Review: “Daemon Voices” by Philip Pullman

Thumbs up for Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling by Philip Pullman.

Pullman writes with such clarity of both thought and prose, he is simply a pleasure to read. As with any book of essays, inevitably, certain sections will strike each reader with greater importance. If you are a storyteller of any bent, or perhaps an armchair philosopher, you will find a gem or two of wisdom that speaks to you. I will put it like this: a greatly enjoyable work that I don’t regret having chosen as my Christmas book, but I don’t feel the need to give it a permanent place on my shelf.

Because it’s very tempting, once you’ve begun to tell stories seriously, to over-complicate. Part of the reason for this, I think, is the natural wish of everyone who aspires to be a good writer not to be mistaken for a bad one. You don’t want them to think you’re writing trash, so you try to avoid the stock situations, the stereotyped characters, the second-hand plot devices, all the obvious things that trashy books are full of. But the habit of resistance has to be supervised and kept in check. Your “built-in, shockproof bullshit detector,” as Hemingway called it, is a good servant but a bad master. It should warn, not decide. If you rely too much on it, your main concern will no longer be to tell a story but instead to make it perfectly clear that you’re too exquisite and fastidious to be taken in by any trite, common little idea. One result of this wish to avoid the obvious is the sort of wincing mannered affectation that, for me, disfigures far too much fiction by people who are praised for how clever their fiction is: picking up your story with a pair of tongs, as I once put it. “Oh dear, yes,” as E. M. Forster said: “the novel tells a story.”

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