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1. Creative Writing
III. Creative Writing and Research

Criticism, practice, pedagogy: creative convergence through A.S. Byatt’s Babel Tower



Cet article examine la façon dont la critique littéraire et l'enseignement de la création littéraire peuvent être rapprochés. Plus précisément, il analyse un aspect de la création littéraire intradiégétique dans Babel Tower d'A.S. Byatt, le troisième roman du Frederica Quartet, dans lequel Frederic Potter, intervenante en littérature anglaise et romancière en herbe, est affligée par le syndrome de la page blanche. Frederica cherche à résoudre ce problème en reprenant un projet commencé dans The Virgin in the Garden, le premier roman de la tétralogie, intitulé Laminations. Le principe directeur de ce texte intradiégétique consiste à écrire en une série de strates apparemment séparées, d'où le titre, avant de les associer pour permettre l’émergence de nouvelles significations. Dans Babel Tower, Frederica expérimente avec des textes découpés, à la manière de William Burroughs.
Cet article présente une manière d’initier une séance d’enseignement de la création littéraire s’appuyant sur les découpages de Frederica, transposant sa tentative de trouver de nouveaux signifiants, et donc d'exprimer de nouvelles idées, dans le domaine du livre altéré (également connu sous les noms de black-out ou erasure). Il propose une technique permettant de distiller le commentaire long et complexe de Byatt sur la créativité - l'œuvre d'une vie - en une séquence d'écriture créative qui pourrait être utilisée avec les étudiants des universités françaises.

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Hot and cold springs meet

Hot and cold springs meet

Terra Nostra, Furnas, Azores, 2016

Photo: Helen E. Mundler

1. You put your whole self in?1

  • 1 This phrase is taken from a popular British song accompanied by a participative dance, known as “Th (...)

1This article is intended as experimental and personal in that it describes the genesis of a way of thinking and an idea for creative writing teaching. It stems from my own body of criticism, my creative practice, my own nascent creative teaching, and my reflection on those things in the context of a wider project to develop and formalise creative writing as a sub-discipline in English Studies in France.

2I have attempted to bring together several threads that have run through the three decades of my university career – research, teaching, and creative writing, the last having been until recently largely unrecognised. A university career involves various processes of metamorphosis as a response to the slow evolution of interests and conditions, but what emerges? This article starts from the position that satisfactory intellectual and creative practice stems from the mediation of the whole self. A loose metaphor for the question being posed here is Doris Lessing’s novel in which Anna Wolf strives to unite her various writings in one unified and satisfactory notebook, the golden notebook. In other words, is it possible to move from dissociation, from a position in which research and creative practice were considered two unconnected things, to a position in which they are united and feed into each other? How, in a context which has held them to be separate, might I connect the two things, and make of the literary researcher and the creative writer a teacher of creative writing? Given that creative writing in English Studies is now emerging and becoming recognised, this is a legitimate preoccupation.

  • 2 The Lacanian subject is castrated, that is to say, deprived of the phallus, and therefore can never (...)
  • 3 Homesickness, L’Anglaise and Three Days by the Sea, all published in the United Kingdom.
  • 4 See A.S. Byatt’s Possession and the two novellas contained in Angels and Insects (Morpho Eugenia an (...)

