A.S. Byatt’s Incomprehensible Quote

This makes it hard to respect A.S. Byatt:

The Children’s Book tackles the responsibility of writing and the impact that it might have on family and friends. In your own life, have you been conscious of the impact your writing career has had on your family and friends?

One impact of writing on families is that the writer has to spend long periods alone with a pen, and this time, and this attention, is taken from the family. I knew a writer’s family where the children buried the typewriter in the garden. I do try very hard not to “put people into stories.” I know at least one suicide and one attempted suicide caused by people having been put into novels. I know writers to whom I don’t tell personal things – which is hard, as these writers are always the most interested in what one has to tell. All writing is an exercise of power and special pleading – telling something your own way, in a version that satisfies you. Others must see it differently. As I get older I increasingly understand that the liveliest characters – made up with the most freedom – are combinations of many, many people, real and fictive, alive and dead, known and unknown. I really don’t like the idea of “basing” a character on someone, and these days I don’t like the idea of going into the mind of the real unknown dead. Oscar Wilde appears in this novel, but the novelist doesn’t say what he thinks. I am also afraid of the increasing appearance of “faction” – mixtures of biography and fiction, journalism and invention. It feels like the appropriation of others’ lives and privacy. Making other people up, which is a kind of attack on them. Now we have the blog and the facebook everyone is a writer, and everyone’s idea of anyone else, kind or cruel, just or unjust, is available on the Web, to be believed, or mocked. Blogs and facebooks too have caused suicides. Writers often realise the power of writing too late.

I’m tempted to let this quote speak for itself, but I’m also tempted to opine.

First, let us pause to reflect on the logic that can begin at the deleterious effects of being an author on family life, proceed through the use of fact in fiction, and end in a denunciation of social networking.

Now then. Granted, many authors think it’s unethical to obviously base a character on a friend or acquaintance. Duh. That’s what those “any resemblance to people living or dead . . .” disclaimers are all about. I suppose Byatt has a point, although it’s an obvious one.

Byatt’s remark about the “faction” that mixes “biography and fiction, journalism and invention” is a little tougher to sort out. Her remarks are essentially vague, so it’s hard to know exactly what she means. One would think that, broadly, this would condemn genre historical fiction, insofar as it tries to inhabit well-known agents of history (fine), and also perhaps condemn the entire camp of writers that runs from Thomas Bernhard up through W.G. Sebald (not fine) (I’ve changed my opinion on this; see comments), and probably also condemn a good deal of postmodernism as practiced by the likes of Don DeLillo (also not fine). (I won’t even try to guess what “going into the mind of the real unknown dead” means.)

As to Byatt’s use of the definite article before the words blog and facebook (did she specify not to cap the latter?)–and basically everything that follows that–the less said the better.



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It has no sense. Fiction is a complicated world. But there are lots blogs of fiction, but few of them are really interesting.
Bernhard, Sebald, DeLillo….they made novels of the man in front of History. That’s being made since Cervantes invented the modern novel and all this rivers. That was made Cervantes great. That is what actually interest me on Bolaño and on my favourite work of Bolaño: Nocturno de Chile /By Night Chile/ his masterpiece. Fiction can’t ashamed of History.

I entirely agree with Byatt and think you’re misunderstanding her. I’m shocked actually.
She is certainly NOT condemning historical fiction.”Going into the mind of the real unknown dead” means what it says: putting thoughts into real people’s head.
I presume by referring to Thomas Bernhard you mean Glenn Gould’s appearance in The Loser. But nowhere in this novel is there even one sentence imagining what is going through Gould’s mind. This is Byatt’s point. So much fiction is written as if the writer knows what another person is thinking. It’s an assumption that appalls me yet drawing the line between ethics and aesthetics is difficult here, perhaps there is no gap. Appelfeld’s novels, for example, do not speculate on others thoughts, relying entirely on the narrator’s limited perspective, allowing the distance to speak. This is both very moving AND true. It has nothing to do with disclaimers.
And Sebald doesn’t imagine what, say, Stendhal thinks: he refers to sources. In Austerlitz, the fictional main character is speaking to the narrator; it’s never “Austerlitz felt anxious as he entered the room” or any such sentence.
Byatt maybe cranky in her comments on blogs and Facebook but it’s essentially the same issue: how can one claim to know what someone else thinks and what is the impact of the assumption that one can? Fiction shouldn’t excuse itself from the question precisely because it has the freedom to excuse itself.

