“Yes, oh dear yes, the novel tells a story.”
If I had to trace the death of the novel – or at least a prolonged attempt to kill
it – to a single phrase, this is it. EM Forster wrote this in a collection of lectures
and essays, Aspects of the Novel, and despite my deep love for his fiction, he
committed a terrible crime.
For the past fifty years or more, that idea has been parroted by those who
believe that a true work of literature must be about style, or psychology, or
politics or form – anything, rather than that it should tell a story. Consider how
few Booker winners (beautifully-written, formally innovative, psychologically
astute etc etc) dare to do this. Story is for genre fiction, supposedly; literary
fiction is above it.
Philip Pullman’s book Daemon Voices comes, therefore, as a trumpet call to
arms for readers and writers to understand that story-telling is not mere craft
(not that, being a craftsman, he would ever belittle craft) but an art. Given
mostly as speeches concerning his own fiction and beliefs, they are incisive,
witty, and essential reading. Above all, they are subversive, challenging the
received opinion about what fiction is or should be.
Here are speeches, his introduction to Paradise Lost, Oliver Twist and The
Anatomy of Melancholy, meditations on reading, writing, religion, the
influence of Heinrich von Kleist and many other writers and works, all written
with the generosity, warmth, intellectual curiosity, thoughtfulness and
accessibility which are characteristic of his fiction. Some will be familiar to
anyone who reads the Guardian, or who has been listening to Radio 4 (which
ran an abridged version during the month in which La Belle Sauvage was
published). The essays can be dipped into or read sequentially with deep
attentiveness with equal pleasure but what they return to, repeatedly, is the
importance of story, and the responsibility of the story-teller.
He quotes Samuel Johnson: “the true aim of writing is to enable the reader
better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.” Of course, we all agree that
children need this kind of help, and Pullman’s genius is partly that he has
smuggled in so much that adults take seriously into a genre which has been
ghettoised and patronised by the kind of critics, authors and readers who love to work themselves into a froth about, say, JK Rowling’s inexplicable popularity and wealth. Stories, he says, seem to “come from somewhere else”, an awkward admission given that he has been very explicit about his belief that there isn’t anywhere but here.
But what makes this book special is that, in its 462 pages, Pullman does tell us
not only about his joy in writing (and it is important for all of us, but
particularly writers, to remember that there is joy as well as endless toil and
disappointment), but some idea of how to do it better.
To do this, he goes into some of the choices he made in his novels, from The
Firework-Maker’s Daughter to Northern Lights, by focussing on story above all.
“I think of my novels firstly as stories, and only then as books, and only then as
novels”, he says in The Writing of Stories. If more creative-writing classes
began with this idea, there might be more satisfied clients at the end of them;
and of all the essays in this collection, The Path Through the Wood is the most
In it, he compares the “wood” and the “path.” The story wood is the invented
world, which can be as rich and full as you like; the story path is what keeps
readers reading. If you leave this path, becoming self-conscious or over-
invested in details of your imaginary world, you lose the reader. Sticking to the
path is what led Pullman to cut a hole from our world into another universe, in
The Subtle Knife, and to break down the supposed border between adult and
children’s fiction. He pours scorn on the notion that children’s books are “like
bad books for grown-ups”, a view espoused by such luminaries as Martin Amis, Howard Jacobson and others who feel the Olympian heights of literary fiction to be polluted by adult readers reading children’s books. (As if adults and children have not enjoyed the same books, from Homer to Alice in
Wonderland, for centuries.) Plenty of contemporary children read adult books,
from Ishiguro and Austen to Agatha Christie and Stephen King; children’s books are written, edited and published by adults, so why should they be inferior? Why should there be segregation between older and younger readers, any more than between books for men and women, black and white, able and
All of this seems so obvious that its challenge may sail over the heads of those
who insist that writers of children’s fiction must in some way be twee,
circumscribed or (in Amis’s heart-warming phrase) “mentally handicapped.”
How disconcerting it must be for them that Pullman, too, studied English Literature at Oxford, and is clearly just as well-read, scholarly and intellectually nimble as they.
He meets the “opposed pairs” theory of genre fiction and literary fiction head
on, saying mildly that “what many writers try to do, of course, is provide both
at once.” Science is good to renew your stock of metaphors, and in his case
“phase space”, the notional space that contains not just the actual
consequences of the present moment, but all the possible consequences” is
especially pertinent. So is listening to people in real life, and allowing yourself
to make what they say into a (slightly) better story, and so is sitting at your
desk because “the capacity to sit and be bored and frustrated for very long
stretches of time is essential, but nowhere near as glamorous as the inspiration idea.”
I do not, as a novelist myself, agree with all his opinions of course. Pullman
dislikes fiction written in the present tense, saying that it “allows writers to be
neutral, uncommitted, objective and to avoid the wrong camera position”; I
have used it precisely because it makes me work harder at seeing and
describing what is happening in the present time. He claims to be “at the
vulgar end of literature”, which is disingenuous because we all know perfectly
well that he is not. I honour him for tackling subjects such as religious faith,
and for drawing parallels between religion and children’s fiction, while rather
wishing he had spent less time and energy pursuing the former and more
writing the latter. “Limpid clarity is a great virtue”, he says, and so it is, even if I
for one would not be without the complex, sometimes muddied, sentences of
Henry James or indeed EM Forster himself.
Since the turn of the Millennium, there have been promising signs that story-
telling has been making a come-back, whether through an appreciation of the
boxed set (House of Cards or Game of Thrones) or the blurring of genre
boundaries. Increasingly, novelists like Kazuo Ishiguro and Margaret Attwood
use the tropes of fantasy or SF, while others like Kate Atkinson and Elena
Ferrante have used the thriller or detective novel. The attempt to decouple
literary fiction from plot and story is failing, even if it continues to be rewarded
by far too many prize panels and review inches given to books that a child
could see is the equivalent to the Emperor’s New Clothes: something so boring
and threadbare that nobody not susceptible to fashion would choose it for a
moment. If people are to continue reading fiction, rather than getting their
entertainment through, say, film, it can’t happen soon enough.
A good deal of Pullman’s greatness as a novelist comes from his appreciation
of craft, like that which goes into the making of the wooden acorn and fixing
the convent shutters in La Belle Sauvage; whether describing the strength of an armoured bear in making sky-armour or the way to make a good loaf of bread, it’s all part of what makes a body of fiction that will go on being read and loved long after every Booker-winner is forgotten. But he is also an artist, who
creates unforgettable characters, conveys complex ideas, powerful feelings
and profound insights in beautiful prose. Yes, thank goodness yes, a novel tells
a story. But a story-teller would have allowed Will and Lyra to live happily ever
after; an artist sundered them forever, to achieve grace through effort and
immortality through anguish.
If I had my way, he’d get the Nobel Prize.