3It has always been clear to me that it is perfectly possible to work out the same questions in two mirrored but different ways, in criticism and in creative writing. My own experience of the overlap between research and creative practice concerns making questions of exile and the search for home, the alienation of the subject, the lack inherent to the Lacanian concept of castration, and the impossibility of attaining wholeness2. This interest has long been central to my novels, which centre on the poles of home and exile3. It has also been very present in my critical work. The bildungsroman as a locus for the working-out of a lost wholeness has been a background to this thinking – the Victorian novel being something which comes up in the pastiche of the form produced by both A.S. Byatt and Liz Jensen, the two authors on whom I have worked the most in recent years. 4Van Boheemen’s understanding of the bildungsroman as an expression of an ever-doomed desire to find a way back to the “Eden” of early childhood is interesting in this respect: she shows that “[W]e ‘can’t go home again’” […] There is no road that will take us back to Paradise”, because “the belief in presence upon which our idea of the subjective self rests must inevitably remain unconfirmed” (Boheemen 23-24). There is, according to the principles of the postmodern text against which both Byatt and Jensen set their neo-Victorian “bildungsroman” pastiches, no transcendent subject, no way back to linguistic wholeness, no possible fusion of signified and signifier, and no possibility of a self which is anything more than a fragmented, disjointed, unsatisfactory subject, something which is expressed by means of various ironic and parodic textual devices. Boheemen interestingly suggests of the bildungsroman that “the function of the genre is (or was) to provide humanity with an instrument, a mirror, in which to see itself reflected as transcendent subject – a superior and detached agent controlling and ordering its world and the medium that creates that world: language” (Boheemen 5).

  • 5 Also known as The Frederica Quartet, the tetralogy consists of The Virgin in the Garden (1978). Sti (...)

4Postmodernism and metafictionality both implied the upending of realism, self-reflexivity ad infinitum and sometimes ad nauseam, excesses which as Robert Eaglestone argues have been corrected by the 21st-century novel, which makes a “retreat from the extreme playfulness of postmodernism and the emphasis on textuality and on difficulty”, proposing “a gentler, more accessible version of them, with a strong interest in telling a story” (Eaglestone 14). But the interesting part here for the purposes of this article and the project it describes is that a process of reflection took my own creative practice back to its roots in my thinking about the neo-Victorian novel in Byatt, and later Jensen. This then took me to how the rejection of the idea of a transcendent subject is worked out in A.S. Byatt’s writing about creative writing – that is, in the character of Frederica Potter, who becomes a creative writer in the third volume of Byatt’s tetralogy, Babel Tower. 5Through Frederica, the setting-loose of language is triggered in a way which this article uses as the basis for a technique for a creative-writing exercise which can potentially be used with students.

5By working through these ideas, I sought to add a third element, namely the teaching of creative writing, to the fusion of my own critical and creative writing. This article traces through a technique which can be used to help students, or others, write in some way about themselves and their own experiences. In order to explain the technique I would like to use in the teaching of creative writing, I will first take a step back to analyse the setting of Frederica’s experimentations in Byatt’s work. I will then show how this is related to the concept of the altered book, initially by explaining what an altered book is, and how the form may be used, and then by showing how I have related them to Frederica’s writing in Babel Tower, and my own criticism on Byatt. The result is to demonstrate the theoretical and empirical bases of a technique which I hope to develop in future (for the purposes of this article, in my pedagogy, but in fact, also in my creative practice, with the aim being to incorporate this technique into a novel).

2. “How can I say I”? – Frederica’s journey from criticism to practice

6Byatt’s tetralogy charts the lives of the Potter family, lower-middle class intellectuals who live in Yorkshire, from the fifties onwards, with Frederica, the second daughter, being contemporaneous with Byatt herself, who was born in 1936. Frederica performs brilliantly in her A-levels, takes a degree in English literature at Cambridge, and subsequently finds herself torn between the desire to embark on a doctoral thesis on metaphor and the desire to write a novel. A recent graduate writing for magazines at the end of Still Life, she is rediscovered in Babel Tower as the mother of a small child, Leo, and wife of Nigel, whose sadistic and misogynistic side she is poised to discover. At this time, she is neither studying nor writing, and is deeply dissatisfied with her lot. In the course of the novel, Frederica separates from Nigel, leaving behind the affluent lifestyle he provided, and moves to London, where she survives by teaching evening classes on English literature. “Those that can’t, teach. What is it you can’t do?” – her old friend Wilkie taunts her, to which Frederica replies, “Write a novel?” Babel Tower 341).

  • 6 See Bost 157 for a discussion of these ideas.

