East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

The writer’s responsibilities

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I am reading Philip Pullman’s Daemon Voices, a collection of essays, articles and talks about the ins and outs of storytelling. I love reading books about writing by writers, and so far I am finding much to agree with Pullman’s positions.

The book opens with a the transcript of a speech Pullman gave about the idea of responsibility for writers, and I found myself cheering and taking notes as I read. Yes, it’s that good.

Pullman states that a writer has a number of responsibilities.

  • The first, he points out, is the responsibility to make a living and provide for their families. Writing must be profitable. I was quite impressed by this statement, and especially by the fact that Pullman places it at the top of his list. Trying to make a living writing, and in a country in which paying the writer is considered some kind of eccentric whimsy, this really made me pause and listen for the rest.
  • The second responsibility is towards language, because language is our working tool, and all good craftsmen should keep their tools in good shape.
    While aiming at clarity, the writer should always strive to get the right words in the right spot.
  • Pullman follows up with a note on the storyteller’s responsibility to he emotionally honest. Our thrills can be cheap, but we need to make them true.
  • Then comes what Pullman calls “tact” – the idea that the writer should not be overbearing, should not steal the spotlight from the story. Because the story is the only thing that counts. Invisibility is all right – and indeed, if the reader is more interested in us than in our story, there’s something wrong.
  • This means of course that storytellers are also responsible to the audience – and Phil Pullman quotes a note from Samuel Johnson: “The true aim of writing is to enable the reader better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.” And I say amen to that.
  • And finally there is the responsibility to the story itself. We need to be good to our stories, as we write them, and afterwards.

All in all, a great lesson, and a great opener for a book that will keep me company for the rest of the weekend. There’s always to learn, from the good ones.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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