Are The Discworld Books Overrated?

Terry Pratchett is one of the most famous British writers and his Discworld series has been read by millions. He has been praised by many as one of the funniest writers and master of the fantasy genre. His books have been hailed as literary classics and it has even been said that Terry Pratchett’s Discworld Might Be The Highest Form of Literature on the Planet.

So naturally hearing such praise (and being a fan of Douglas Adams and fantasy), I gave it a go. While I found them enjoyable, I wasn’t blown away. They were good but nothing great. So, I thought maybe I was missing something and wasn’t appreciating him fully (Pratchett hardly has critics so the problem must be with me). Or maybe I just haven’t got to the best book yet. So, I kept reading and in total, I’ve read 13 Discworld books, 7 in the City Watch series (up to Thud!), 3 in the Death series (up to Soul Music), the first 2 of the Moist von Lipwig books and Small Gods (also Good Omens which half counts).

Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely brilliant elements, clever ideas and hilarious moments. I have a taste for absurd humour and I love political commentary, so there’s a lot I did like about the books. Yet, I began to suspect that Discworld might be overrated. Such a thought is blasphemy, so I kept it to myself until I read enough books to see that while there are some very good books, there are also plenty of mediocre ones.

Repetitive Plots

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Pratchett valued quantity over quality when it came to the series. To produce 40 books is an amazing achievement that few writers achieve and is all the more impressive as he produced a book every single year and often twice a year. Unfortunately, it seems he was able to do this by repeating plotlines and jokes. There’s hardly a plot that isn’t repeated at least once and several books are just copies of previous ones. For example, the first Death book, Mort, is about what happens when Death leaves his job, causing chaos. The second book, Reaper Man, is about the chaos that happens when Death leaves his job. The third book, Soul Music, is yet again about Death leaving his job. I haven’t read the fourth book, but I can guess what it is about.

Likewise, the City Watch (and Moist) books are very repetitive and follow the same formula: they always begin with a murder, a secretive villain, have some mystery, racial conflict, a fight/chase scene, before a final showdown. A lot of the jokes get recycled too, like every time Colon and Nobby appear, we hear yet again that Colon is slow and old fashioned, while Nobby is dirty and dishonest. Funny the first time, but the time I was on book 7 and had heard it a hundred times, I was sick of it.

Weak Endings

Whatever you say about Pratchett’s writing skills, there’s no denying that his endings are terrible. He can keep the plot moving quickly and build up the suspense of a mystery, but usually fails when it comes to payoff. The ending of Mort still baffles me. They’re usually a rushed mess with a half-baked solution covering the gap. Or characters just act inconsistently and undermine most of what happened in the book. For example, in Soul Music, Death doesn’t intervene at the beginning of the book to stop the deaths (because some things can’t be changed), yet when facing the exact same situation at the end of the book, he does. Or at the start of Going Postal, the Patrician declares he can’t just act like a tyrant and arrest people without evidence, yet that is what he does at the end.

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Poor Characterisation

One of the frustrating habits of Pratchett was to spend an entire book building up a character and getting to know them, only to then completely ignore them. Mort has his own book and then completely disappears until he is killed off in a ridiculously casual way that evokes no emotional response. Golems and Dorfl are the focus of Feet of Clay, yet Dorfl completely disappears for the rest of the series. In fact, each City Watch book focuses on a new recruit who then fades into the crowd for the rest of the series.

To be honest, most of the characters are pretty flat and one-dimensional. Apart from Vimes, do the rest of the Watch have any depth? After 7 books you would think that they would be fleshed out as characters, but they’re really still just plot devices to set up jokes and tell Vimes what’s going on. Worse still, what little personalities the characters do have is rarely consistent, as they can act completely different depending on the book and the needs of the

Vimes

After a while even Vimes began to annoy me. Pratchett constantly tells us that Vimes is honest and strictly observes the law, yet this strikes me as hypocritical. Vimes constantly harps on about the law applying to everyone yet sees himself as above it. We are told twenty times that Vimes is super honest but the next page he casually jokes about how Detritus beats the troll prisoners (but they’re only trolls haha) or how Nobby & Conlon regularly steal and take bribes (the kind of thing he would be furious if anyone else did it). Vimes is supposed to bravely stand up to the powerful, yet he closes streets and hijacks carts just so he can get home quicker (wouldn’t he be furious if anyone else did that?)

