The 4 Responsibilities of Writers…Maybe

phillip pullman

Phillip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials, recently wrote an essay on the responsibilities of writers (the essay appears in his new collection Daemon Voices). Four of these key responsibilities were summed up and illustrated by Nathan Gelgud, and after reading them, well, I’m not so sure I agree. Here’s the list:

  1. Make money.
  2. Protect language.
  3. Have tact.
  4. Service the story.

On the surface these seem more or less reasonable, but when Pullman expands on each point I start to take some issue.

Make Money: Pullman states that we [writers] have the responsibility of “doing it as well and as profitably as we can.”

Yes and no. Of course writers should be compensated for their work–because it is work. It’s a little shocking how often writers, who spend many lonely hours creating even the shortest pieces, are expected to give their work away for nothing. And now there’s a whole slew of indie writers who routinely give away their first novels free, hoping to hook readers with cliffhanger endings and sell them the next installment in the series. These authors are selfishly making it harder for the rest of us to earn a living by devaluing all our work in the eyes of readers. But successful authors like Pullman are speaking from a rather lofty position when they announce that writers have a “responsibility” to be as profitable as possible. Easy to say for a lucky few.

Profit also shouldn’t be a writer’s main priority: that should be the writing. Making money is good and necessary (yes, those of us in the arts have as much right to earn a comfortable living as anyone else), but it shouldn’t come at the expense of the art.

Protect Language: At first this one sounds okay–until you delve into it a little more. Pullman states that those of us who use language professionally “are responsible for looking after it.” Looking after it how? Protecting it from what? Should we fight the inevitable changes that all languages undergo? Should my characters speak in stilted dialogue so that the language isn’t sullied by the more relaxed slang that most people use in casual conversation? And what language should we be preserving, exactly? Language as presented in textbooks? The language of the majority that’s spoken right now, or the language spoken twenty years ago? Fifty? A hundred? I agree–some “innovations” in language are beyond annoying (using “gift” as a verb springs immediately to mind), but language is a living, breathing, evolving thing. It’s preserved by being used, no matter how or by whom. The only truly protected language is a dead one. Maybe Pullman wants us all to write in Latin.

Have Tact: On this responsibility, Pullman explains, “We who tell stories should be modest about the job, and not assume that just because the reader is interested in the story, they’re interested in who’s telling it. A storyteller should be invisible…”

As an introvert I would love to be invisible. But since when have writers not named Anonymous ever been invisible? We’re expected to provide pictures and bios, to give interviews, go to events, interact with readers. I won’t even get started on social media. From what I’ve experienced, readers want us to share, not just about our books, but about ourselves. Still, anyone not interested can feel free to tell me to shut up. I will happily oblige.

Service the Story: I thought this would be the one responsibility I fully agreed with–until I read Pullman’s description. He says that as a “good servant,” he has to keep regular hours, stay sober, and stay in good health. Not what I was expecting. It’s great if doing these things helps Pullman write the best possible story he can, but that doesn’t work for everyone–and why should it? Those in poor health can still write, and even write brilliantly. I’m not suggesting anyone crack open a bottle of Merlot before hitting the keyboard, but writing under the (slight) influence can stimulate creativity. Service the story your own way.

Responsibility is a heavy word, and I think Phillip Pullman may have taken it too lightly. Writing is difficult enough without feeling obligated to burden oneself with someone else’s ideas of what’s necessary. What writers are responsible for is to write, to get their words out, and to do it whatever way works for them. As someone wise once said: do you, boo. Do you.

What do you think? Do you agree with Phillip Pullman? Share in the comments…

You can see the original article with Pullman’s quotes here.

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