The Writer’s Responsibilities On the various sorts of responsibility incumbent on an author: to himself and his family, to language, to his audience, to truth, and to his story itself
Thank you for inviting me to talk to this conference. I’ve been racking my brains to think of a way of addressing your theme of magic carpets and international perspectives, because I think one should at least try, and I’ve come to the conclusion that although I’m not going to say anything directly about that, what I do have to say is as true as I can make it. I’m going to talk about responsibility.
And responsibility is a subject I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, because it has a bearing on the way the world is going, and on whether or not our profession, our art or craft, has anything to contribute to the continual struggle to make the world a better place; or whether what we do is, in the last analysis, trivial and irrelevant. Of course, there are several views about the relationship between art and the world, with at one end of the spectrum the Soviet idea that the writer is the engineer of human souls, that art has a social function and had better damn well produce what the state needs, and at the other end the declaration of Oscar Wilde that there is no such thing as a good book or a bad book; books are well written or badly written, that is all; and all art is quite useless. However, it’s notable that the book in which he wrote those words as a preface, The Picture of Dorian Gray
, is one of the most moral stories that was ever written, so even Saint Oscar admitted with part of himself that art does have a social and ethical function.
Anyway, I take it that art, literature, children’s literature, do not exist in an ivory tower; I take it that we’re inextricably part of the world, the whole world; and that we have several kinds of responsibility that follow from that.
So that’s what I’m going to talk about briefly this evening—the responsibility of the storyteller—and how far it extends, and what directions it extends in, and where it stops.
The first responsibility to talk about is a social and financial one: the sort of responsibility we share with many other citizens—the need to look after our families and those who depend on us. People of my age will probably remember that wonderfully terrifying advertisement they used to have for Pearl Assurance. It told a little story which I used to read all the way through every time I saw it. When many years later I learned the meaning of the word catharsis, I realised what it was that I’d been feeling as I read that little story: I had been purged by pity and terror.
The advertisement consisted of five drawings of a man’s face. The first was labelled “At age 25,” and it showed a bright-eyed, healthy, optimistic young fellow, full of pep and vigour, with a speech balloon saying “They tell me the job doesn’t carry a pension.”
Each succeeding drawing showed him ten years older, and the speech balloons changed with each one. At forty-five, for example, he was looking sombre and lined and heavy with responsibility, and saying “Unfortunately, the job is not pensionable.” It ended with him at sixty-five: wrinkled, haggard, wild-eyed, a broken-down old man staring into the very abyss of poverty and decrepitude, and saying, “Without a pension I really don’t know what I shall do!
Well, I’m not going to sell you a pension. I’m just going to say that we should all insist that we’re properly paid for what we do. We should sell our work for as much as we can decently get for it, and we shouldn’t be embarrassed about it. Some tender and sentimental people—especially young people—are rather shocked when I tell them that I write books to make money, and I want to make a lot, if I can.
When we start writing books we’re all poor; we all have to do another job in the daytime and write at night; and, frankly, it’s not as romantic as it seems to those who aren’t doing it. Worry—constant low-level unremitting anxiety about bank statements and mortgages and bills—is not a good state of mind to write in. I’ve done it. It drains your energy; it distracts you; it weakens your concentration. The only good thing about being poor and obscure is the obscurity—just as the only trouble with being rich and famous is the fame.
But if we find we can make money by writing books, by telling stories, we have the responsibility
—the responsibility to our families, and those we look after—of doing it as well and as profitably as we can. Here’s a useful piece of advice to young writers: cultivate a reputation
—which need have no basis in reality—but cultivate a reputation of being very fond of money. If the people you have to deal with think that you like the folding stuff a great deal, they’ll think twice before they offer you very small amounts of it. What’s more, by expecting to get paid properly for the work we do, we’re helping our fellow writers in their subsequent dealings with schools, or festivals, or prisons, or whatever. I feel not a flicker of shame about declaring that I want as much money for my work as I can get. But, of course, what that money is buying, what it’s for, is security, and space, and peace and quiet, and time.
The next responsibility I want to talk about is the writer’s, the storyteller’s, responsibility towards language. Once we become conscious of the way language works, and our relationship to it, we can’t pretend to be innocent about it; it’s not just something that happens to us, and over which we have no influence. If human beings can affect the climate, we can certainly affect the language, and those of us who use it professionally are responsible for looking after it. This is the sort of taking-care-of-the-tools that any good worker tries to instil in an apprentice—keeping the blades sharp, oiling the bearings, cleaning the filters.
I don’t have to tell any of you the importance of having a good dictionary, or preferably several. Every writer I know is fascinated by words, and developed the habit of looking things up at a very early age. Words change, they have a history as well as a contemporary meaning; it’s worth knowing those things. We should acquire as many reference books as we have space for—old and out-of-date ones as well as new ones—and make a habit of using them, and take pride in getting things right. The internet also knows a thing or two, but I still prefer books. There’s a pleasure in discharging this responsibility—of sensing that we’re not sure of a particular point of grammar, for example, and in looking it up, and getting it to work properly.
