Literature risks becoming petty and worthless, warns Whitbread book prize winner

With the death of organised religion, British writers have a new moral burden. Philip Pullman, the award-winning children's author, yesterday urged writers to tackle the great moral issues of life and death or risk becoming trivial and unreadable.

Pullman, 55, won this year's Whitbread book award for the final instalment of the His Dark Materials trilogy, in which he created a parallel universe ruled by a senile, viciously sadistic deity who has to be deposed in battle so the inhabitants can join with angels in creating a "republic of heaven". The Catholic Herald called his books "the stuff of nightmares" and "worthy of the bonfire". Another critic cautioned: "Christian parents beware."

Pullman warned that in the climate of threatened attacks on Iraq and the crisis in the Middle East, we live in a Godless and uncertain age, and unless writers wrestled with the larger questions of moral conduct, they would become useless and irrelevant. Fiction must return to carrying a "moral punch", unless literature is to become petty and worthless. This meant examining issues of good and evil, power, death, paradise and hell. If a book did not deal with death, "to me it is trivial".

Citing Jane Austen's Emma as a masterpiece of the literary examination of morality, Pullman said: "Try as hard as you can, you can't leave out morality from a book. Everything we do, however small, has consequences. The greatest fiction always has a sequence of actions followed by reactions, followed by consequences. "You can't leave morality out unless your work is so stupid and trivial and so worthless that [nobody] would want to read it anyway."

Pullman, whose grandfather was an Anglican priest, and who stopped believing in God as a teenager, said: "I am all for the death of God."

But his real bugbear was with the "propensity of human nature" to use politics or religion to set up one unquestionable truth - "it could be the Bible, it could be the Communist Manifesto" - and to then knock down all that went against it. "This is what I am against. Not Christianity, but every religion and fundamental organisation where there is one truth and they will kill you if you don't believe it."

Pullman has previously warned that the English literary novel - since the deaths of William Golding and Graham Greene - has been too queasy about tackling issues of moral conduct and life and death, leaving the work to children's fiction.

From Angelique Chrisafis, Arts correspondent,
Monday August 12, 2002, The Guardian