I didn’t understand feminism in high school and found it irritating. Much has changed since then, of course. It’s odd because despite my seemingly negative reaction to Byatt here, Possession won its place in my memory as one of my favorite books in contemporary literature. I also find my “critique” of contemporary literary fiction extremely amusing in hindsight because now I’m notorious among my friends for my love of referential writing.

[Possession: A Romance, by A.S. Byatt]

I’ve spent an entire day on my math homework. Or, rather, eight hours, since I need to subtract the time I spent finishing Possession. That, by the way, was a rather good book, though it made me feel a bit irritable because it had all these ongoing motifs, which I was not bothering to remember. I mean, it was meant to be analyzed, and I wasn’t reading for analysis, just pleasure. Also, it had so many explicit themes that I felt I was grappling with a mass of thorns. Byatt’s reflections on the essentially sterile nature of self-analysis, which pervades a post-Freudian society and more specifically the academic world, as opposed to poetry, self-expression and creativity, were beautifully and rather movingly woven into the story. But I didn’t like all the wrestling with feminism, and how to deal with women’s sexuality, and how this sexuality and creativity poses a threat to the masculine ego, and how, and how, and how, etc., etc., etc. Yuck. I’ve never really seen myself as a girl. When I think of myself, I don’t think, “female,” I think “intelligent human being.” And from an academic point of view, exploring mythological feminine images like the Sphinx or the Morrigan is all very fascinating, but just a tad tiresome after a while, and when you’re reading for pleasure, you really don’t want to care about things like that. Gender is a very minor part of my self-identity! I don’t care that male authors have predominantly male protagonists, because I identify with those male characters! Sheesh.

But just in terms of storyline, Possession was really wonderfully done. Byatt, I believe, actually composed all the poetry she “quotes” herself (unless Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte really do exist…though I’m pretty sure they don’t.) I’m rather impressed with her command of Victorian language. I really would like to write like that, capitalizing random nouns and sticking in dashes instead of commas.

Nevertheless, there’s just a hint of smugness in all of contemporary “literary” writing, something left over from the modernists, I think. “Let’s see how many allusions to high-brow intellectual thought we can embed in one sentence,” that kind of thing. When T.S. Eliot does it, I feel awed and humbled, but when Byatt does it, I feel rather irritated. Probably because when I read The Waste Land, I was reading it for self-edification, but when I read Possession, it’s simply and only for wasting time. Biased, aren’t I? Nevertheless, there is this impression of seals jumping through hoops. I mean, Ursula K. Le Guin manages to be as profound, if not more, with a much simpler, much less convoluted, much less referential writing style. The point should be to communicate the theme to the reader in a subtle and carefully crafted way, not to impress the reader with your excellent education. Of course, I am impressed. But it does make me feel a bit irritated.