7At this point, she does indeed begin to move back to the idea of attempting to write a novel, but she is not satisfied with the forms at her disposal. Part of this dissatisfaction stems from her awareness of the lost linguistic wholeness, and the impossibility of linguistic transcendence, mentioned above, and the sense that the novelistic form cannot truly accommodate this awareness. This is all of a piece with the context of Byatt’s Babel Tower, which is a highly polyphonic novel, with many intercalated texts, reflecting the formal innovations of the 1960s. The idea of the Tower of Babel as a symbol of lost linguistic wholeness runs through it as the dominant metaphor.6 In the course of the novel, Frederica reflects on this idea as she reads another intradiegetic, intercalated text, a novel entitled Babble Tower, a medieval dystopia written by the marginal (and indeed obscure) Jude, whose title magnifies the idea of polysemic, polyphonic discourse. Thus Frederica’s choice of a fragmentary form as a means of self-expression seems a logical development in terms both of her character, and of the broader textual meta-commentary made by the novel. There is also another aspect to this: Frederica does not feel capable of writing a novel at this point, and so – significantly for the creative writing project proposed in this article – she has recourse to the words of others, meditating on the Laminations, “It is a form that is made by cutting up, rearranging things that already exist” (Babel Tower 384). It is against this background that Frederica comes up with her Laminations.

8In order to explain how Frederica’s Laminations are relevant to my project to teach creative writing workshops through altered books, it is first necessary to take a step back, explain what this text is, and how she gets to this point. Her creative work constitutes a meta-text made up of a series of tiny, arbitrarily reconfigured, snippets, running counter both to Byatt’s own vast, controlled narrative, and to the attempt by the character Culvert to create a linguistic totalitarian dystopia in Jude’s novel, Babbletower. The word “lamination” implies the visible layering or stratification of disparate elements, and Frederica’s aim in creating these texts is, at first, to gain a clearer understanding of what is going on in her life. While the Laminations do not become a significant intradiegetic text until Babel Tower, Frederica has been developing this technique since her teenage years. It is first presented in The Virgin in the Garden (1978), when the adolescent Frederica is confused by a number of experiences - fantasies about her prospective brother-in-law, sexual experience with a stranger encountered on a bus, phallic symbols, the sight of a donkey’s genitals, and so on. These seem to crowd in on her in an oppressive and uncontrollable way, and when Frederica, still a virgin at this time, connects them, they take on “alarming aspects” – that is to say, she feels sexually threatened (The Virgin 209). In an effort to regain control, Frederica seeks rather to disconnect them, justifying this to herself with the words, “If you kept them separate, in many ways you saw them more truly”, (Virgin, 210). It is at this point that the idea of lamination comes to her:

She sensed that the idea of lamination could provide both a model of conduct and an aesthetic that might suit herself and prove fruitful. It would, she decided, as in the event it did, take years to work out the implications. (The Virgin 209-10)

9As Frederica realises even as an adolescent, she is on the brink of a significant discovery in her creative life. What her central idea amounts to is the layering of different elements of text, so that they simultaneously remain separate, and make up a whole. This technique of textual montage encourages the multiplication and amplification of associations between ideas, motifs, and narratives, while abandoning any idea of a single, controlling narrative or narrative voice. In The Virgin in the Garden, the nascent Laminations are an attempt to react to events – external and internal – but in Babel Tower, the project is a way of responding to the multiple discourses in which Frederica is caught up: “Language rustles around her with many voices, none of them hers, all of them hers” (Babel Tower 380).

  • 7 “Scrying” is foretelling the future.

