AS Byatt on Social Media and the Novel

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In a video interview Charlotte Higgins asks AS Byatt to comment on Christos Tsiolkas‘s remark that the European novel isn’t interested in “things as they really are,” the European version of David Shield’s similar complaint about the American novel. Byatt tackles the subject with relish. The problem isn’t that the novel doesn’t have enough details, she argues, or that it doesn’t address current events, but that contemporary Western culture no longer has access to the grand framing narratives once provided by religion. “A kind of map of the world that was provided by Christian belief” has been lost, which  “means how you say who you are has become very, very difficult.”

Byatt goes on to describe a novel she’d like to read but won’t be writing herself. She hopes to one day read a novel about how we choose the tactics we use to describe ourselves. Despite her refusal to get involved with Facebook, Twitter or any social media, she claims that Twitter and Facebook represent new ways of understanding who we are and how we construct a sense of ourselves. “I’m sure it’s a religious matter,” she says. “You only exist if you tell people you’re there.” She regards social media as “exchanging constant reassurances as to whether you exist or not.” From there, the discourse of social media is endowed with larger meaning by the “thoughtful language” of the novel.

At one point, Higgins asks Byatt if Twitter and Facebook are the new god, and the novelist agrees, but, ultimately, the new god is really the old one: art as the supreme form-giver.

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