Antonia S. Byatt's 1990 novel, Possession, which, incidentally and, you believe, deservedly won the prestigious Booker Prize that year, is often listed as a romance.
Wednesday, July 6, 2016
Of the many reasons you admire the novel, one stands out: It is also a mystery, which happens to be your absolute favorite genre because of your long nourished belief that the mystery is the paradigm for the longform fiction.
Readers read novels to find out who killed Cock robin, but they also read novels to find out how individuals in tight positions behaved as a form of tool by which they are able to make their own way in matters of moral choice.
Short stories, which are at the top of your preference triangle, are, because of their construction, less the mystery than the novel. Short stories seem to you more reflective of how individuals are in the process of stepping in chewing gum and then trying to get the gum off the sole of their shoe or, when the occasion arises, off their bare foot.
Having stepped in real and metaphoric time on chewed gum, with and without shoes, you know what a nuisance the experience can be because of the resulting nuisance of dealing with the gum.
Novels are another matter; you read them and write them for different reasons. For some time now, you've been writing about novels and their effect on you in the worlds of fiction and the worlds of chewing gum. Possession is one of the hundred novels you are writing about for your current project (about which your literary agent says, "Will you for Christ' sake, finish it already and get back to your novel?").
Thinking about it, then skimming through it, then saying the equivalent of fuck it, whereupon you realize you need to reread it once again, you arrive at the awareness that it has been a life changer for you. Had it been published earlier, it might have sent you back to school with a different purpose than the one for which you went, which was to learn how to be a novelist and short story writer.
What you did not understand when you embarked on the university and a course of study was the extent of the literary life, which has already lead you down a number of surprising distractions. Novels are distraction. Writing them is distraction, including the distraction of understanding that you prefer short stories and, in recent years, novellas.
Editing is a distraction and so is teaching and its adjunct, research. In a real sense, everything is a distraction, including the distraction of stepping on unseen wads of gum, which you are every bit as likely to do whether or not you write novels.
Possession is also about parallels of two timelines and a romantic relationship within each. Plus, Possession is about what you might have become had you, like your friend, the mystery writer, Tom Dewey, gone back to school. The last thing you saw from tom was not one of his wonderful mystery novels, it was a paper in a journal about some forgotten writer of the Victorian Era.
Every time you read Possession, it picks you up and shakes you by the shoulders, reminding you of all the things a novel can do at once, while telling an unforgettable story. More than once, you've told the mystery writer, Joseph Wambaugh that his novel, The Secrets of Harry Bright, was the novel you wish you'd come upon sooner so that you'd have spent more time being influenced by it into becoming the things you hope to find in your own pages. You meant it.
In the unlikely chance you are able to spot Dame Antonia Byatt out and abroad, you'll tell her that even though you read Possession when it was first published, twenty-six years ago, and have reread it numerous times since, it continues to influence the way you think about the way you write, edit, teach, and go about in the abstracted state in once often finds himself before stepping on chewing gum.
Posted by Shelly Lowenkopf at 12:25 PM