took pen to paper to explain why.
In The Guardian is an sxcerpt from Neil Gaiman's introduction to A Slip of the Keyboard: Collected Non-fiction by Terry Pratchett. It's a truly excellent account of Pratchett's anger and how it fuels his work. In doing so, he reminds us that being funny is rarely, if at all, related to being "jolly."
Gaiman starts by recounting a time when, while promoting Good Omens, the two of them were late for a radio interview. Gaiman says he tried to stay optimistic, while Pratchett sunk into a quiet rage. Pratchett told him that "This anger was the engine that powered Good Omens." Gaiman continues on to say:
There is a fury to Terry Pratchett's writing: it's the fury that was the engine that powered Discworld. It's also the anger at the headmaster who would decide that six-year-old Terry Pratchett would never be smart enough for the 11-plus; anger at pompous critics, and at those who think serious is the opposite of funny; anger at his early American publishers who could not bring his books out successfully.
The anger is always there, an engine that drives. By the time Terry learned he had a rare, early onset form of Alzheimer's, the targets of his fury changed: he was angry with his brain and his genetics and, more than these, furious at a country that would not permit him (or others in a similarly intolerable situation) to choose the manner and the time of their passing.
Gaiman goes on to describe where that anger comes from and why it's so crucial to Pratchett's writing:
And that anger, it seems to me, is about Terry's underlying sense of what is fair and what is not. It is that sense of fairness that underlies Terry's work and his writing, and it's what drove him from school to journalism to the press office of the SouthWestern Electricity Board to the position of being one of the best-loved and bestselling writers in the world.
It's the same sense of fairness that means that, sometimes in the cracks, while writing about other things, he takes time to punctiliously acknowledge his influences – Alan Coren, for example, who pioneered so many of the techniques of short humour that Terry and I have filched over the years; or the glorious, overstuffed, heady thing that is Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable and its compiler, the Rev E Cobham Brewer, that most serendipitious of authors. Terry once wrote an introduction to Brewer's and it made me smile – we would call each other up in delight whenever we discovered a book by Brewer we had not seen before ("'Ere!' Have you already got a copy of Brewer's A Dictionary of Miracles: Imitative, Realistic and Dogmatic?")
Terry's authorial voice is always Terry's: genial, informed, sensible, drily amused. I suppose that, if you look quickly and are not paying attention, you might, perhaps, mistake it for jolly. But beneath any jollity there is a foundation of fury. Terry Pratchett is not one to go gentle into any night, good or otherwise.
He will rage, as he leaves, against so many things: stupidity, injustice, human foolishness and shortsightedness, not just the dying of the light. And, hand in hand with the anger, like an angel and a demon walking into the sunset, there is love: for human beings, in all our fallibility; for treasured objects; for stories; and ultimately and in all things, love for human dignity.
Or to put it another way, anger is the engine that drives him, but it is the greatness of spirit that deploys that anger on the side of the angels, or better yet for all of us, the orangutans.
Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels are, to my mind, some of the best satire of our time. And of course turning keen insight into skewering writing would require a fuel of rage. If you're a reader of Discworld, this has become increasingly obvious in the novels. And, in Discworld, this anger finds itself personified in the form of Sam Vimes. There is an argument that Discworld didn't settle into its most recognizable form until Vimes, and his dark soul, came onto the scene.
In a way, Discworld echoes Gaiman's point about Pratchett: Describing Discworld sounds purely whimsical, but it's hosted discussion about race, war, economics, gender, and everything in between. A need to illuminate the absurdities of these topics would require anger at their continued existence. It's the same anger that is so clear in stand-ups but seems harder to find when cloaked in fiction.
What is included here is just a small part of what's at The Guardian, so definitely go read the whole thing.