At the start of every book, he begins by declaring his dislike of a species, be it trolls, dwarves, vampires etc. When other characters do it, they’re the villains being ignorant, yet Vimes somehow gets a pass. At the end of each book, Vimes has accepted the new species, yet nothing happened to change his mind. There’s no arc or transformation, it’s like a switch is flipped. When a new species faces discrimination, the best approach apparently is to laugh it off (I wonder if Pratchett thinks all racism could be solved if only the victims had a better sense of humour).

Shallow Racial Discussion

Discworld often receives praise for its discussion of racism and prejudice, yet I’ve always found it very shallow. Each Watch book begins with a species (werewolves, vampires, golems) that is feared and hated and ends with them being accepted. Yet not much happens in between, there’s little to explain how and why people change their mind. There’s no insight as to why people are racist in the first place or why they might not like other species. The Discworld approach to prejudice is basically “Hey, why don’t you try not being racist?”

Pratchett is remarkably inconsistent when it comes to racism. He’ll give a big speech about the need to overcome prejudice and welcome new species, and then mock diversity promotion as a sham. One scene that particularly annoyed me was in Going Postal when Moist rejects the suggestion of a diversity programme, despite having just hired the first ever golem postman.

Women

A major failing of Pratchett is his writing of women who are some of his weakest characters. He seems to only know two types of women: middle aged biddies and super-tough un-emotionless warriors. Sybil is a particular catastrophe of bad writing, she basically disappears after the first book and does nothing else other than nag Vimes and make him sandwiches. It’s never even explained why they married and their relationship has the warmth of ice. Even in Night Watch, Vimes goes half the book before he embarrassingly remembers that he has a wife and that she’d about to give birth.

Adora Belle is another poorly written character whose main personality trait is that she smokes a lot. Seriously, could he not have tried harder? The fact she’s just a love interest for the protagonist is extra clear in Making Money when she doesn’t even appear until half the book is over and then mainly just to have men call her beautiful. Angua too, is very tough and that’s about all the character development she gets. Pratchett probably thought he was writing strong female characters, but reducing them to being bossy, angry and humourless is just as bad as having them helpless and reliant on men. Do any of the women actually have fun in the books?

There’s always a romance thrown in and I mean literally thrown in. Perhaps Pratchett felt they were needed but they’re never given much thought and one person being male and the other female is about all the connection needed. If two characters of the opposite sex spend time together, then they usually end up being pared off. Don’t even get me started on the gender “humour” that went out of date decades ago, that usually involves stale jokes that end with the men groaning “oh women” and the women groaning “oh men”.

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Disappearing Jokes

Although Discworld started as a comedy, after a while the jokes started to fade away. The books became less and less funny and the absurd brilliance that made the books so special was gradually stripped away. Instead the plots and moral lessons got heavier, the joy disappeared and characters began giving long speeches on the state of society. The Patrician in particular becomes just a microphone to ramble about human nature. Perhaps I would have welcomed a maturing of the series away from the wacky comedy and towards more nuance, but as mentioned above, the unsubtle lessons on racism are little better than “trolls and dwarves don’t like each other but they should”.

Series occasionally shift their tone or even genre, but the problem with dropping the jokes from Discworld is that they weren’t replaced with anything good. They lose their fun feeling and instead the tone becomes more grouchy and Pratchett almost seems like a grumpy old man complaining about a changing world (like in Soul Music and the later City Watch books). The jokes get replaced with mystery and action, but those aren’t Pratchett’s strengths and a having Vimes constantly running and fighting a villain can’t replace the hilarity of the early series. The Fifth Elephant is just a long series of chase scenes that leave the reader as exhausted as the characters.

