There's nothing wrong with a good yarn

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The Independent Online
This time last week the author Philip Pullman was causing a fuss by saying, in his acceptance speech after winning the Carnegie Medal for his children's book Northern Lights, that most adult fiction was not doing its job properly because it wasn't telling stories properly. It was just being too clever and experimental. The leading article of the Independent cheered with delight at this, and expressed everyone's relief that we didn't really have to say we enjoyed Salman Rushdie or Martin Amis or almost anyone who has won the Booker Prize.

(Indeed, there was another report on literature in the same issue, which brought the news that 129 MPs had been polled by Dillons to find out their nominations for the most overrated authors of all time. Jeffrey Archer just pipped Salman Rushdie for the title, followed by Henry James, Martin Amis, DH Lawrence, Enid Blyton and Iris Murdoch. It's an interesting list, because it combines a dislike for people who do nothing but tell a story (Archer and Blyton) with those who sometimes seem to be doing anything but tell a story. The list also contains some great personal unfavourites of mine (though not Enid Blyton), so my respect for MPs has suddenly come back on the scale again.)

It was odd for me to see Philip Pullman's name in the headlines, as until a month ago I had never heard of him. Then, while in Canada, I bought a copy of the Toronto Star on 16 June and read a long interview with him about his new book, The Golden Compass (which I imagine is the name under which they have published Northern Lights over the other side).

As I read this interview I started chuckling and cheering audibly, rather as the Independent leader writer must have done, because Pullman was so unaccountably full of such good common sense. (You sometimes get liberating moments like this when you realise that you do not actually have to go through life being obliged to like most modern art or most contemporary concert music or most rock music...)

Here is part of the interview:

"At some point in the 20th century what happened is that fiction for adults began to lose its way, and the purveyors of story began to split off from the purveyors of, say, psychological and social truth. This split never happened in the world of children's books. Children's books are still expected to do both. You have a strong story, an interesting plot, believable characters and a three-dimensional solid world.

"At the same time you can think about such issues as honour, loyalty, truth, betrayal - all the big themes. So there's a kind of wholeness about children's literature that adult literature seems to have lost. The best writers for children are the best writers today. No question."

Asked to name some of these writers, says the Toronto Star, Pullman cites Peter Dickinson and Jan Mark, among British children's authors, and Robert Cormier and Betsy Byars among American. The only one of these I have ever read is Peter Dickinson, whose books are so outstanding that if the others are half as good, then Pullman is a top tipster.

What Pullman is doing of course, is not only defending children's books (and decrying adult novels), he is putting the case for genre fiction. I have heard the same sort of case that Pullman puts for children's books being put for detective fiction (Chandler was hot in its defence), spy fiction and science fiction, and always with great justice.

I haven't seen Peter Dickinson for a long time, and not much since the 1960s when he was leaving Punch just after I joined it, but I can remember that he was ahead of his time in other matters apart from children's fiction. One was in his belief that story-telling audio tapes would be big business, and in or around 1970 he actually made some. (I remember that he commissioned me to write a boys' football yarn then, which I did, though I have no record of it.)

He was only about 20 years too soon. He also dreamt up a TV or radio panel game that would depend on crossword-like clues, and now, 25 years later, we have Cross Question on Radio 4. None of their clues, however, is as good as the one he used as an example:

"I'm going to give you two words that sound identical but which have two quite different meanings. OK? The clue is: 'lobster at the railway junction ... lobster at the railway junction....' "

I never did guess it. The answer was "Crewe Station ... crustacean...".