10By the time of Babel Tower, she is in her thirties, a wife and mother, and the experience she feels the need to express is very different from that of her teenage years. Faced with an acrimonious divorce, in which Nigel questions her behaviour and impugns her reputation, Frederica’s first desire, when she discovers an account of herself which runs contrary to her own, is to seek control of the narrative. This she does by wresting away from it any idea of univocity, and by introducing the potentiality for polysemy by adopting new, experimental forms, one of which involves physically cutting up texts: “She has a vision of controlling the miseries of the divorce and its dragging negotiations by cutting it all up into a kind of nonsense-diary, which produces occasional gems of scrying” (Babel Tower 382). 7

11Specifically, what Frederica does is take the lecture notes she has prepared for the course she is teaching on “The English Novel”. Going through these, she comes upon two “passages about wholeness form Forster and Lawrence”, respectively from Howard’s End (Forster 187) and Women in Love (Lawrence 311). (It could be deduced D. H. Lawrence’s poem “Thought”, which ends with the line “Thought is a man in his wholeness, wholly attending”, also seems to be present here, as a statement for Frederica to fight against, both in its insistence on the male and its insistence on wholeness.) Both D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster are significant references throughout the tetralogy, but this is a moment of iconoclasm in which Frederica dismisses them both: “’Only connect’ is a cliché, and so is Lawrence’s Oneness’ (Babel Tower 385). Taking her lecture notes, she “cuts” and “slices” them. “A vertical snip, a horizontal snip, a re-arrange” (382). What she comes up with contains various interesting fragments, among them the question “How can I say I?” (382), and the pleasing parody “It was transcended into a new oneness of having surpassed one”, followed by the self-assertion, “there is nothing to answer, old existence” (383).

12Frederica is far too intellectual and self-aware to do any of this naïvely – indeed, she herself mentions William Burroughs (382), master of the cut-up text. Tony Tanner writes of Burroughs’ technique that it allows “stable units of language” to “yield new meanings, not as propositions exactly, but as suggestive word groups” (Tanner124), and Byatt’s narrative connects Burroughs’s work to that of T.S. Eliot, another significant intertext in the tetralogy, when the person who lends Frederica the book by Burroughs mentions in passing “fragments shored against my ruin and all that” (Babel Tower, 379), the reference being to T.S. Eliot’s line in the Four Quartets, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” (Eliot 430). Moreover, at the level of author rather than character, the intercalation of textual fragments within the narrative as a whole has always been characteristic of Byatt’s work: for example, the process of discovering poems, letters and folk tales guides the reader through the literary mystery which is Possession, Byatt’s best-known novel. In Babel Tower, this way of writing once more comes to the fore, so that the text becomes littered with extracts from other texts – letters, extracts from extant novels, passages from the intradiegetic novel, and so on. Frederica functions as the reader and arbiter of many of these texts, the deployment of which can be read as a formal rebellion against the very idea of being able to “tell a story”, to establish a dominant narrative which moves along from start to finish (another way of countering the heritage of the Victorian novel).

13However, another significant point is also raised – one which is a given in research on the novel, but is germane to the context of trying to encourage students or other participants to write about themselves: what Frederica is doing here is recognising that the self is not transparent to the self. This can be connected with Lacan’s Schéma L, a useful diagram which demonstrates that the self is mediated through the other (Evans 169). These are elements of theory – snippets, to take up Frederica’s description of her Laminations – which can be communicated to students who have little notion of, or indeed interest, in literary theory, but who may nonetheless have intuited certain ideas about the difficulty of representing oneself in language. Ricoeur asserts ‘“to say self is not to say I’” (Kearney x), insisting, as Kearney puts it, that “the shortest route from self to self is through the other” (Kearney x). Frederica asks, via the cut-up snippets which feed into her Laminations, “How can I say I?” (Babel Tower 382), while a participant in a creative writing class might simply say, “It’s not easy to write about yourself”. Nonetheless, in this simple statement, there is a very pertinent question in terms of how the self, as fragmented and ultimately inaccessible subject, can be represented.