Not of the people, but above them

Pratchett is sometimes depicted as a hero of ordinary people, yet it seems that he looks down his nose at them. There isn’t a single ordinary person who is the least bit likeable. The people are often little more than an unthinking mob, easily swayed by whoever shouts loudest. They’re easily manipulated fools looking for an easy solution to their problems, be it a king (Guards! Guards!), nationalism (Jingo), blaming other species (most of the Watch books), but good thing Vimes is here because he knows better than those fools.

In Night Watch, there is criticism of the powerful who abuse their position, but anyone who tries to change it is mocked as an idealistic buffoon. The rebels receive a pile of ridicule even though they’re fighting a repressive dictatorship that kidnaps and tortures them. The people are depicted as petty, gullible and easily distracted, and almost deserve a dictator. Instead of fighting for what’s right, the book takes a “Giant Douche v Turd Sandwich” approach to politics and its hard to avoid the conclusion that there’s no point trying to make things better, because it won’t work.

Small Gods

I found that even books considered to be classics, like Small Gods, are unexceptional. There’s a few novel ideas, like having Gods get their power from people, but then there’s things like showing that the Inquisition was bad, which I’m pretty sure we already knew. Even as an Atheist who loves a good critique of religion, I didn’t find much insight other than ‘sometimes religion does bad things.’ Maybe that was considered sharp religious analysis in 1992 or maybe I’m become embittered by the Church scandals here in Ireland, but it struck me as very tame. I mean plenty of religious people would agree that they sometimes don’t live up to their standards and need to return to the pure basics. In fact, the book could be considered as much a defence of faith as a critique. Plus the characters are forgettable.

Conclusion

This isn’t to say that I hate Discworld or that they’re terrible books. There are plenty of good jokes and ideas, even if they are spread a bit thin over too many books. These certainly deserve praise and recognition. But there are also books like Making Money where the plot is incoherent, most character arcs go nowhere and I hardly smiled at any point. Yet it seems that almost no one wants to breathe a bad word against the legend (even his worst books get rave reviews).

This post isn’t meant to drag Discworld through the mud, but merely to offer a bit of balance to the constant praise. Maybe I deserve to be burnt at the stake for sacrilege, but I can’t help but feeling that Discworld books are overrated.

28 thoughts on “Are The Discworld Books Overrated?”

  1. this was a shockingly poor article, and clearly the person who wrote it took no effort or time looking into the personal life of pratchett. he sat for hours past the time he was due to leave at book signgings out of nearly unprecidented dedication to his fanbase. he was on par with that with Brandon Sanderson.

    1. That may be true HK, but a book should judged on its own merits, on what lies between the covers. I’ve read most of the books and generally enjoyed them. The early ones are a bit weak but he was something of a pioneer venturing into virgin territory, then he gets into his stride, and finally he begins to flag, perhaps the fan-worship went to his head, hardly surprising. I’ve never considered these books Great Literature, though they have their soaring moments. Mostly they’re sequences of comic sketches loosely connected by often rather weak plots, the literary equivalent of something like Monty Python and the Holy Grail etc. But he can do a decent plot when he really tries, IIRC he managed it in the Watch novel where Vimes goes back in time to train his younger self. That was a lot of fun and the circular structure meant he had to think ‘plot’ so as to tie up all the ends. But then I’ll willingly confess that I couldn’t write any kind of novel to save my life, could you HK?

      1. “I couldn’t write any kind of novel to save my life, could you HK?”

        Pretty irrelevant. I can’t cook well either, but I know what shitty food taste like.

        The book you’re referring to is Night Watch, and the author shits all over that book too even though, as you said, it’s one of the best.

        This blog used key words like “overrated” to get people to click on it, and then used loaded language like “undeniably bad endings” and it’s grating to people who love this series.

        there’s a way to respectfully say this series isn’t for you, and then there’s being an edge lord.

          1. Edge Lord just means that someone glorifies being ‘edgy’ or going being counter-culture. I personally love the Pratchett books, but they aren’t the end all be all of literature. However they’re quite enjoyable and I always put whatever I’m reading to read a new Pratchett book.

