Friday, January 04, 2008

Pullman's Right and the entrance to hell

And despite the profound and unsettling discoveries of modernism and post-modernism, and everything they show us about the unreliability of the narrator and the fallacy of omniscience, some of us still, when we read, are happy to accept that the narrative voice has the right to comment on a character, whether tartly or sympathetically, and the ability to go into that character's mind and tell us what's going on there.
Says Philip Pullman in The Guardian (link via Ward Six). Despite the article being blog-short, he identifies what I suspect is the most decisive yet unacknowledged distinction in contemporary literature: those for whom literature is defined by this right - let's call it Pullman's Right - and those who recognise no such thing.

I'll come back to this, but Pullman's affirmation comes at the end of a discussion of the differences so-called between story and literature which is instructive in itself. It helps me to explain why I think Establishment Literary Fiction is as artistically flawed as the genre fiction to which it is supposedly superior. Pullman uses an example from His Dark Materials to define literature as the ability to convey, by means of a metaphor, his character Lyra's unspoken feelings.
If the image of the dark house coming to life works on the page, it's precisely because we know it's an image: we know it's what Lyra feels like inside, even though all we'd see if we looked at her would be a girl sitting still. To film it would be absurd.
There's no arguing with that. But I would also claim that writing it is also absurd. I would instead define literature as that which brings to life the distance between the reader and Lyra. This would challenge the imagination rather than take its place. As a reader, I find this far more exhilarating; more so than characterisation, plot or prose style. Aharon Appelfeld's most recent novel is a good example of how one writer achieves this.

In his podcast interview with Philip Pullman, John Mullan begins by saying he's pleased to be able give attention to "a children's book so-called" that normally gets saved for "supposedly adult literary fiction". Yet if the distinction is false as he implies, it's not because children's books are literature but that most adult literature has not grown up; it still appeals to solipsistic wish-fulfilment.

By the way, this lack of distinction also justifies the epidemic frustration and critical contempt for the cultural advancement of fancy prose over the murderous. For this reason, we need to turn critical attention to the ethical dynamic of fiction; not for ethical reasons, mind, but artistic.

Pullman ends his article with a question that it has answered:
Do we ever stop to wonder how extraordinary it is that a disembodied voice can seem to tell us what is happening in someone's mind?
But the answer is a discharge of responsibility. Let the 20-year-old Franz Kafka, in a letter to Oskar Pollak in November 1903, ask it too:
We are as forlorn as children lost in the woods. When you stand in front of me and look at me, what do you know of the griefs that are in me and what do I know of yours? And if I were to cast myself down before you and weep and tell you, what more would you know about me than you know about hell when someone tells you it is hot and dreadful? For that reason alone we human beings ought to stand before one another as reverently, as reflectively, as lovingly, as we would before the entrance to hell.


Please email me at steve dot mitchelmore at gmail dot com.

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