A.S. Byatt is smarter than you

Not that she'd say so. She's very polite. I don't know that you've read any of her books, but I have and I'm a bit in awe of her. She is one of those writers who is able to take all sorts of elements of the human experience--art, history, science, emotion--and weave them into a complex narrative. Reading her books makes me feel the way I did after I saw Tom Stoppard's Arcadia: what must it be like to be that smart?

Here are some things she said at the Herbst on Monday:

1. That one of her great heroines is Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor in England. She said that she admired her particularly for the way in which she became a doctor. That is, by being very polite. Apparently Ms. Blackwell would just turn up for lectures and exams and when told she shouldn't be there would say "Oh, I'm just attending. Thank you." and stay. Eventually, they had to pass her. "She became a doctor and never lost her good manners," said Ms. Byatt.

After this tale, Robert Hass mentioned that Gertrude Stein had gone to medical school for three years, but had given it up and became a writer. Ms. Byatt remarked that it was probably just as well and that she "wouldn't have liked to have been tended by her at all. Alice B. Toklas would have been better."

2. When asked about the future of the planet she said that it seemed very likely that according to all the scientists she's spoken to, it is very likely that we are going to extinguish ourselves. She said "human beings are very clever animals, and we make all sorts of clever things. But we're just not quite clever enough to stop."

3. She told us that when she is working on a book, she first fills notebooks with copious quotes, research, ideas, etc. When she sits down to write the book she does it chronologically straight thought. She said that if she makes a mistake, she throws the page away and begins again. She doesn't cross things out or move things around.

Have you read a book by A.S. Byatt? Yeah. I'll just give you a moment to contemplate the fact that it was written in that manner. You should probably sit down before you think about it too much.

4. She has four children. I mean, they are not children now, but they were at some point. How she was simultaneously the sort of writer she is and the mother of four, I cannot say. It puts parent blogging in rather harsh perspective. Any sort of blogging, really. She spoke about the decision one can make to be a person, not just a woman. She quite obviously achieved a level of personhood that is miles above my head.


On the whole, it was delightful and I felt honored to be there and I can't wait to read her new book. Hooray for writers. Hooray for thinkers. Hooray for good manners and understated humor. Hip Hip Hooray!

Tonight, back to Herbst to hear what Jonathan Lethem has to say for himself.