    2. Pratchett’s books always start off a little amusing. Then it’s just a moral tale and I lose interest. His books weren’t really funny. Word play is the worst type of humour there is and it’s so dated. Even Wodehouse humour has aged better than Pratchett’s. The jokes in Blackadder have aged better. Pratchett wasn’t funny, his prose was ok but his books all fail in the last act. Crap writer. People like him because he was “comfortable” writer. He never twisted expectations. He’s the fantasy version of Agatha Christie. Formulaic shit, wrapped in 70s jokes and presented as social commentary. The books suck once you hit puberty and work out what wit is.

  2. Sorry mate, but you’re so far off base on the person that it’s clear you couldn’t give a decent critique of the work he did

  3. you really need to read the Witches books and then revisit your critique of how Prattchet portrayed women. And probably the Tiffany books which give you more younger characters.

    1. Dude admitted he has a very limited view of Discworld; everyone can be torn to shreds if you have the moxie to do it. Yo, I can throw every single historical figure under the bus if I wanted to. But I subscribe to something that some people don’t seem to have, which is common decency. Mr. Pratchett made million’s of people happy, that will Alway’s be his legacy.

  4. Though I really like this series, I do agree with some of your points of critique. The repetitive plots are something I notices too and like you I have never been convinced by the romances in the series. In my humble opinion , Discworld is simply not the kind of series where romances really fit in.

    1. There are precedents in literature for having little to no plot change from one book to another, as you can find in greek, latin, medieval or classical literature: imitatio is then a value in sich. It becomes in the latter books easier to critic and weirder when Ankh-Morporkh reaches the lands of first and second industrial revolutions, even if I am quite sure the repetition of the plot is not only convenient (it is convenient), but also part of the humour. If you look at it, RR Martin is retelling Druon, plotwise; Vance is retelling himself a hundred times, and when you write after the golden age of SF/Fantasy, especially parody, you’re bound to use repetition at least to mock (yourself, would it be) a pattern (best parody for me beeing in the quasi flaubertian The Iron Dream wher he manages to provoke disgust OF his writing).

      But I find many of my own views on Pratchett’s work, even if I feel that readin in continuity, and in time, helped me to appreciate it (I mean, some of it IS kind of outdated): women’s and people’s roles and the forced romances. It is lampshaded somehow between Sybil and Vimes, Ginger and whatshisname and in Unsee Academicals, as caused by the law of the narrative, but it should be much more gay romances as well, as the laws of the narrative evolved with time. For the progressive aspect of it, well, the radical and feminist Moorcock says that Pratchet is okay and not one of these right-wing libertarians that wrote the “Giant Douche v Turd Sandwich” parabole, both claiming people aren’t free enough but dumb nevertheless. SI I try to read him this way, and there is indeed in going postal a certain definition of what proper public service is, even if the monetary aspect of it contradicts it a bit… I tend to believe that Pratchett had a firm sense of what he liked (freedom of individuals, of speech, and such) and disliked (greed, restraining others freedom, using utopia to justify abuses), but maybe not much grasp what of political systems, and especially almost none of libertarian writings and creations (even if the golems tend to mirror a tiny bit of anarcho-unionism here and there). There is an echo of the marxian work value in Going Postal, that get a bit mixed with Smith’s market value, and it ends up being rather confusing.

      Last, I’d like to write just a few sentences about Pratching quality as a writer (and not as a scenarist, because plot isn’t all. It isn’t even that much important). And there’s to say, he doesnt’ write all that well and reuses images and metaphers – Ok it’s humor, and coherence, I get it. But I have to admit that he can sometimes write well (and that may be why Small Gods is a good book, because all those abstract thing he had to make intelligible forced him to write and not just to align actions), and sometimes be totally dull. I reread Eric, and go it’s awfull: sketch after sketch, no formal nor intern coherence, and clichéd images, poor choice of wording… in fact I read several Pratchett translations that are better worded than the original version.