14The idea, then, in terms of the teaching of creative writing, is to take inspiration from both Frederica’s difficulty with “saying I”, and her idea of physically playing with texts in order to create another text which allows her to see things differently. Concretely, basing my way of working on these questions, I hope to ask participants to physically alter a text in order to create their own prompt for a short story which stems from themselves and their own experience – but which provides them with signifiers and networks of connections which they might not otherwise have thought of, and thus allows them to break out of what runs the risk of being seen as simply another tedious language exercise. This idea is closely bound up with the first eighteen months of the Covid-19 pandemic, in which students were often demoralised and demotivated, and found it difficult to sustain interest in their academic work. One solution was to get them to produce – in English, the target language – texts about themselves and their quotidian experience, in order to testify to the difficult times they were going through. This is in keeping with Frederica’s own use of innovative forms in order to work through her difficulties: at one stage, as she works on her Laminations, the narrator comments, “Frederica’s cut-up […] has less beauty than a cut-up of some richer text might have, but it does approximate to a satisfactory representation of her confusion, of her distress” (Babel Tower 379).

15Below, building on this critical-theoretical introduction, I will explain what I hope to do by means of a technique which is variously known as book-altering, erasure, or black-out poetry. I will retain the term “altered books”, since this is the one used in the quotations on the subject given below.

3. Altered books as a natural follow-up to Frederica’s Laminations

16What, then, is an altered book, or what do I mean by the term? The form can be defined as follows:

An altered book is a previously existing book that has been recycled into a new work of visual art (Brazelton 2004). Any kind of book can be used, as well as many art processes to “alter” it, such as painting, drawing, collage, writing, assemblage, and embellishment with a variety of media. (Harrison, 2002, cit. in Chilton 458)

17Altered books have a long history, going back over a millennia, as Cobb observes:

The history of altering books can be traced back to the 11th century when the scarcity of paper encouraged Italian monks to recycle old vellum manuscripts […]. By scraping the ink off of old books and re-covering the pages with new text and illustrations, new books were created. (Cobb 59)

18Interestingly, for the purposes or this article, and indeed in the context of Byatt’s work (Byatt has always been interested in the recycling of canonic texts, in “old words, new words, going gracefully together”, The Virgin 66), old and new texts were allowed to co-exist, with the original showing through: “As parts of the old text were often still visible through the new additions to the book, a layering effect was created” (Cobb 59). Building on this, Cobb goes on to explain that “Today, an altered book serves as a medium for creativity and personal expression”. She describes the basic process of creating it, by “collaging, painting, or drawing over pages of text, or changing a book in a variety of other ways, while allowing chosen words to show through the newly created work of art (Bloom 2006).”

19I first discovered this form via a workshop at the Book Arts Centre in Kalamazoo, Michigan, an institute which works at the intersections between creative writing and the plastic arts. The leader of the workshop was the artist Debra Eck, who produced the following work:

The Nature of a Seed

The Nature of a Seed

Debra Eck, Permission granted: 25.01.2022

Photo courtesy of the artist

20While from the outset fascinated by this form, which allows a recycling of texts, a crystallisation, or economic demonstration, of so many techniques which are deployed in metafiction in order for new texts to comment on old, I was also worried that with no training in the plastic arts and little ability, it would not be possible for me to use it. However, Debra Eck was reassuring on this point, as is Cobb, who writes, “Altered book artists need not be artists in the traditional sense of the term (Bloom 2006). It is not necessary for an individual to have any particular artistic skills or talents in order to create an altered book” (Cobb 59). However, I quickly realised that, notwithstanding the reassurance that decorative arts do not have to be part of the process of altering books, I wanted to take things in a slightly different direction. Debra Eck has said that she likes to work with pop psychology books because they tend to be easily and cheaply available in second-hand shops, and generally contain positive, upbeat words appropriate to her project to portray seeds, roots, leaves, flowers, growth and so on. To this extent, she creates altered books which are very beautiful and highly accomplished – but perhaps too “happy” for either my taste of my purposes. However, also through a workshop at the Kalamazoo Book Arts Centre, I subsequently became aware of other, darker, altered-book projects such as Jennifer Sperry Steinorth’s Her Read, a “graphic poem” which is a long rewriting of an early edition of Herbert Read’s The Meaning of Art, first published in 1931. Long considered an influential primer, it completely excluded female artists: Steinorth writes, “Exactly zero woman womxn [sic] artists are included in the early editions of The Meaning of Art. Not until 1951, twenty years following his first profession, does Barbara Hepworth become the only female artist Read admits” (Steinorth xix). Steinorth rewrites Read’s text by obscuring most of the words in the book in such a way as to end up with a poem which celebrates women. This was a four-year project which was also bound up with artistic protest against the Trump presidency. The following excerpt gives an idea of the final poem, which highlights and celebrates femaleness in a way which can be read as shocking:

O Mr Read – touch me where I bleed –
put your sensitive hands in the wound
We are
great reservoirs. (Steinorth 255)

21This page ends with the extraordinarily apt yet provocative comment, once more directly addressed to Herbert Read, who is apostrophised several times in the course of the book:

Baby, this is our offspring.

22A page towards the end of Steinorth’s work, in effect a summary of her project, reads as follows:

Her Read: A Graphic Poem

Her Read: A Graphic Poem

Jennifer Sperry Steinorth. Her Read: A Graphic Poem. Texas, Texas Review Press, 2021. Permission granted: 27.01.2022

Photo courtesy of the author

23This poetry on the page shown employs a remarkable metaphor – “the marble profile of good-bye” – and also provides metaphors which crystallise the central conceit of the book, with the reference to the burial of the “Book”, that is, the canonical interpretation of art which excludes the female artist. The planting of the tree suggests femaleness itself, and the female capacity to physically reproduce, and provides an ironic commentary on the male fear of the female, with the injunction “to infect not ‘a man speaking to men’”. Using the words “patchwork” and “embroidery” points to traditionally feminine arts, again in answer to Read’s exclusion of the female artist, while the repeated word “grief” also drives home the wrongness of Read’s reading. The invented subject + verb structure, “We art”, suggests an innovative and experimental, and also audacious and iconoclastic creativity, which is borne out by the thrice-repeated verb “to toy” which follows, and the complements “with feeling”, “with memory”, “with alternatives”. All in all, Jennifer Sperry Steinorth’s work uses recycled fragments to create an astonishingly rich and dense whole.

24Many other types of altered book exist, from the sculptures by Brian Dettmer, who, interestingly in the context of this article, created his sculpture Tower of Babble (2011) from “a pile of books, of thousands of pages spiralling vertically to create a pillar of mashed and seemingly incomprehensible sentence structures”, with an “incoherent babble of words” visible to the public (Masuga 190).

Tower of Babble, 2011

Tower of Babble, 2011

Brian Dettmer.​ Permission granted: 27.01.2022

Photo courtesy of the artist, and Kinz and Tillou Fine Art

25What I decided to retain from these various approaches, for the purposes of the creative writing teaching project towards which I am working, was essentially the dialogue between old and new texts. I also had the idea of orienting the technique in a particular direction by asking participants to use as a base a piece of their own work. There were two reasons for this: firstly, when asked, in a workshop, to provide a page from a book which I would like to alter, I myself chose a page from a book of my own criticism – not because I wanted to revise it, in any academic sense, but because I wanted to make it into something else entirely, to see it undergo a metamorphosis. I did not choose the page at random, but went back to a part of the study which reflected a particularly rich and felicitous reading process. Secondly, I would like my students, in particular, to be able to go back to a piece of their own work which has proved unsatisfactory in some way – whether because they got a poor mark, or felt they had not succeeded in what they set out to do, or had given up before handing it in (many of our students retake semesters multiple times) – and make something new out of it, thus rehabilitating failure and regenerating hope and renewal for their future path.

