“The Curious Novelist” … A.S. Byatt journeys to Buffalo

The 2009-2010 season of Just Buffalo Literary Center’s Babel has commenced. Attendance didn’t unfortunately sell-out the new venue at Kleinhans, but the crowd was full and above the capacity of Babeville, so the change definitely was necessary. Michael Kelleher announced that this would be the final series under the original commission from the John R. Oshei Foundation, warranting the inclusion of donation envelopes and the dire news that ticket sales wouldn’t be able to sustain the event for its planned fourth season. After all the business, however, and asking for us to give a portion of, if not all, our own personal fortunes, the woman of honor came out on stage and began her talk amidst the heaps of paper she always finds herself jumbling and mixing up as she speaks. Titling her lecture “The Curious Novelist or Fiction as a Form of Finding Out,” A.S. Byatt really treated the night as a way to educate and enlighten, rather than just wax poetic. And that was a very good thing.

No disrespect to Allende, but her somewhat self-absorbed talk left me wanting a bit in April, so to have Byatt come out and really talk about authors who shaped her style and the style itself, how a novel is a catalogue of what you know and discover, truly made me sit back and absorb the speech. This is the stuff I eat up—an artist’s process, what they are thinking, and what they are trying to accomplish. Not only does the author love readers who tell her how much they enjoy the “details” of her work, but she enjoys them as well. People have asked her if she ever misses any of her characters after completing a novel, to which she replies no. For her, it is the structure of language that she creates which resonates; the players are only facilitators for the form and story beneath it all. During the Q&A, Byatt relayed that by using all types of storytelling, (detective, romance, drama, etc.), she allows herself to be able to give a reader the details she wants without them realizing the mass of information. Whereas writing had gone through a phase of form trumping plot, she agrees with an audience member that story is prevailing once again. Even her novel Possession began as a piece of literature to show the form of poetry and the critics that infer upon it. The question became whether people would read it. However, if you put those structures inside a tale of discovery and love, the readers will absorb it all while going along for the journey.

Byatt spoke a lot about George Eliot, (a personal favorite of hers), Herman Melville, and Balzac as authors she really took to while growing up into the award-winning writer she has. It was their use of details and research that struck her on a level that the emotional attachment to characters could not. Speaking about Melville’s Moby Dick, she relays how the people inhabiting the tale bored her to death; it was the whales which intrigued. It is the naming of objects that gives things meaning; objects as representations of the human soul. We study in order to understand our own nature, a fact that she utilizes in her process of storytelling—an “intellectual passion”. By giving a story detail and facts, it could be made believable and real—a thing of itself. Her goal is to write more than the meaning a critic can take from it, to give it a life of its own. That does not mean she wants people to research the subjects in order to catch everything she jams inside the pages, though, they should research after to find out more. The duty of the novelist, to Byatt, is to put in everything the reader needs to know. If they are confused and need more history or facts than what is included, well, then she would have written it poorly.

Dame Byatt really gave a sense of poise, intellect, and passion for literature during her talk. She had a sense of humor and was self-deprecating, oftentimes rummaging through her stacks of paper, losing her place and speaking out loud about where to go next. Right after she announced that the next topic would be her last she realized she forgot an anecdote about Balzac, so she of course had to go back and tell us before finishing. She loves the subject of science and the ability to discover—recently finding that she has included a Naturalist of some sort in each of her works—and did not shy away from allowing us to discover more about her. For instance, Shakespeare was a great influence, but not the man, his works. Something about him draws her into the stories although she has never had any real interest in the man himself, which delves into the reasoning for her use of initials rather than a first name. Asked if it was to hide her sex as a female writer she responded that it was in fact to honor writers like D.H. Lawrence and, a favorite of hers, T.S. Eliot to do as they did, to become an impersonal writer, to hide. In fact, Byatt admitted to not liking being in crowds, a reason why her research of ants has stuck with her the most of any subject because they can only survive in a group. It is learning about things different from her, things that are new, which she hopes to instill in her readers. Even the internet has become a source of facilitating her research and studies, (although it can sometimes be wrong), but she will not become a member of Facebook. As Kelleher humorously quipped, “it’s like an ant community in itself,” to which Byatt gave a resounding yes.

There just is something about an artist willing to discuss their process that is refreshing. Sometimes people can be so caught up into the art they are doing that they forget to enjoy the grunt work and except it for what it is. Not Byatt, however, she not only gives it its due, but revels in it. She does as her characters do, explaining the history of that which she loves most in the world. And it is not only in her subject matter, but even other writers themselves for whom she reads and interprets their history. By seeing a writer’s influences and background/education she will categorize them by form. When asked about T.S. Eliot she says that he is very much American, despite his work being written in Britain. Even Sylvia Plath, she says, was only American. The British only claim her as their own because she was better than any of the writers there. She does her due diligence and her best to not “be wrong” as well. Hoping that her chronology stays as tight as possible, she continuously researches and includes all she can to mold her works. And this process spills over to her advice for aspiring writers in the crowd, advice consisting of just one word—“read”. If writers do not keep reading, they will all write the same. To Byatt, it is seeing how everyone else writes which will allow one to create his own style and learn how not to copy. Well, its worked wonders for her, so I guess those in attendance should take stock and put in the hours too.

Babel’s 09-10 season continues with Ha Jin, 11/20/09; Azar Nafisi, 3/5/10; Salman Rushdie, 4/16/10. Buy your tickets today.

Courtesy of Bruce Jackson.

2 Responses to ““The Curious Novelist” … A.S. Byatt journeys to Buffalo”
  1. Jaredm

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments on the event last night. I am glad you enjoyed it!

    Mike Kelleher

  2. Thanks for putting on such a great program. I’ve been enjoying it since the first event.

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