Two writers, two talks, two beautifully-expressed arguments about the writer and his or her responsibilities, to the reader, to the craft, to the world. The first is a talk that Philip Pullman gave at the World Humanist Congress in Oxford this summer. I was lucky enough to be in the Sheldonian Theatre to listen to it, a talk that was, as so few are, thoughtful, provocative, illuminating and inspiring all at the same time. It has been republished in the latest issue of New Humanist. When I listened to Pullman, there was a section on the relationship between the writer and the reader that particularly struck me. Re-reading it in New Humanist, it still does; so I am republishing that section here. The whole talk is worth reading, though, so do get the latest issue of New Humanist, for Philip Pullman, and much else.

The second talk was by Ursula Le Guin to the National Book Awards in America last month in which she had some trenchant words to say about the role of the writer in an age in which writing has become increasingly reduced to a commodity.

Here are two short extracts from both talks.

desmazieres borges library of babel 4

Philip Pullman
‘Writing is despotism, but reading is democracy’

What about the writer’s responsibility towards the audience? Towards the reader? Do we have any responsibility towards them?

Publishers would say yes, of course we should consider the audience, we should do our work to suit what the market wants. So that’s what publishers want us to write, and that’s what they try to publish. But my own feeling is that what I write is none of the readers’ business. Their place is to buy or to borrow, and read, and then, if they like what they read, buy my next book. That’s their job. I don’t want their advice about what to write or their thoughts about my work in progress or their suggestions about what should happen next.

But once the book is published, the whole political aspect changes. Writing is despotism, but reading is democracy. Once the reader opens the book, they enter a space as private and secret as the polling booth. If there is a soldier with a rifle watching how you fill in your ballot, that’s not democracy; democracy is when no one knows how you voted. So it is with reading. The private space between the book and the reader is something utterly precious and individual. The conversation a reader has with the book is none of the writer’s business, unless the reader chooses to tell them about it. I profoundly disagree with those writers who insist that there is a right way to read their book and a wrong way. ‘No, you’ve got it completely wrong; you haven’t understood a bit of it; it doesn’t mean that at all, it means this.’ Some writers are like that. But I think it’s none of the reader’s business how I write and it’s none of my business how they read. They might read better than I can write. They might see things I was unaware of as I wrote them down. To limit a reader’s permited response to what the writer himself or herself knows about their own work is an infringement of freedom. Reading should be free.

Extract from ‘The Cuckoo’s Nest’, published in New Humanist.


desmazieres borges library of babel 2

Ursula Le Guin
‘Resistance and change often begin in art’

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.

Right now, we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximise corporate profit and advertising revenue is not the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial. I see my own publishers, in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an e-book six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience, and writers threatened by corporate fatwa. And I see a lot of us, the producers, who write the books and make the books, accepting this – letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write.

Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

The full text of the talk was published in the Guardian; there is also a video of the talk.


The images are Érik Desmazières‘ etchings for Jorge Luis Borges’ The Tower of Babel.


  1. Am big fan of Pullman but I must query his statement about publishers wanting writers to deliver what the market wants. Most publishers and agents that I have heard, will say that it is impossible to predict what the market wants, and so the writer had to do what makes sense to him/her, and everything flows from that. Of course *somebody* has to think through the practical elements of the journey from author to reader, but that’s true of every age.

  2. As a Lecturer I’ve had to fight to keep y students within the framework of liberty – as a student I had to fight to keep myself free of received ideas about reading without compromising my grades. I have managed to survive, and the scars remain well hidden.

  3. As a student one has to get influenced with the thoughts of the author largely and not with what the idea we have to express , but writing has some kind of projection of ideas and thoughts freely .

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