As a writer-scholar, who used to be a scholar-writer (there is a difference), I’ve long admired Antonia Susan Byatt, the author of innumerable works, including the Booker-Prize Winning novel Possession, but also Unruly Times: Wordsworth and Coleridge In Their Time, what the Sunday Times calls “a subtle and scholarly work.” Her work fascinates me. It’s both erudite and accessible, especially if you’re an avid reader who enjoys literary allusions. Her brilliance is sometimes on the level of a Victorian realist writer like George Eliot, who, despite claiming she was not a storyteller, was able to convey the intricacies and foibles of humans, while also poking fun at our human condition. But Byatt is also able to write contemporary fairy tales that read like originals and write poetry as if she were a Victorian poet or Scheherazade-like fantasies about a sexy djinn who loves an aging female scholar. But that’s just her fiction. Her scholarly writing doesn’t read like scholarship at all. It doesn’t obfuscate or practice “dissertationeese”; it’s eloquent, knowledgeable, and illuminating.
Having said that I admire Byatt’s work, I confess that I fail to be her. I lack her brilliance and her subtlety. I can’t write Victorian poetry and try as I might I have yet to write a satisfying fairy tale and no djinn has granted me three wishes to enhance my writing. Even so, my scholarship has been deemed readable and accessible, erudite even and for that I’m grateful. Yet it’s the scholarship, where I’ve most succeeded as a writer, that I’ve abandoned or, at least moved on from. But it’s the scholarship that has led recently to my fiction-writing and so, in a sense, I’ve modeled myself after Byatt who also turned from scholarship to creative writing.
Sixteen years my senior, Byatt studied at Cambridge and taught at University College London for over a decade before she became a novelist. Likewise, I spent many years teaching at a university (albeit a Midwestern American one) before I returned to my fledgling creative writing, something that I practiced while in graduate school.
Although I greatly enjoyed writing the scholarly books and articles that I wrote over a thirty-year career, works that allowed me to argue a point of view based on extensive research, such writing did not allow me, as Raphael says in Paradise Lost, to “dream of other worlds.” Fiction does allow me to dream. It allows me to think of what the 18th-Century British feminist and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft and her husband, the political philosopher William Godwin might have been thinking as Mary lay dying, as I did in my first historical fiction novel, VINDICATED: A NOVEL OF MARY SHELLEY. Or to wonder whether Christina Rossetti’s erotic poem, “Goblin Market,” is about her sister-in-law Lizzie Siddal, the painter-poet-model, as I do in my forthcoming novel, THE ROSSETTI DIARIES. Or to write in the voice of a lonely, mentally addled frequenter of strangers’ funerals, as I do in my short story “Birdie” or to write a novel that juxtaposes Percy Shelley’s idealistic politics with the sufferings of an Irish heroine, as I do in my novel-in-progress, NO COWARD’S SOUL HAVE I. Fiction allows me to exercise imagination and not merely write about the work of other writers, even though writing about the work of other writers, like Byatt, greatly benefited me intellectually and creatively, for in writing about her work, my own imagination was piqued.
So, even though I tried and failed to be as brilliant and accessible as A.S. Byatt, I’m grateful for the ways in which she taught me to try to emulate her and other literary icons. I’ll continue to try, and I’ll continue to fail.
In this blog, I’ll write more about the writers who inspire me to try to become a writer. I’ll also attempt to inspire you to tell your own stories, for we all have a story to tell, even if we invent other characters to convey our inner worlds.