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On Histories and Stories

A S Byatt <em>Vintage, 196pp, £7.99</em>

ISBN 0099283832

This splendid book can be read as a defence of the story and of the novelist's freedom to write about whatever he or she chooses without being bullied by fashion and the demands of the market. It is also a defence of the historical novel, which A S Byatt is quick to bolster against those who argue that the duty of the novelist is to offer a convincing portrait of contemporary reality, that the novelist must engage urgently with the defining particulars of his or her age. "A writer can rebel in various ways against the novel of sensibility, or the duty (often imposed by literary journalists) to report on, to criticise, contemporary actuality," Byatt writes. But it is history as fiction that most interests her. If our ideas of the past are formed by ideas of the present, then part of the process of understanding history, Byatt seems to say, includes reimagining it. In this she is right, and some of the most convincing novels being written today are those in which the boundaries between fact and fiction appear to be collapsing, in which real-life characters and the actual events of the past are being appropriated for fictional purposes. Where that leaves the work of pure imagination, however, is anyone's guess.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 12 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The Empire strikes back