"I am not one who was born in the custody of wisdom. I am one who is fond of olden times and intense in quest of the sacred knowing of the ancients." Gustave Courbet

24 June 2022


Sir Philip Pullman: " Don't let anyone tell you what you should or should not be reading" ...
In recent years, storytellers have had a new sort of service offered to them. “It’s no good just telling your story these days—you need to attract attention to yourself. Pay me, and I can guarantee to get you talked about. I can’t buy your story a good report from the advisory service, but I can promise lots of interest in you. By the way, you need to get your hair cut—and wear something blue tomorrow.”

Now most of those other people who come between the storyteller and the audience do so for the best of reasons, and few of us in the real world would want to be without the services that publishers and booksellers and literary agents and critics provide. I’m glad they’re there. But among the other intermediaries in this imaginary marketplace are the security guards. They are another branch of the same service that watches the border. They’re interested in the audience more than the stories. They make it their business to say, “This story is only for women.” Or, “This story is intended especially for very clever people.” Or, “The only people who will enjoy this story are those under ten.”

They sort out the audience, and chivvy some this way, some that way, and if they could, they’d make them stand in lines and keep quiet. Some of them even want to give the audience a test on the story afterwards—but I shall say no more about our current educational system.

The result is that instead of that audience I described earlier, all mixed up together, old and young, men and women, educated and not educated, black and white, rich and poor, busy and leisured—instead of that democratic mix, we have segregation: segregation by sex, by sexual preference, by ethnicity, by education, by economic circumstances, and above all, segregation by age.

But, as I pointed out, the trouble is that no one can tell what is going on in a mind that’s reading or listening to a story; no one can know whether we’re reading for the right reasons or the wrong reasons, or what’s right and what’s wrong anyway; no one can tell who’s ready and who isn’t, who’s clever and who isn’t, who’ll like it and who won’t.

Not only that; do we really believe that men have nothing to learn from stories by and about women? That white people already know all they need to know about the experience of black people? Segregation always shuts out more than it lets in. When we say, “This book is for such-and-such a group,” what we seem to be saying, what we’re heard as saying, is: “This book is not for anyone else.” It would be nice to think that normal human curiosity would let us open our minds to experience from every quarter, to listen to every storyteller in the marketplace. It would be nice too, occasionally, to read a review of an adult book that said, “This book is so interesting, and so clearly and beautifully written, that children would enjoy it as well.”

But that doesn’t seem likely in the near future.

Can we ever have a state of things free from labeling and segregating, though? And if we can’t, what’s the use of imagining this democratic open-to-all marketplace which doesn’t really exist?

Well, my reason for thinking about it is strictly practical. Storytellers can do exactly what they like. Those who want to speak only to adults may do so with perfect freedom, and I shall be there in the audience. Those who want to speak only to children may do so too, and if what they say has nothing to interest me, I’ll pass on and leave them to it.

But as a storyteller myself, and one who depends on the contents of the hat to pay the mortgage and buy the groceries and save up for my old age, I don’t want my audience to be selected for me; I want it to be as large as possible. I want everyone to be able to listen. The larger the crowd, the more goes in the hat.

Besides, it’s more interesting. The work you do to keep a mixed audience listening is technically intriguing.

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