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On Histories and Stories

On Histories and Stories

Selected Essays

A. S. Byatt

ISBN 9780674008335

Publication date: 03/30/2002

As writers of English from Australia to India to Sri Lanka command our attention, Salman Rushdie can state confidently that English fiction was moribund until the Empire wrote back, and few, even among the British, demur. A. S. Byatt does, and her case is persuasive. In a series of essays on the complicated relations between reading, writing, and remembering, the gifted novelist and critic sorts the modish from the merely interesting and the truly good to arrive at a new view of British writing in our time.

Whether writing about the renaissance of the historical novel, discussing her own translation of historical fact into fiction, or exploring the recent European revival of interest in myth, folklore, and fairytale, Byatt's abiding concern here is with the interplay of fiction and history. Her essays amount to an eloquent and often moving meditation on the commitment to historical narrative and storytelling that she shares with many of her British and European contemporaries. With copious illustration and abundant insights into writers from Elizabeth Bowen and Henry Green to Anthony Burgess, William Golding, Muriel Spark, Penelope Fitzgerald, Julian Barnes, Martin Amis, Hilary Mantel, and Pat Barker, On Histories and Stories is an oblique defense of the art Byatt practices and a map of the complex affiliations of British and European narrative since 1945.


  • On Histories and Stories…offer[s] the most spirited and knowledgeable discussion of fiction’s basic questions that I have read for some time. These questions—the kind that surrounded the creation of the French nouveau roman, and were reawakened a decade or so later by the magic realists of Latin America—are rarely raised in the United States, where discussions of how literature represents reality have been smothered beneath the arid fuss of politicized deconstruction… Byatt is a vigorous exponent of the view that there is nothing wrong with making books out of books—with admitting that the impulse to write stems from enthusiastic reading, and that literary adventure takes place in a mental world generated from existent texts. Her own recent works of fiction are furiously bookish, and her Ellmann lectures propose a look at ‘the sudden flowering of the historical novel in Britain’… Her scope of reference and the number of her plot summaries show a gluttonous appetite for reading… She responds to ‘a general European interest in storytelling, and in thinking about storytelling’… Byatt is a writer actively searching for sources of energy outside the comfort zone of British social fiction… [Readers must] be grateful to have the art of fiction reworked in such knowing hands, by one to whom the pleasures and rewards of reading are so fundamental.

    —John Updike, New Yorker


  • A. S. Byatt’s works of fiction include Possession, winner of the 1990 Booker Prize; the sequence The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, and Babel Tower; and The Biographer’s Tale. She is also the author of several important critical works and a collection of essays, Passions of the Mind.

Book Details

  • 208 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/2 inches
  • Harvard University Press