This book contains thirty-two pieces by Philip Pullman. Their titles range from The Origin of the Universe to The Cat, the Chisel and the Grave, and their contents cover an even wider range of ideas, observations and opinions – some familiar, many not, all inspected through the author’s often idiosyncratic lens. I was intrigued, sometimes irritated, always interested by all that he has to say, but decided for this piece to sift through the discussions of atheism and education, Dickens, depression and drama, Milton and Modernism and concentrate on Philip Pullman’s thoughts about writing and reading.
The subtitle of this book is ‘Essays on Storytelling,’ and Philip Pullman has things to say both about how to write stories, and about the responsibilities of a writer. How is tantalising, what is his recipe? How does he create fascinating, sympathetic rounded characters, put them into worlds that are both fantastic and believable and engage them in exciting, intriguing experiences?
He tells us to ‘think of interesting events, put them together in the best order to bring out connections and then tell about it as clearly as we can.’ He concedes that the first is hardest, he says there is no predicting when inspiration will come, but it only visits him if he’s at his desk ready for it.
He has more to say about how to write a story: It’s wise to make the first person (or point of view) a reader meets the protagonist of your story because the reader will engage and sympathise with that person. A second person will often make a scene work better – and dialogue is easier to write than narrative. He quotes Chandler’s advice for when a scene gets stuck – have a man with a gun in his hand come through the door.
He uses cinematic ideas to help explain how to set a scene, suggesting that a writer should give visual clues to tell the reader where the scene is, who is there, and where the light comes from. He tells us to put the camera in the best place and don’t move it until you need to. I interpret this as stick with one PoV, until you need to change. Philip Pullman defends telling stories in the voice of an omniscient narrator; who, he points out, should not be confused with the author. He defends the use of words that on analysis may seem anomalous (e.g. ‘nowadays’ during a narrative set in a past time) when the PoV has become deeply engaged with a character, so that the term flows naturally because it is one that character would use.
Philip Pullman uses an idea from Physics, phase space, to stand for not just a story’s world but for all the possible events that surround and could flow from a scene. He maintains that the story should follow a path through these possibilities. He reminds us that another Philip (Larkin) said – that a story should have a beginning, a middle and an end. The business of the story is to follow that path, and a writer should only explore away from the path to illuminate what is happening along it. Pullman also says that to tell a story one should, ‘say what happened then shut up.’ Although he acknowledges what William Blake wrote – that one can never know what is enough until one knows what is more than enough.
He talks about time frames, and the choice of tense and person, story patterns, fundamental particles of story-telling, and image schemas which he uses to diagram relationships between characters. He quotes Auden and Orwell, to say that good prose is like a clear window pane, to be looked through not looked at.
Philip Pullman also talks about the responsibilities of a writer. He insists that a writer has a responsibility to support himself and his family, and should insist on being paid for his work. A writer has a responsibility to language and should know how to use it correctly, even if many readers do not notice, the writer will please those who do care. A writer has a responsibility to each story, to tell it as well as she is able. Philip Pullman states that one should never save a rich image for a different piece of work.
Other responsibilities include not gratuitously including real tragedies to make a story more emotional. Pullman defends a writer’s right to tell stories set anywhere, about anybody, but cautions us to pay attention to what our imagination feels comfortable doing. He quotes from The Tempest: ‘Give delight an hurt not.’
Pullman quotes Walter Savage Landor, warning that writers must not indulge in unfavourable views of mankind. (Landor goes on to say that in so doing we may make bad men believe that they are no worse than others, and .. teach the good that they are good in vain.
Philip Pullman insists that novels and stories do not set out to convince but to beguile. He maintains that the work fiction writers do is infinitely worth doing, among his many quotations from Blake is this one: Eternity is in love with the products of time. Pullman accepts that any work reflects the concerns and beliefs of its era, but holds that unchangeable truths do exist – or at least some truths last long enough to seem unchangeable to us. He says that such truths are best communicated through the ‘gate of delight’ that links the liminal zone, unique to each reader, between the reader and the book, between objective landscape and subjective reaction.
I borrowed this book from the local branch of the County library – how wonderful that they can be open again. I’m so glad that I picked it, but don’t as I did, begin by starting at page one and reading the essays in order. The editor (Simon Mason) has grouped them by topic. Many of the essays contain material for talks that Philip Pullman has given, often many years apart. Contiguous essays sometimes contain the same examples making the pieces seem repetitious and it is difficult to appreciate each essay’s unique gems.
Better to take Pullman’s advice about reading – Read like a butterfly, write like a bee he says of his own reading, and praises a serendipitious approach. Something I found useful for The Man in the Red Coat whose initial reading overlapped with this book’s. Although I disagree when Pullman recommends bibliomancy (future divination by random opening of book and reading text – particularly from bible). Unless the future is simply what I am going to read for the next half hour.
A partially serendipitous approach, choosing an essay from the Contents list, or the Topic Finder where the essays are classified by themes, was a good way for me to engage with these essays – and I eventually read the whole collection. Twice. Unlike The Man in the Red Coat thie book contains both an augmented contents section and an index – there is no compulsion to use a map to find your route, but so good to find one exists when you are struggling to find your way. Thank you to both author and editor.