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Stop the presses: Philip Pullman makes an off-the-cuff party remark!

October 19, 2010

Philip Pullman, author of the “His Dark Materials” trilogy of children’s novels, has achieved that lofty state wherein he doesn’t have to write anymore. Instead, his every utterance beguiles the British press, which apparently would rush a story into print if he so much as burped in public.

Recently, for example, Pullman came out against the overuse of the present tense in modern literary fiction. Now he’s down on celebrity bios, which, he says, are seldom written by their ostensible authors. Worse, they relegate real writers to the sidelines, where publishers won’t put their books out.

“It’s daft,” Pullman tells Tim Walker, of the London Telegraph, set off, evidently, by being informed about a newly published biography of 11-year-old Brooklyn Beckham. Incensed, he “has called a halt to what he regards as the publishing world’s increasingly unhealthy obsession with celebrity.”

I say, let’s call a halt on Philip Pullman making Pavlovian pronouncements every he’s approached by a journalist. Can this author be saved from turning into a pompous, know-it-all-blow hard?

My irritation with this gifted author is not at all mitigated by the fact I agree with him on these two points: Yes, the first-person narrative strategy is way overused in modern serious fiction, and I’d love to see it outlawed for, say, 15 years by the Nobel Prize committee or something.

And whose gorge has not risen in disgust with the celebrity swill that threatens to swamp Western civiliation?

But, still, Phil, do you have to pop off about everything? Shouldn’t you be home banging away on your word processor?

In fairness, this sad state of affairs is not really Pullman’s fault. It’s the work of the British press, which has noted the feistiness of his celebrity — hey, this bloke is a good quote — and made him one of its go-to guys.

Thus, Pullman was (presumably) minding his own business at the J.M. Barrie Award ceremony, when Walker engaged him in conversation and asked about celebrity bios.Whereupon the great writer rose to the bait like a fat carp.

Likewise, Pullman’s opinions about present-tense narration were not spontaneous, but came in an email response to questions from “a Telegraph journalist.”

Fair enough. But I can’t help marveling how it has not occurred to Pullman that the British press, especially the Telegraph, is having a bit of fun with him. Let’s call Pullman, haw! He’ll opine about anything!

For example, I can find no legitimate biography of Brooklyn Beckham on Amazon.uk. What I can find are humor books with titles like Brooklyn Beckham: My World, by A.C. Parfit and Brooklyn Beckham: Learning to Walk, by P.J. Smith, which seem rather to be spoofs of celebrity culture than examples of it.

It’s understandable that a gifted, controversial and much-lauded author like Pullman might be susceptible to the flattery implicit in being asked his opinion on every little thing. But the fact is, an author speaking is just another jerk with an opinion, often ill-informed.

It’s only when a writer writes that his or her words, like the Pope speaking ex cathedra, become endowed with that special claim on our attention.

Pullman reportedly is working on a new adaptation of the Grimm fairy tales. Now that’s a book I’d like to see, and sooner, rather than later. Hint, hint.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 24, 2010 10:03 am

    It’s only when a writer writes … claim on our attention.

    Oh, really? Frank McCourt said it rather well: as a teacher no one wanted to hear a word he had to say; as a writer with celebrity status everyone wanted his opinion on everything.

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