Dave Langford compiled the Unseen University Quizbook which was published in 1996, but his involvement in the publishing industry goes back much further than that. In this exclusive article, Dave recalls how he came across Terry Pratchett back in the early days.


It was all, as they say, a long time ago in a Trouserleg of Time far away. The Colour of Magic had appeared from Corgi, The Light Fantastic was in the Corgi pipeline - and one of my freelance chores was to read stuff for Gollancz and report whether it seemed publishable. "John Grisham? No chance of his ever making it, boss. Trust me."

Soon the bulky typescript of Equal Rites plopped through my letterbox, with a note from Malcolm Edwards at Gollancz asking whether this guy Pratchett seemed worth taking on. Why didn't Malcolm make the decision himself? First: senior editors have so much on their plates (administration, sales conferences, endless meetings at which they try desperately to persuade hostile colleagues that their chosen books must appear) that time to read new submissions is a coveted luxury. Second: Malcolm himself wasn't particularly keen on humorous fantasy - Gollancz specialised in straight SF. So he called in an independent reader... me.

Twoflower's spectacles. Thanks partly to the eager promotion of Rog Peyton at Birmingham's Andromeda Bookshop, I'd already bought and enjoyed The Colour of Magic. I even reviewed it, in my column for the much-feared White Dwarf.

"It's one of those horrible, antisocial books which impel the reader to buttonhole friends and quote bits at them. My ceiling is covered with brown spots from when I tried to read Pratchett's jokes and drink beer at the same time. Only native sadism makes me recommend this disgraceful work." (April 1985)

To earn my trifling pittance from Gollancz, I rapidly gobbled The Light Fantastic (also provided) and then Equal Rites. What I thought and wrote down in the pause between the two was that The Light Fantastic was lots funnier than The Colour Of Magic - the incidental gags were better and closer together - but also that Terry ran the risk of becoming inconsequential, with storylines driven solely by the need to take the shortest possible path to the next joke. Down that particular Trouserleg of Time might lie the hideous fate suffered by a certain American whose pun-driven fantasies gave intelligent readers a bad case of literary jaundice, alias Xanthopsia.

Equal Rites charmed me with its determination to be more serious -- plenty of sparkly surface jokes, but some solid plotting underneath, and a hardening recognition that not everything in Discworld need be funny. Indeed, Equal Rites almost wobbled too far away from fun, with that harrowing early passage of Esk nearly losing herself in Borrowing. The concept echoes Ursula Le Guin's fine and not at all funny A Wizard of Earthsea, and I wondered whether Terry was swerving away from humour altogether: but he recovered magnificently with wildly extrapolated bits like the rite-of-passage spoof as Esk practises Borrowing on Unseen University itself - "For the first time in her life she knew what it was like to have balconies".

So I wrote Gollancz a 1,500-word report saying that Equal Rites was bloody good, that it could use some tightening-up in the first 200 pages (I had to return the script so can't check whether this in fact happened), but that I recommended publication.

In due course, Gollancz sent another typescript: Mort, with a special request for detailed feedback because several plot details were thought to need expert attention. This one convinced me that Terry had got his act in order and was heading for the big time. The contents of my 3,200-word report on Mort remain a state secret.

Next, they sent me Sourcery, and after that ... but in case all this sounds like a Langfordian ego-trip, let me stress that the guy on the sidelines who says "Hey, Leonardo, why not touch up Mona's smile a bit?" is not in the same league as the Creative Artist himself. Believe me.

It's been fun.

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August 1997