Steve,
Sorry to have shocked you.
I can’t see how this wouldn’t include historical fiction, since much of it is based in trying to recreate the thoughts and lives of actual individuals from history.
I was referring to, broadly speaking, what Bernhard does in obscuring the line between fact and fiction in his work. In my reading of the quote, Sebald’s “referring to sources,” as you put it, would rankle Byatt for its combination of fact and fiction into a hybrid work.
Actually, I imagine that “The Loser” might pass muster with Byatt since the Gould therein is obviously a creation of Bernhard that has only some resemblance to the actual pianist named Glenn Gould.

OK, I suppose the distinction here is between Literary and Historical Fiction. One being concerned with the ethics of fiction, the other not. I can understand Byatt’s opinions upsetting fans of the latter form but not those the other.
So the issue then is whether the non-genre authors you refer to are affected by what she says. I don’t think they are for the reasons stated above. In fact, I think the examples of Bernhard and Sebald emphasise how acknowledgement implicit or explicit within the work of what it cannot know is central to the definition of *literary* fiction.

I think Steve is right here, Scott. Sebald’s approach to narrative very obviously grows out of ethical concerns that are similar to Byatt’s. I wonder, in fact, if she isn’t talking about a change of heart she’s had–possibly brought about by reading Sebald; she’s written glowingly about him, I believe–about representing historical characters, because I seem to remember that in the novella about Tennyson and Hallam that she wrote, we’re in Tennyson’s head, or is it Hallam’s…
Anyway. It is reprehensible, each sentence of Sebald’s seems to imply, to go into the minds of the unknown dead. At the same time, we have a human need to memorialize the unknown dead, to defend against oblivion. This is the tension at the heart of his technique.
And it’s definitely true, though her phrasing is a bit confusing, that Byatt’s not condemning historical fiction as a mode of writing. Isn’t she in fact talking about her new book, which if Oscar Wilde is a character, must be a work of historical fiction? She’s probably written more historical fiction than any writer of her stature, and she has a great essay somewhere (in which, if I’m not mistaken, she uses Sebald as a case in point) making the case for fiction that addresses the literature of the past.
Her point is to argue that the ethical novelist must place limits on what can be represented. Namely, one can’t take liberties with real people’s thoughts. This may be an obvious point to make, but the interviewer seems to have been soliciting her thoughts on her artistic practice. Does it matter that other people have said these things before?
Is it her mention of blogging that rankles? I do think she paints with too broad a brush there, and comes off sounding like virtually every writer of her generation–oh well.

Steve, LML:
Reading your comments (especially LML’s), I’m persuaded by the case that is being made for a different interpretation of the quote than I started out with. I’m certainly all for fiction admitting what can’t be known or represented, something that is key to much of my favorite fiction.
I still think the quote is rather vague and seems to claim more than it actually does, but the supporting evidence LML has brought in convinced me that Byatt isn’t saying some of the things she seems to be saying.
Incidentally, I happened to see this at The Guardian first, and they’re certainly packaging it in a way inconsistent with what you both have said. I mention this only to point out the way these remarks are being bandied about, not to claim I was misled, since anyone reading The Guardian these days should know what to expect.

LML,
Re: the blogging remarks, I just mentioned those because I thought they were funny (I’m always surprised by the new ways people try to use these words). At this point in history it’s really senseless to get up in a tizzy whenever someone who obviously doesn’t know the medium opines on it.

Byatt sounds like a timid pedant. What a bore.
Words are bullets. Writers can either fire them or not.
I heard a well-known blogger advise an audience recently to ‘never attack anyone on your blog. Never.’
I shot him down with a single word. Hell, Burroughs shot his wife with a real bullet.
By the way, Byatt’s comments on blogs and ‘facebooks’ are insulting and foolish. Her writing has probably caused suicides due to extreme boredom.

You’re right Scott that The Guardian spun the story that way. I read the story after it was promoted by the GuardianBooks Twitter feed and replied immediately to correct them. Maud Newton repeated their spin on her feed too.

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