26Since I have not yet had the opportunity to put my idea for teaching a session into practice, at this point I can draw only on my own experience. From a passage which discusses, in French, but with citations in English, the Swedborgian background to A.S. Byatt’s neo-Victorian novella The Conjugial Angel, I obtained a network of highlighted and connected words, “mariage” (in French), “un choix”, “other necessary half”, “happiness”, and so on, with, still legible in the background, “Divine Human”, “wholeness”, “immortality” – the passage from the doctoral researcher, oppressed by what seemed a crushing task, to the contented – but still reading and writing – spouse, emerges. This can of course be understood ironically or in the first degree. As a further experiment, I also took a page of the same book which is about the very subject of Frederica’s Laminations in Babel Tower, and, in this case something much darker, retaining the words “un schisme”, “se scinder”, “messages slipping in”, “realm of language”, “both caught up”, “it was parts”, “fragmentation”, “human love” and “he never noticed” – and found, to my surprise, in this case, that this selection of words, in this very self-referential exercise, not only suggested an entirely different chapter in my own experience, but made me reflect on it in a completely new way, thanks to the connections between these highlighted fragments and the obscuring of the text in which they were set. A third experiment, with a page from a chapter on the presence of the poetry of Tennyson in Byatt’s The Conjugial Angel, yielded “soeur”, “un deuil”, “cruelle”, “malaise”, “shock and sorrow”, “grief” and “pas le dernier mot”, which would certainly seem to have the potential to trigger a short story. While in terms of the signifiers yield this exercise turned out well, there was also a certain satisfaction in the physicality of it – the act of ripping out a page, using different pens and – albeit elementary – techniques to block out text to a greater or lesser extent, using text as a material for re-creation, seemed very freeing and conducive to a creative and stimulating atmosphere in the classroom.

4. Research into creative teaching

27Altering my own text, which was about Byatt’s text which was about Frederica’s own cut-up text, was an experiment which allowed me to create interesting layers of referentiality and self-referentiality, letting the new text and the old co-exist, and thus allowing to exist palimpsestic layers of different times in my own existence as reader, researcher, and person, or creative agent. This experiment also allowed me to draw certain, tentative, conclusions, to be tested in future work: notably, that in my version of this technique, the original text, far from being an “unwanted book” as Chilton terms it (Chilton 458), has to be integral to the process. My idea is to allow the alterer to create – or perhaps more pertinently, to observe the emergence of – a new narrative, which provides in some measure an escape from the original. Frederica, going through her painful divorce, observes that her husband’s account of their marriage is “like a fishnet, a trap. It redefines her and changes her” (Babel Tower 282). For students, the stakes may be different, but if I ask them to begin with a page from their own work, from a project which was in some way unsatisfactory – perhaps because they did not properly understand an assignment, or because they found the subject boring – the passage from a text which “traps” to a text which can be the basis for a liberation of the imagination is nonetheless similar. The central idea is to create a new narrative, one which will liberate the imagination.

28However this exercise is deployed, the guiding principle is that simple signifiers be allowed to stand and combine almost poetically. These can then serve as a rich framework from which to develop a short story, one which encourages creative reconnections and reinterpretations, and which may include recourse to more than one language. This technique allows me, as an instructor, to give the students a concrete task to do, which has the virtue of being “less intimidating than confronting a blank piece of paper” (Harrison 10). Frederica herself uses her cut-ups and Laminations as a way to deal with writer’s block, so this is fully in keeping with the spirit of Byatt’s work. This technique also intersects deeply and satisfactorily with my own criticism, allowing my own recreations and the as-yet potential recreations of my students to echo and dialogue with the Byatt’s intradiegetic creation. For the time being, however, this project is still embryonic: while this article establishes the theory and foundations of the suggested teaching method, I have not yet had the opportunity to put it into practice. Only by doing so will I be able to test it and draw further conclusions.

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Table of illustrations

1. Helen E. Mundler, Hot and Cold Springs Meet. Courtesy of the photographer.

2. Debra Eck, The Nature of a Seed. Permission granted: 25.01.2022. Photo courtesy of the artist.

3. Jennifer Sperry Steinorth. Her Read: A Graphic Poem. Texas, Texas Review Press, 2021. Permission granted: 27.01.2022. Photo courtesy of the author.

4. Brian Dettmer, Tower of Babble, 2011. Permission granted: 27.01.2022. Photo courtesy of the artist, and Kinz and Tillou Fine Art.

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1 This phrase is taken from a popular British song accompanied by a participative dance, known as “The Hokey Cokey”, in which one part of the body (left arm, right leg, and so on) is directed at the centre of a circle of singers as each verse of is sung, ending with “your whole self”.