  5. In my humble opinion, the first two (Colour and Light Fantastic) are the best. I honestly think he did too many; but apparently that was just the way he worked. I saw him speak once – he explained how his publisher had to work hard to keep him to two books a year. Which is only two pages a day, if you think about it 🙂

  6. Whoever wrote this article is an imbecile.
    If you read all the books in order you will find that these disappearing characters are mentioned.
    Explanations of Sybil are also explained.
    As far the city watch novels, they’re the police. They solve crimes. That’s the point. You could complain about the show Law and Order SVU in the same respect.
    You obviously just don’t understand terry pratchett and your sense of entitlement that you need to be blown away by every novel is ignorant.
    I’d be afraid to find out what author you enjoy reading.
    Close your laptop, leave your hipster cafe and try to have a good time

    1. OK he obviously touched a nerve there. For what is worth, I agree with most of what he said. I have lots of books I want to read, so when I pick one, I judge it on its own merits (unless its s trilogy).
      Pratchett may be an awesome guys, nonetheless he reuses lots of the same plot devices and jokes. I hear what you are saying about the repetition being the joke, but that just doesn’t work for a lot of people. The opinions on this article aren’t less valid just because you think Pratchett is great.

  7. I’ve only read a few of the Discworld series which are quite good but I certainly agree that they got less funny as the series expanded. The Carpet People, which isn’t in the Discworld series, is excellent.

  8. I came across this article late, but find it an interesting read.

    I think a few of the discussion points (such as the shallowness of the books’ ethical aspects, the lack of long-lasting character arcs, and the portrayal of the masses as idiots etc) are a little off base, as they are addressing issues that are created by the critique itself. The books appeal to a certain type of person, they are not supposed to be an amazing work of literature for the people, making our planet all happy and perfect and equal. They are a satirical take on our messed up world, and for that they are timeless. And as for the repetitive plots critique, again I feel the point has been missed. As a Pratchett fan, you looked forward to hearing a new Watch book was coming out, or a new Death book. You looked forward to it in the same way people look forwards to a new episode of their favourite tv series, or a new James Film, not because it was going to be something brand new, but because you knew what you were in for. It will pick up the thread from the last book in the sub-series, following the same associated format with the same associated characters.

    I can see why someone would think the things you have, but, as other have pointed out, the entire point has been missed. You should probably have stopped reading once you realized the books weren’t your thing!

    I’d recommend my favourite sub-series, the Rincewind books, but you’d probably get bored of him running away all the time 😉

    1. >>they are not supposed to be an amazing work of literature for the people

      you see, that is the problem
      the fanbase is the most rabid, massive and religious out there
      it’s super hard to even find someone who doesn’t worship pratchett

      you are constantly surrounded by people screaming that he is a golden god.

      also there are adaptations. i liked every adaptation of his books — movies cartoons etc
      but when i started to actually read diskworld with each passing giant book of cheap memes and referrences with hate towards foreigners and anyone younger than 90 my hope that suddenly the writing will improve started to disappear. with books 10-11-12 i as already torturing myself with just how objectively, quantifiable bad they are written, but still are praised by every native english speaker

      like even in this comment there are a ton of very offended ones

      1. Thanks for replying- even if it was to only a single sentence of my attempted discussion ;P

        I dunno about all that. Seems a little dramatic to me. The way I see it there are super fans for every book, film or tv series, but they are always the weird minority. Maybe searching for them online makes it seem like they are more common than they are. Or perhaps it’s because TP isn’t really that popular- barely anyone I actually know in person read his books. That is the definition of a cult classic, a small but very loyal fanbase. Not everyones cup of tea, but those who it speaks to and get it, love it.

        Though, if I am being honest as an intermediary viewpoint, you do seem to be as irrationally against the discworld books as those superfans are for it. Even putting aside your overly extreme and broadly generalized description of the fanbase, to describe each book as giant and hateful seems to be as delusional as those who claim they are literary works of art and TP is god amongst men. You don’t do your argument, which has some very valid critiques, any justice with that sort of hyperbole. Are there any other parts of my original response you’d like to discuss?

        Cal.

  9. I both agree and disagree with pretty much each of the original points. This is after completing what is probably at least my 5th re-reading of the entire series.

