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31 Days of Stories 2022, Day 22: “Raw Material” by A.S. Byatt

From Medusa’s Ankles: Selected Stories

In his hybrid of memoir and criticism, Temerity and Gall, John Metcalf refers disdainfully to the idea, so prevalent in writing circles, that literary art must serve some function, illustrate some sociological point, or promote moral betterment in a reader. “Literature, I objected, didn’t illustrate anything,” Metcalf writes. “I objected to the use of literature and wanted more urgently to argue that it was useless and that its uselessness was its value.”

Metcalf is an unrepentant elitist; his insistence on the inutility of literature outside of its function as a stage on which to mount an aesthetic performance sets him apart from the prevailing winds of criticism and academia. It does, however, align him with Jack Smollett, the beleaguered creative writing teacher at the heart of A.S. Byatt’s story “Raw Material.” Smollett’s advice to his students, the thing he “always told them,” dovetails nicely with Metcalf’s notion of art: “Don’t invent melodrama for the sake of it.” And above all remember: art is not psychotherapy.

These are, of course, directives that his class chooses roundly to ignore. They defiantly produce work about “the martyrdom of nuns in Rwanda,” “unreported, persistent child abuse,” and “lesbian love poems involving motorbikes.” A mother-and-daughter pair produce contrasting tales about, in the first case, “the nervous breakdown of a feckless teenager with a wise but powerful mother,” and, in the second, “the nervous breakdown of a menopausal woman with a beautiful and patient daughter.” One student, a bank teller who has been made redundant, does produce some acceptable sentences, but on closer examination these prove to be plagiarized from Patricia Highsmith and Wilkie Collins.

Only one person in Jack’s current class, an “eighty-two-year-old spinster” named Cicely Fox, seems to comprehend Jack’s directive and produces a pair of vignettes, about the obsolete practice of black-leading stoves and the work involved in washing clothes absent modern amenities like a machine washer and dryer, that contain the spark of excellence. Cicely Fox’s writing is burnished with the attention and sharp observation that comes from a lifetime of studying the world and a sensibility capable of finding fresh ways of describing what she sees. The stoves of her childhood, for example, were “darkly gleaming chests of fierce heat,” while the flames inside comprised “a flickering transparent sheet of scarlet and yellow, shot with blue, shot with white, flashing purple, roaring and burping and piffing.”

Naturally, Cicely Fox’s classmates display a congenital inability to understand what lends the elderly woman’s prose the spark of originality, instead condemning it as “[r]ambling” and “[a]ll over the place” with “[n]o real feeling” and “[n]o human interest.” The other students’ antipathy for Cicely Fox’s work is exacerbated by the evident approval Jack bestows upon it; their criticisms are made even more vicious and personal as a result of their unspoken but obvious envy.

Jack’s own response to the class’s ire tries to return the discussion to the level of craft and technique, a plane on which the other students are clearly uncomfortable working:

He said that it was rare to read a piece of writing that worked on more than one level at once. He said that it took skill to make familiar things look strange. He quoted Ezra Pound: “Make It New.” He quoted William Carlos Williams: “No ideas but in things.” He only ever did this when he was fired up. He was fired up, not only on Cicely Fox’s behalf, but more darkly on his own. For the class’s rancour, and the banal words in which it expressed that rancour, blew life into his anxiety over his own words, his own work.

Byatt’s story operates broadly in the mode of metafiction, that is, fiction that actively and self-reflexively comments on the business of making fiction. It does so from a point of view quite out of favour in today’s culture, insisting that the purpose of art is not to heal societal wounds or make the world a better place, but to provide a fresh aesthetic experience built out of close observation and an innovative use of language.

This is profound in the way Cicely Fox answers Jack’s question about why she writes. “I write because I like words,” she says. “I suppose if I liked stone I might carve. I like words. I like reading. I notice particular words. That sets me off.” This response, so divergent from the way the other members of the class approach their chosen vocations, recalls a brilliant anecdote from Annie Dillard’s brief book The Writing Life:

A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, “Do you think I could be a writer?”

“Well,” the writer said, “I don’t know. … Do you like sentences?”

The writer could see the student’s amazement. Sentences? Do I like sentences? I am twenty years old and do I like sentences? If he had liked sentences, of course, he could begin, like a joyful painter I knew. I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, “I liked the smell of paint.”

What Byatt manages in “Raw Material” is to provide her reader a primer on what constitutes solid writing, buried inside a story about a typically petty and ego-driven creative writing class. What is arguably most impressive about Byatt’s accomplishment is that she does not deviate from Jack’s core advice, which we come to understand as the author’s shared conception of how a good short story should be constructed.

This is not to suggest that Byatt eschews drama, conflict, or irony. The final stages of the story present Cicely Fox in a new light that exposes the extent to which her literary sensibility is the product of a refined aesthetic attitude. (She claims to admire the poetry of George Herbert, whom she can quote from memory.) The old woman’s life, it turns out, is replete with what might be described as melodramatic content ripe for exploitation, but she has kept this resolutely off the page, preferring instead to offer carefully constructed distillations of moments from her past that cumulatively create a vivid picture of what life was like in her younger years.

Contrary to the objections of her fellow students, there is plenty of action in her two brief pieces (both of which Byatt provides for her reader), but the action occurs not on the level of incident but on that of language. It is here that her writing comes alive. Cicely Fox, unlike her peers in the creative writing class, understands that the raw material of literature is just that: it’s what you do with it that matters.

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