2 The Lacanian subject is castrated, that is to say, deprived of the phallus, and therefore can never satisfy desire. Desire, for Lacan, is an offshoot of that part of need which “finds itself alienated”, which is to say “homesick” (Gallop 149).

3 Homesickness, L’Anglaise and Three Days by the Sea, all published in the United Kingdom.

4 See A.S. Byatt’s Possession and the two novellas contained in Angels and Insects (Morpho Eugenia and The Conjugial Angel), and Liz Jensen’s Ark Baby. See also Mundler Intertextualité and Mundler Otherworlds.

5 Also known as The Frederica Quartet, the tetralogy consists of The Virgin in the Garden (1978). Still Life (1985), Babel Tower (1996) and A Whistling Woman (2002).

6 See Bost 157 for a discussion of these ideas.

7 “Scrying” is foretelling the future.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Hot and cold springs meet
Légende Terra Nostra, Furnas, Azores, 2016
Crédits Photo: Helen E. Mundler
Fichier image/jpeg, 31k
Titre The Nature of a Seed
Légende Debra Eck, Permission granted: 25.01.2022
Crédits Photo courtesy of the artist
Fichier image/jpeg, 44k
Titre Her Read: A Graphic Poem
Légende Jennifer Sperry Steinorth. Her Read: A Graphic Poem. Texas, Texas Review Press, 2021. Permission granted: 27.01.2022
Crédits Photo courtesy of the author
Fichier image/jpeg, 116k
Titre Tower of Babble, 2011
Légende Brian Dettmer.​ Permission granted: 27.01.2022
Crédits Photo courtesy of the artist, and Kinz and Tillou Fine Art
Fichier image/jpeg, 21k
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Helen E. MUNDLER, « Criticism, practice, pedagogy: creative convergence through A.S. Byatt’s Babel Tower »e-Rea [En ligne], 20.1 | 2022, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2022, consulté le 22 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Université Paris-Est Créteil (UPEC), CREA
Helen E. Mundler is Associate Professor in English Studies (maître de conférences HDR, 11e section) at l’UPEC (Université Paris-Est Créteil) and a member of CREA (Centre de Recherches Anglophones). She obtained a first class degree from Durham in 1992, an M Phil from Strathclyde in 1994, a PhD in Strasbourg in 1998, and an Habilitation (higher doctorate) in Nanterre in 2014.
She works on a range of contemporary fiction and has published monographs on A.S. Byatt and Liz Jensen as well as a book about climate-change fiction.
Recently she has become interested in the promotion of creative writing in English in French universities. As a writer herself, she has published three novels, Homesickness (Stockport, Dewi Lewis, 2003), L’Anglaise (Newbury, Holland House, 2018) and Three Days by the Sea (Holland House, 2022). She has also published and broadcast a few short stories, and was shortlisted for the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize (Ireland) in 2018.
Helen E. Mundler est Maître de conférences HDR (11e section) en études anglaises à l’UPEC (Université Paris-Est Créteil) et membre du CREA (Centre de Recherches Anglophones). Diplômée de l’Université de Durham, elle a poursuivi ses études en Écosse avant de soutenir son doctorat à Strasbourg en 1998 et son HDR à Nanterre en 2014.
Sa recherche porte principalement sur la fiction contemporaine. Elle a publié des monographies sur A.S. Byatt et Liz Jensen ainsi qu'un livre sur les fictions liées au changement climatique.
Récemment, elle s'est intéressée à la promotion de la création littéraire en anglais dans les universités françaises. En tant qu'écrivaine elle-même, elle a publié trois romans, Homesickness (Stockport, Dewi Lewis, 2003), L'Anglaise (Newbury, Holland House, 2018) et Three Days by the Sea (Holland House, 2022). Elle a également publié et diffusé quelques nouvelles, et a eu une nouvelle présélectionnée pour le Fish Publishing Short Story Prize (Irlande) en 2018.

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