    The first point I’d make is that his last two books clearly show his mental decline. I nearly cried reading “The Shepherd’s Crown” because it showed his own intention to clumsily wrap up many loose ends before his death and because his writing had changed so much from his former “show, don’t tell” to simplistic declaration.

    I’ve always been unimpressed by his first two stories, from the first time I read them the year they came out. The humor struck me as mostly juvenile and mechanical. I didn’t think they were nearly as good as some other comic fantasy. I wasn’t impressed until Equal Rites. Since then I’ve been hooked.

    The thing that appealed most to me in the series is the earnest romantic sense of doing what is right. That’s the real fantasy, more than Discworld itself, but (as I am sure Death would agree) it must be the point of departure for any meaningful life IMHO. People have to have social values.

    Recycling of jokes, such as Colon and Nobby, is part of the nature of a series: unless you are willing to require the series be read in order, the characters must be reintroduced. Otherwise the characters are inscrutable to readers starting with later volumes. Yes, it is a blemish, but a tolerable one IMHO.

    I don’t feel the Discworld books have weak endings: indeed, I think their endings are one of the things that I enjoy the most. I am heartily sick of books that spend 300 pages to get to a one page ending. I like a climax with an extended denouement of many pages, something Discworld shares with The Dresden Files. While you criticize the endings for character inconsistency, I think it can be interpreted to reflect that (a) characters can be idiosyncratic and (b) characters can have humanistic/romantic/other impulses. I don’t think either of us wants characters that are so rigid and robotic that we know exactly what they will do.

    “To be honest, most of the characters are pretty flat and one-dimensional.” Yes, I agree. He develops only a few per book, and then doesn’t develop them significantly in subsequent books. Once again, I think this is an issue of the nature and style of series, where it is essential to move on. And this has antecedents all the way back to the Illiad and Odyssey.

    I agree that Vimes is inconsistent. Real people often are too. “At the end of each book, Vimes has accepted the new species, yet nothing happened to change his mind. There’s no arc or transformation, it’s like a switch is flipped.” I think the key word is “accepted”. People can get used to things gradually, without switches being flipped. Though I recall some transformation about goblins and lots of unspoken recognition of heroism and competence by dwarves, trolls, vampires, and werewolves.

    “there’s little to explain how and why people change their mind”. Show, don’t tell. And I don’t think realistic characters undergo transformations where suddenly they completely understand all the ideological implications of rejecting racism. Instead, people sometimes irregularly recognize further implications as they may arise. I’m pretty sure that’s the way I personally, have developed.

    “He seems to only know two types of women: middle aged biddies and super-tough un-emotionless warriors.” Un-emotionless? 🙂 I’m sure you meant emotionless. The heroic fantasy genre generally demands the super-tough major characters. But I can think of exceptions: what about Cheery Littlebottom? Not middle-aged nor emotionless. And Tiffany Aching, of course.

    I don’t have as much problem with the disappearing jokes as I have with the Discworld industrial revolution. I always felt that was lame.

    I actively dislike Small Gods: it is the one Discworld book I find tedious.

    “Pratchett is sometimes depicted as a hero of ordinary people, yet it seems that he looks down his nose at them.” As a humanist, Pratchett recognizes value even in individuals he portrays as foolish: but in groups, he is realistic about their behaviors. “There isn’t a single ordinary person who is the least bit likeable.” Wow, I can think of so many characters that defy your claim. Start with Colin and Nobbs.

    “This post isn’t meant to drag Discworld through the mud, but merely to offer a bit of balance to the constant praise.” That’s not a bad thing.

    “Maybe I deserve to be burnt at the stake for sacrilege, but I can’t help but feeling that Discworld books are overrated.” I think they deserve their high rating because the rest of fantasy is so generally poor in quality. And maintaining good quality over a series of 40 books is amazing and perhaps unparalleled. Please don’t make me compare it to Xanth!

  10. This just seems like nitpicking and complaining. No mention of Pratchett’s struggles with alzheimers, which it’s remarkable he was able to write as late as he did. A lot of these complaints are about writing style and conflicting stances on how character development should be done. I recommend the author of this article practice a little more open mindedness

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