(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

On Histories and Stories brings together two sets of lectures, the Richard Ellmann memorial series at Emory University and the Finzi-Contini talk given at Yale, with a few other related occasional pieces, all of which focus primarily on contemporary literature. In them, the prominent British novelist A. S. Byatt addresses nothing less than the complex connections between reading and writing: reading as it is done by the “amateur” lover of books—whom Virginia Woolf famously called “the common reader”—and the “professional” literary critic; and writing as done by both the literary theorist or specialist and the creative artist. Herself a university teacher and essayist as well as a novelist in the grand tradition of George Eliot in the nineteenth century and of Iris Murdoch and Doris Lessing in the twentieth, Byatt is a blend of all these different types of readers and writers in this volume, where she poses and answers several questions: Why does one practice criticism in the present age, and how should one do it? Why has historical fiction recently undergone a resurgence in popularity, and how might one go about writing it? What accounts for the renewed interest among current authors in the age-old story or tale? Readers will find the core of her argument expounded in the lengthy essay at the center of this collection, “True Stories and the Facts in Fiction.”

Byatt situates her comments about why she is drawn to practice criticism in the context of what she sees happening in the academy today. Although she remains tantalized by the Barthesian notion of the reader as writing the text, she is uneasy about what this means for concepts of authorship and authority. Furthermore, she is troubled by the gulf between literary theory and the words in a given text; she might find much of current criticism “clever,” with its practitioners adopting the rhetorical flights of fancy and imaginative stance once the province of the writers and artists, but it still “distances” her as a reader. Finally, the current field of literary theory has become overly politicized, subject to the vagaries and whims of group ideologies, and consequently transient. Using an approach that is heavily text-centered (and thus one that will appear determinedly old-fashioned to some), Byatt hopes to “create new paradigms” and “complicate the discussion” by mapping out recent fiction, mainly British, which she does by ranging widely over three dozen writers, from such well-known luminaries as Anthony Burgess and John Fowles, V. S. Naipaul and Muriel Spark, to such lesser-known lights as Penelope Fitzgerald and Ian McEwan, Hilary Mantel and Graham Swift.

In order to do the kind of broad-based criticism that will appeal to both the common reader and the specialist and that Byatt undertakes here, one must first be a voracious reader who immerses oneself in a text by encountering it over and again, listening to it until the words—and all the words from earlier texts that “haunt” and inhabit it—reveal themselves. It is the type of critical reading that depends for its force and authority upon extensive quotation of lengthy passages from the text being studied (sometimes unaccompanied by much commentary); these textual quotations—what Byatt calls “the Thing itself”—are as integral to the literary essay as are “slides in an art historical lecture.” Hers is a criticism heavy on wonder and appreciation. The narratives she will analyze and discuss employing this method fall mainly into two categories, historical fiction and the story or tale, both of which she herself has written.

In her choice of historical fiction as her favored subgenre, Byatt distinguishes herself sharply from her own sister, the novelist Margaret Drabble, and other twentieth century writers of “sensibility” such as C. P. Snow and Kingsley Amis, who believe that the proper aim of fiction is to depict, interrogate, and criticize contemporary society. Despite opening herself up to the charge of turning out escapist books, she readily joins the increasing ranks of writers whose subject is the past and whose fictional works coincide with “a complex self-consciousness” among historians “about the writing of history itself;” their...

(The entire section is 1732 words.)