Philip Pullman on Literary Audiences and Storytelling

Photographed by Adrian Hon used under a Creative Commons License

Philip Pullman gave an amazing talk about storytelling, literature, gatekeeping, and the nature of audiences to the Royal Society of Literature on December 6, 2001. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate St. Nicholas Day, frankly!

But seriously, it’s so amazingly worth reading if you are at all interested in books and storytelling. It’s a fantastic piece. This is probably my favorite passage and one I may keep forever because of how incredibly much I agree with it:

The last point I want to make is that in a good telling—the sort one tries to emulate, or bring off oneself—the events are not interpreted, but simply related. “Events themselves,” as Isaac Bashevis Singer said, “are wiser than any commentary on them.” Don’t tell the audience what your story means. Given that no one knows what’s going on in someone else’s head, you can’t possibly tell them what it means in any case.

Meanings are for the reader to find, not for the storyteller to impose. The sort of story we all hope we can write is one that will resonate like a musical note with all kinds of overtones and harmonics, some of which will be heard more clearly by this person’s ear, others by that one’s; and some of which may not be heard at all by the storyteller. What’s more, as the listeners grow older, so some of the overtones will fade while others become more clearly audible. This is what happens with the great fairy tales. What you think “Little Red Riding Hood” is about when you’re six is not what you think it’s about when you’re 40. The way to tell a story is to say what happened, and then shut up.

– Philip Pullman

I can’t recommend reading this strongly enough. Seriously, go check it out. It’s amazingly worth the time!

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