Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Musing on Possession by A.S. Byatt

Reading: Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler
Writing: planning/brainstorming a short story
Watching: Dawson’s Creek box-set, reliving my youth!

I recently read Possession by A.S. Byatt, which explores the theme of ownership. Its main plot is ostensibly about academic ownership – the ‘rights’ involved in acquiring sources and researching, the ethics of withholding or sharing knowledge and the concept of the subject (in this case, two Victorian poets) as a ‘possession’ versus the impossibility of owning anyone’s life, including one’s own. Subplots are woven into an already-complex storyline as the characters collude and clash. The novel also questions the boundary between possession and obsession.

I’m not going to tell you how amazing Possession is – plenty of people already have, and have expressed it far more eloquently than I would. Suffice to say I fell in love with the novel and lay awake until five o’ clock on Tuesday morning finishing it. Neither will I offer a critical analysis.  It raises many, many questions about the theme of possession but, more than anything, it made me ponder the ownership of stories.

Does anyone ever own a story? Even disregarding theories about there being a certain number of story types (read The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker – it’s a doorstop of a book, but worth its weight in gold), every story contains elements of other stories and all stories are open to multiple interpretations. For a writer, the act of publishing (or sharing a story informally) is a paradox: you are at once claiming a story as your own and releasing it to the general public. Presenting it in a specific, crystallised form but also exposing it to more interpretations.

I have waffled about the ownership of stories before (see Writing and Race: Whose Right to Write?) and Possession highlights the fact that complete, total ownership of a story is impossible and thus seeking total ownership is a futile endeavour. However, we tend to gravitate towards stories with personal meaning. In Possession, the poet Christabel LaMotte is influenced by Breton myths that she feels connected to through her family and nationality. Maud, an expert on LaMotte, is a distant relative of the poet. Other characters mention being drawn to the works of poets they were introduced to in childhood.

From an apologetically personal perspective, I experience a sense of ‘ownership’ when I read my favourite stories – or any story that evokes personal meaning for me. I adore Thomas Hardy (to the bafflement of my friends), partly because I can empathise with him as a writer, with his characters, with the environment he portrays. As an aspiring writer living in East Devon and straddling the fence between ‘working class’ and ‘middle class,’ I feel a connection. However, I’m aware that this connection has more to do with how I’ve constructed my own sense of identity rather than any natural ‘right’ to a kinship with Hardy’s work.

I suppose there is a subtle distinction between ‘possession’ and ‘ownership’: the latter evokes a sense of community and sharing that the former excludes. Stories are made for sharing. Ownership enables a story to be shared as the ‘owner’ feels an urge to retell the story, to extend its life and explore its richness. Feeling this sense of ownership compels us to lend books to friends, to recommend them to acquaintances, to discuss them with family. Possession just conjures up the image of a dusty book on a shelf. For me, ownership is integral to both the creation and the consumption of stories and I’d be honoured if anyone ever feels that they ‘own’ one of my stories.

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