Sometimes we come across people in our professional lives who think that this sort of thing doesn’t matter very much, and it’s silly to make a fuss about it. If only a few people recognise and object to a dangling participle, for example, and most readers don’t notice and sort of get the sense anyway, why bother to get it right? Well, I discovered a very good answer to that, and it goes like this: if most people don’t notice when we get it wrong, they won’t mind if we get it right
. And if we do
get it right, we’ll please the few who do know and care about these things, so everyone will be happy.
A simple example: the thing that annoys me most at the moment is the silly confusion between may
. “Without the code-breaking work at Bletchley Park, Britain may well have lost the Second World War,” you hear people say, as if they’re not sure whether we did or not. What they mean is, “Britain might
well have lost the Second World War.” They should bloody well learn how to say it. Anyway, when I see someone getting that sort of thing right, I become just a little more sure that I can rely on the language they’re using.
Of course, we can make our characters
talk any way we like. It used to be one of the ways in which snobbish writers would mark the difference between characters who were to be admired and those who were to be condescended to. I think we’ve grown a little beyond that now; but when a present-day writer hears the difference between “bored with” and “bored of,” and uses it with brilliant accuracy to mark not so much a class difference as a generational one, as Neil Gaiman does in his marvellous book Coraline
, then he’s being responsible to the language in just the way I’m talking about.
As well as taking care of the words, we should take care of the expressions, the idioms. We should become attuned to our own utterances; we should install a little mental bell that rings when we’re using expressions that are second-hand or blurred through too much use. We should try always to use language to illuminate, reveal and clarify rather than obscure, mislead and conceal. The language should be safe in our hands—safer than it is in those of politicians, for example; at the least, people should be able to say that we haven’t left it any poorer, or clumsier, or less precise.
The aim must always be clarity. It’s tempting to feel that if a passage of writing is obscure, it must be very deep. But if the water is murky, the bottom might be only an inch below the surface—you just can’t tell. It’s much better to write in such a way that the readers can see all the way down; but that’s not the end of it, because you then have to provide interesting things down there for them to look at. 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.
When it comes to imaginative language, to rich and inventive imagery, we have to beware. But what we have to beware of is too much caution. We must never say to ourselves: “That’s a good image—very clever; too clever for this book, though—save it up for something important.” Someone who never did that, someone who put the best of his imagination into everything he wrote, was the great Leon Garfield. Here’s a passage from one of my favourites among his books, The Pleasure Garden (1976)
"Mrs. Bray was the proprietress of the Mulberry Garden . . . Although a widow for seven years, she still wore black, which lent her bulk a certain mystery; sometimes it was hard to see where she ended and the night began. Dr. Dormann, standing beside her, looked thinner than ever, really no more than a mere slice of a man who might have come off Mrs. Bray in a carelessly slammed door."
There’s fast-food language, and there’s caviar language; one of the things we adults need to do for children is to introduce them to the pleasures of the subtle and the complex. One way to do that, of course, is to let them see us enjoying it, and then forbid them to touch it, on the grounds that it’s too grown-up for them, their minds aren’t ready to cope with it, it’s too strong, it’ll drive them mad with strange and uncontrollable desires. If that doesn’t make them want to try it, nothing will.
Next in my list of responsibilities comes honesty—emotional honesty. We should never try to draw on emotional credit to which our story is not entitled. A few years ago, I read a novel—a pretty undistinguished family story—which, in an attempt to wring tears from the reader, quite gratuitously introduced a Holocaust theme. The theme had nothing to do with the story—it was there for one purpose only, which was to force a particular response and then graft it onto the book. An emotional response from the reader is a precious thing—it’s the reader’s gift to us, in a way; they should be able to trust the stimulus that provokes it. It’s perfectly possible—difficult, but possible—to write an honest story about the Holocaust, or about slavery, or about any of the other terrible things that human beings have done to one another, but that was a dishonest one. Stories should earn their own tears and not pilfer them from elsewhere.
When it comes to the sheer craft of depicting things, describing them, saying what happened, the film director and playwright David Mamet said something very interesting. He said that the basic storytelling question is: “Where do I put the camera?”
Thinking about that fascinating, that fathomlessly interesting, question is part of our responsibility towards the craft. Taking cinematography as a metaphor for storytelling, and realising that around every subject there are 360 degrees of space, and an infinity of positions from very close to very far, from very low to very high, at which you can put that camera—then it seems that the great
director, the great storyteller, knows immediately and without thinking what the best position is, and goes there unhesitatingly. They seem to see it as clearly as we can see that leaves are green.
A good director will choose one of the half-dozen best positions. A bad director won’t know, and will move the camera about, fidgeting with the angles, trying all sorts of tricky shots or fancy ways of telling the story, and forgetting that the function of the camera is not to draw attention to itself, but to show something else—the subject—with as much clarity as it can manage.
But actually, the truth is that great directors only seem
as if they know the best place at once. The notebooks of great writers and composers are full of hesitations and mistakes and crossings-out; perhaps the real difference is that they keep on
till they’ve found the best place to put the camera. The responsibility of those of us who are neither very good nor very bad is to imitate the best, to look closely at what they do and try to emulate it, to take the greatest as our models.
Copyright © 2018 by Philip Pullman. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.