Pratchett’s Wintersmith – The Concept of Reader Baggage as Explained Through Sarcasm
I have been working my way through Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novel Wintersmith. As usual, it is a great tale, well-written with strong characters. One scene has stood out to me as being especially humorous, but also useful as commentary on writing.
In the scene, lead character Tiffany—an almost 13-year-old witch—discovers a book on her bed and begins to read. Pratchett’s clear intention in the scene is to lambaste generic romance novels for their ignorance of their and our worlds, and other excesses that pop culture has addresses countless times before.
But in his humorous attack on a generally disregarded genre of writing, he reveals a truth that is important to all authors. Readers all have their own personal experiences and knowledge. They bring this with them to the reading: it’s a sort of mental baggage. If any part of the story conflicts with this baggage, the reader can be lost.
In this specific case, the conflicts are with real world truths. The romance writer has made up a story about a farm girl with too many inaccuracies about real farm life and the natural world. This negatively affects the reader who knows better (Tiffany also has perspectives on gender that clash with the writing). Science Fiction authors face this danger regularly. If you try to dress your story up in pseudo-science, passing it off as real, you will bug your readers. If you try your hand at real science and get it wrong or are unconvincing, you face similar issues. I tend to worry about this a lot when I write hard S.F. I know a good bit about physics, but I’m no studied scientist.
But Pratchett’s scene also provides a bit of light though that dark tunnel of self-consciousness. If the story is good enough, you can overcome these other weaknesses. There is a deeper part of the human psyche that strives for sentimentality and melodrama, adventure and romance. If your story hits those buttons just right, you can maintain your hook even through the resistance of your reader’s baggage.
(This is perhaps another good reason to have other people read your stories as you revise them.)
It’s just something to think about. It’s amazing the places your can discover such truths on the craft.
Without further ado, enjoy Pratchett’s humorous little scene—
Tiffany was just getting ready for bed that night when she found a book under her pillow.
The title, in fiery red letters, was Passion’s Plaything by Marjory J. Boddice, and in smaller print were the words: Gods and Men said their love was not to be, but they would not listen!! A tortured tale of a tempestuous romance by the author of Sundered Hearts!!!
The cover showed, up close, a young woman with dark hair and clothes that were a bit on the skimpy side in Tiffany’s opinion, both hair and clothes blowing in the wind. She looked desperately determined, and also a bit chilly. A young man on a horse was watching her some distance away. It appeared that a thunderstorm was blowing up.
Strange. There was a library stamp inside, and Nanny didn’t use the library. Well, it wouldn’t hurt to read a bit before blowing the candle out.
Tiffany turned to page one. And then to page two. When she got to page nineteen she went and fetched the Unexpurgated Dictionary.
She had older sisters and she knew some of this, she told herself. But Marjory J. Boddice had got some things laughably wrong. Girls on the Chalk didn’t often run away from a young man who was rich enough to own his own horse—or not for long and not without giving him a chance to catch up. And Megs, the heroine of the book, clearly didn’t know a thing about farming. No young man would be interested in a woman who couldn’t dose a cow or carry a piglet. What kind of help would she be around the place? Standing around with lips like cherries wouldn’t get the cows milked or the sheep sheared!
And that was another thing. Did Marjory J. Boddice know anything about sheep? This was a sheep farm in the summertime, wasn’t it? So when did they shear the sheep? The second most important occasion in a sheep farm’s year and it wasn’t worth mentioning?
Of course, they might have a breed like Habbakuk Polls or Lowland Cobbleworths that didn’t need shearing, but these were rare and any sensible author would surely have mentioned it.
And the scene in chapter five, where Megs left the sheep to fend for themselves while she went gathering nuts with Roger…well, how stupid was that? They could have wandered anywhere, and they were really stupid to think they’d find nuts in June.
She read on a bit further, and thought: Oh. I see. Hmm. Hah. Not nuts at all, then. On the Chalk, that sort of thing was called “looking for cuckoo nests.”
She stopped there to go downstairs to fetch a fresh candle, got back into bed, let her feet warm up again, and went on reading.
Should Megs marry sulky dark-eyed William, who already owned two and a half cows, or should she be swayed by Roger, who called her “my proud beauty” but was clearly a bad man because he rode a black stallion and had a mustache?
Why did she think she had to marry either of them? Tiffany wondered. Anyway, she spent too much time leaning meaningfully against things and pouting. Wasn’t anyone doing any work? And if she always dressed like that, she’d catch a chill.
It was amazing what those men put up with. But it made you think.
She blew out the candle and sank gently under the eiderdown, which was as white as snow.
Source: Terry Pratchett, Wintersmith, 2006.