Reading two very disparate commentaries recently, I was struck by their common argument. One commentary was a 2005 article from The New Yorker on Philip Pullman. The other was a 2007 blog entry by an Australian publisher of children’s books, Andrew Kelly of Black Dog Books.
Kelly wrote: “I think we have too much of the “merely decorative word” in the scripts that come to us. Some of the editorial work we do is paring out the merely decorative which seems almost to be a modern addiction. The thought seems to be ‘If I put enough icing on this cake it will taste good.’ Nobody wants to expose the story on which the book has been built.”
Laura Miller’s fascinating article on Pullman spends some time exploring Pullman’s championing of the art of storytelling. Pullman provocatively stated “In adult literary fiction, stories are there on sufferance. Other things are felt to be more important: technique, style, literary knowingness…If they could write novels without stories in them, they would. Sometimes they do.” Miller suggests that to Pullman “stories are the elementary particles of meaning, without which we’d be less than fully human.” When Pullman won the Carnegie Medal he pointed out that “We need stories so much that we’re even willing to read bad books to get them, if the good books won’t supply them. We all need stories, but children are more frank about it.”
Much of my academic research focused on the function of storytelling in modern media. Creating narratives that explain who we are and how we got to a certain point is one of the jobs of a good journalist. And if that journalist can provide moral interpretations and a satisfying closure, you get a narrative that resonates with people.
My task now is to look at what I am writing to find out if the bones of a good story really are there and to make sure that I don’t cloak that story with narrative froufrou. As to why I was reading an archived New Yorker article on Philip Pullman? Well, that’s a story for another day.