Category Archives: Capitalism

Mondays Are Murder Contribution




“Servant of the Story”: Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman. Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2018.

cover of Pullman bookIt’s likely many people will be grateful for this nonfiction installment from Philip Pullman, an author who knows his craft and is willing to pull back the curtain to show you how a wizard makes the literary magic happen. Almost anyone interested in writing could benefit from Pullman’s commentary, which covers a wide range of material. This collection hosts 32 of Pullman’s speeches and occasional writings (e.g., introductions to special volumes by other authors), covering topics from Bach to bibliomancy.

Naturally, Pullman presses the same buttons on occasion. As with comics prone to recite the joke that always works, Pullman sometimes relies on the same insight across a number of essays. All this is acknowledged up front in the introduction. These repetitions are not faults but revelations about Pullman’s craft. They constitute part of the reason Pullman is asked to speak at literary festivals and conferences. Capitalists would call these repetitions part of his brand.

While Pullman is beloved in many circles, he is also invited to speak to audiences who hardly share his views. This is especially the case on occasions when he is asked to speak about religion. Pullman doesn’t pull any punches with the priestly classes:

As soon as you realise that God doesn’t exist, the same sort of thing happens to all those doctrines such as atonement, the immaculate conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, original sin, the Trinity, justification by faith, prevenient grace, and so on. Cobwebs, dusty bits of rag, frail scraps of faded cloth: they hide nothing, they decorate nothing, and for me they mean nothing.

If such a statement rankles your soul, you might want to withhold complete condemnation of Pullman until you can enjoy, for instance, how he describes his own position on Milton’s Paradise Lost:

There is an old story about a bibulous, semi-literate aging country squire sometime in the eighteenth century, sitting by his fireside listening to Paradise Lost being read aloud. He’s never read it himself; he doesn’t know the story at all; but as he sits there, perhaps with a pint of port at his side and with a gouty foot propped up on a stool, he finds himself transfixed.
Suddenly he bangs the arm of his chair, and exclaims, ‘By God! I know not what the outcome may be, but this Lucifer is a damned fine fellow, and I hope he may win!’

Pullman says he shares the view of the arm-banging squire. Pullman isn’t out to skewer opponents in a deadpan fashion. He sprinkles in flourishes and entertainments. Pullman also chooses fascinating allies like Heinrich von Kleist.

If you pick up this book for the storytelling advice, Pullman speaks plainly most of the time. He is not a self-aggrandizing author, which is the overriding characteristic of celebrities in our time. He says things like: “I am the servant of the story.” Pullman is humble about what he does. He tries to stay out of the way, and let the narrative happen, take its own course. “A storyteller should be invisible, as far as I’m concerned, and the best way to make sure of that is to make the story itself so interesting that the teller just … disappears.”

In large works like novels, Pullman urges readers not to expect perfection. Mistakes will happen. Dull passages will creep in. His solution for budding writers? “Try to do better next time.” Pullman is keenly aware that readers lack staying power, unless the author can tease them along or wow them continually. Writers shouldn’t expect infinite patient from readers, if the writer drifts into rabbit holes out of authorial curiosity alone.

If you leave the path, the readers put down the book. Suddenly they remember that phone call they had to make; they look in the paper to see what’s on TV; they think a cup of coffee would be nice, and when they’re in the kitchen they look out the window and see that the hedge they meant to trim yesterday, or they switch on the radio to hear the football commentary, or when they get the milk out of the fridge, they remember they had to get some cheese for supper.

In a context  which the reader might abandon the novel at any moment, what does Pullman offer as countervailing advice? “The way to tell a story is to say what happened, and then shut up.”

Pullman has little patience for novelistic bricolage or the hyper-self-awareness of postmodernism. He passes judgments, and asserts them forcefully: “There isn’t a character in the whole of The Lord of the Rings who has a tenth of the complexity, the interest, the sheer fascination, of even a fairly minor character from Middlemarch.

Pullman is attuned to seasoned ways of storytelling. “I think that fairy tales are ways of telling us true things without labouring the point. They begin in delight, and they end in truth. But if you start with what you think is truth, you’ll seldom end up with delight — it doesn’t work that way round. You have to start with fun.” So, he will have characters in one of his pieces visit a grotto. Why? “I like the word grotto,” he writes. Pullman has fun with his writing, and in several places in this collection he is able to convey the wonders and delights of literature. Here’s an example with examples:

Stories give delight. That the point I began with, and I’ll come back to it to finish up: they beguile. They bewitch, they enchant, they cast a spell, they enthral; they hold children from their play, and old men from the chimney corner. The desire to know what happened next, or whodunit, or how Odysseus and his men escaped from the Cyclops’ cave, or what is the meaning of the enigmatic words “The Speckled Band” or “The Black Spot,” or whether the single man in possession of a good fortune will, as we all hope, succeed in marrying Elizabeth Bennet, or what Mr. Bumble will say when Oliver Twist asks for more, or what Achilles will do now that Hector has killed Patroclus.

In short, you’ll want to add this Pullman book to your reference collection. It’s one for the ages. Pullman advises everyone to treasure reference books. “We should acquire as many reference books as we have space for — old and out-of-date ones as well as new ones — and make a habit of using them, and take pride in getting things right.”


