This comprehensive study of A. S. Byatt's work spans virtually her entire career and offers readings of all of her works of fiction up to and including her Man-Booker-shortlisted novel The Children's Book (2009). The chapters combine an overview of Byatt's œuvre to date with close critical analysis of all her major works. The book also considers Byatt's critical writings and journalism, situating her beyond the immediate context of her fiction. The chapters argue that Byatt is not only important as a storyteller, but also as an eminent critic and public intellectual. Advancing the concept of ‘critical storytelling’ as a hallmark of Byatt's project as a writer, the chapters retrace Byatt's wide-ranging engagement with both literary and critical traditions. This results in positioning Byatt in the wider literary landscape.
This introductory chapter discusses A. S. Byatt, a writer with a personal and intellectual dislike of literary criticism that places a heavy emphasis on a writer's life. It first provides some background information on Byatt's early career as a writer and her debut novel, Shadow of a Sun. It studies her commitment to the mutually informative discourses of fiction and literary criticism and her popular reimaginings of the Victorian past. This chapter also studies some of Byatt's novels, which are discussed in detail in the following chapters.
This chapter focuses on the early intersections of Byatt's fiction with both modern debates on the novel and the continuing relationship of mid-twentieth-century literature with the Romantic legacy. It provides readings of The Shadow of the Sun and The Game, which indicate Byatt's life long project of ‘critical storytelling’. It is a practice of storytelling that does not separate the literary from the critical imagination, but instead aims at a deliberate and thoughtful combination of the two ways of seeing and describing the world.
This chapter discusses the ‘greed’ for reading and the notion of co-creative reading. It studies Byatt's engagement with realism, the premises, possibilities, pitfalls and puzzlement that are explored by the first two Quartet novels in terms of highly original fictional inquiries. This chapter determines that Byatt's fictional probings of realism's problems are informed by the notion that an acknowledgement of the constructed nature of human thought does not necessarily come before the existence of objective realities.
This chapter examines the formal and thematic (dis)continuities between the earlier and later Quartet novels. It studies the prism of Byatt's involvement with modern notions of the breakdown and fragmentation of language in Babel Tower and her fictional considerations of the narratives of science in A Whistling Woman. This chapter determines that her later fictions usually study the conceptual pitfalls and possibilities of ways of world-making across the ‘Two Cultures’ divide.
This chapter proposes a reading of Byatt's œeuvre as a continuous series of reimaginings of the art of storytelling and its different (dis)contents. It focuses on Possession and Byatt's interest in the fairytale form. It studies the essentially hermeneutic concept of co-creative reading that Byatt's fictions participate in and also habitually promote. This chapter puts emphasis on a practice of reading that is basically grounded in the use of stories in a culture.
The Children’s Book, The Biographer’s Tale and Angels and Insects
Alexa Alfer and Amy J. Edwards de Campos
This chapter explores Byatt's concern with the ‘thinginess’ of human existence over and against the fantasy worlds provided by the fairytale form. It draws parallels between The Children's Book and some of Byatt's slightly earlier fictions, such as The Biographer's Tale and Angels and Insects. This chapter provides a glimpse into a curiously un-novelistic and anti-individualistic ethos and notes that these three texts give the reader powerful images of humans as types, composites, or mere representatives of a species.
This chapter considers Byatt's critical output and its manifold intersections, both with the institutionalised study of literature in university departments and with the modern book market. It explores Byatt's role as public intellectual and sheds some light on the concept of ‘critical storytelling’. This chapter also describes her commitment to the paradigm of dialogical criticism, or criticism as conversation.