The Reader: Philip Pullman and The Storyteller’s Responsibility

The Summer issue of The Reader is, as usual, full of wonderful things (I discovered The Reader over on dovegreyreader’s blog a while ago, thank you dovegrey).

But the reason this issue (No. 30) is particularly wonderful to me is because of the essay by Philip Pullman called The Storyteller’s Responsibility. It beautifully describes what it is that we storytellers think about – or should be thinking about – when we write.

Pullman writes about financial responsibilities: ‘We should sell our work for as much as we can decently get for it’ in order to support our families; and the responsibility to, and for looking after, the language: ‘We should acquire as many dictionaries as we have space for.’

He discusses clarity and emotional honesty and keeping a check on our own self-importance, but the responsibility that Pullman feels ‘trumps every other’ is:

the storyteller’s responsibility to the story itself. … When the story’s just a thought, just the most evanescent little wisp of a thing – we have to look after it … to protect it while it becomes sure of itself and settles on the form it wants.

He writes eloquently about how the writer doesn’t know why a story wants to go in one direction and not another, just that that is true. The story is ‘the boss’ and ‘this is the point where responsibility takes the form of service … freely and fairly entered into. This service is a voluntary and honourable thing.’

And on planning, my sometime difficulty, he writes these wonderful, and wonderfully clear, words:

Telling a story involves thinking of some interesting events, putting them in the best order to bring out the connections between them, and telling about them as clearly as we can; and if we get the last part right, we won’t be able to disguise any failure with the first – which is actually the most difficult, and the most important.

Wonderul summer reading. Thank you, The Reader.

About Angela

I write fiction about the difficulty we have when we try to say what's in our hearts.
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2 Responses to The Reader: Philip Pullman and The Storyteller’s Responsibility

  1. verbivore says:

    I read an article about Pullman in the New Yorker about three years ago now and I was struck by his insight into writer to reader responsibility. He was talking mainly about writing for children and how he felt it important never to condescend to his readers. I think I will enjoy this essay as well – thank you for pointing it out!

  2. Gondal-girl says:

    thanks for sharing this – Pullman is really a master at capturing process –