Fast Food Fascism

Had a rewarding time working with the editors at The Cleveland Review, who have just published my review of How Fascism Works. The headline on the review essay is from a quotation by Upton Sinclair, which is quite different from the Unamuno quotation below and the accompanying photographic commentary.

Jason Stanley’s book is important as a reminder about fascism’s resurrection in North America, but it isn’t meant to expose the complexity of the alt-right’s rise nor to offer readers substantive tools to counter fascism. The book is fast food fascism, meaning it is not intellectually nutritious.

photo of Unamuno quotation

Some Teens Reject Zombies

photo of book cover Pride and Prejudice and ZombiesIt’s not what you think. It’s an article in The Guardian about how young people are turning away from social media, because of what they see around them. They don’t find it liberating. They don’t sense it links them to nurturing communities. They don’t find it helpful with school work. They aren’t eager to use social media for maker projects or digital humanities assignments.

Isabelle, an 18-year-old student from Bedfordshire who doesn’t want to disclose her surname, turned against social media when her classmates became zombified. “Everyone switched off from conversation. It became: ‘Can I have your number to text you?’ Something got lost in terms of speaking face to face. And I thought: ‘I don’t really want to be swept up in that.’”

Is it refreshing that some young people hold disdain for surveillance-capitalism and its consequences?

The State of Affairs

Patrick Nielsen Hayden offers a concise statement about the current state of affairs. It might be difficult to imagine that the current state of affairs has been, in many respects, an ongoing state of affairs, as the philosopher Jason Stanley, author of How Fascism Works, reminds his audience: “We have a country riven by — indeed, a country based upon — racism and inequality, that we never have addressed.” Now, Stanley doesn’t seem to figure capitalism into the mix of explanatory factors in his analysis, but that’s a story for another day.

photo of book cover The Big SleepBefore anyone frames the current state of affairs as unique or unprecedented, that person might want to revise the frame based on the history of the 1930s. Richard Evans lays out the case in a recent article, and that historical lesson is reinforced by material outside of history books. Here is one example, a quotation from Raymond Chandler‘s The Big Sleep (1939):

I like to see the law win. I’d like to see the flashy well-dressed muggs like Eddie Mars spoiling their manicures in the rock quarry at Folsom, alongside of the poor little slum-bred hard guys that got knocked over on their first caper and never had a break since. That’s what I’d like. You and me both lived too long to think that I’m likely to see it happen. Not in this town, not in any town half this size, in any part of this wide green and beautiful U.S.A. We just don’t run our country that way.


“There is so Much Falsehood in the World”

Someone is going around saying we ought not to believe what we see, hear, or read. This isn’t a new attitude, and we had best be careful about it, because the claim is like the Cretan liar paradox. If we agree with the someone mentioned above, then we have heard something, and we’re not supposed to believe what we hear. You see the problem.

It’s the fact that this attitude is old that deserves some attention. James Boswell in his Life of Johnson from the 1790s reports the following from Tuesday, 31 March 1778:

In his review of Dr. Warton’s “Essay on the Writings and Genius of Pope,” Johnson has given the following salutary caution upon this subject:

‘Nothing but experience could evince the frequency of false information, or enable any man to conceive that so many groundless reports should be propagated, as every man of eminence may hear of himself. Some men relate what they think, as what they know; some men of confused memories and habitual inaccuracy, ascribe to one man what belongs to another; and some talk on, without thought or care. A few men are sufficient to broach falsehoods, which are afterwards innocently diffused by successive relaters.’

In that same entry for 31 March 1778, Boswell tells us that Johnson gave some advice to a woman: “You ought to be perpetually watching. It is more from carelessness about truth than from intentional lying, that there is so much falsehood in the world.” The woman had noticed and explained that “little variations in narrative must happen a thousand times a day.” A mere 240 years later, some of us wish that our problem were “little variations in narrative.”


Juxtaposing Two Quotations

The first is from Joe Ide’s detective novel IQ.

You go where God calls you. Teacher, doctor, scientist, book writer. I don’t really care as long as you do some good out there. You could make a difference, Isaiah. A big difference. I’m talking about raising people up, easing their suffering, bringing some justice to the world. Money don’t enter into it, you understand what I’m telling you? God didn’t give you a gift so you could be a hedge fund manager.

The second is from today’s Sydney Morning Herald.

Most people don’t have much trouble imagining the worst of bankers – even bankers themselves. Anna Smith is a loans officer in Victoria with more than a decade’s experience among the big four banks. In her sector, retail banking, she says, “they’ll employ anybody. People off the street. People come from their parents’ restaurant, from selling second-hand cars. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I don’t have a uni degree, I grew up pretty rough, I had to take care of my siblings financially. The bank gave me a chance.”

Nonetheless, in her opinion, some of her colleagues seem pointedly lacking in any kind of ethical education or moral compass. “Basically, they’re just a bunch of dude bros with their dicks in their hands, going ‘Duhhhh.’ I mean, when I started, people were quoting ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ like it was the Bible.”