19 February 2015
New Zealand

Margaret Atwood’s essay collection On Writers and Writing is a pleasant enough way to spend an afternoon. Just don’t expect her to give you the answers. 

Top on my holiday reading list this year is On Writers and Writing by the great Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, best known for her dystopic fictions The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake, her award-winning historical fiction Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin, and a wealth of essays and cultural criticism. This book began life as a series of guest lectures Atwood was invited to give at Cambridge University, which, like most things Atwood says these days, found its way into print.

The original and much sexier title, Negotiating With the Dead (the title of one of the lectures) was renamed for the British market, presumably so the book wouldn’t be mistakenly filed in the Occult section. It’s a shame, really, as Atwood sometimes seems best described as a witch. I don’t use the word in its bitchy, misogynist connotation, but as describing a seer, a prophetess, a person of wisdom and otherworldly insight, who offers warnings to those of us who still dwell among the living. Atwood herself seems comfortable with this simile. In the Negotiating With the Dead chapter, she concludes: “Perhaps all writing is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality – by a desire to make a risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring back something or someone from the dead.” All writers must contend with the legacies of those who have gone before, she says: “As long as you continue to write, you continue to explore the work of writers who have preceded you; you also feel judged and held to account by them…. Because the dead control the past, they control the stories, and also certain kinds of truth.” The role of the writer, then, is as a conduit between the dead and the living, performing the roles that witches and shamans once performed in ancient cultures: “The dead may guard the treasure, but it’s useless treasure unless it can be brought back into the land of the living and allowed to enter time once more.”

That’s about as much wisdom as Atwood allows us. Each lecture is, as you would expect, elegantly written and dryly witty. In support of her uncertain cause, Atwood quotes from a bewildering array of literary references, demonstrating by example that writers must also be avid readers. She addresses some big questions – “conundrums”, she calls them – such as “Why do writers write?”, “Who do they write for?” and “Where is the writer in the text?”. As for what the answers might be, she’s much more reluctant to share.

Atwood’s sense of cynicism about the task she sets herself is evident from the outset: “Perhaps I wish to say: Look behind you. You are not alone. Don’t permit yourself to be ambushed. Watch out for the snakes. Watch out for the Zeitgeist – it is not always your friend. Keats was not killed by a bad review. Get back on the horse that threw you.” Fine words, which she immediately qualifies by saying they are “no doubt useless. Dangers multiply by the hour, you never step into the same river twice, the vast empty spaces of the blank page appal, and everyone walks into the maze blindfolded.”

As maddening as Atwood’s “Who, moi?” approach can be, it’s completely consistent with her established stance as a novelist. Her writing is invariably intelligent and perceptive but seldom prescriptive, offering warnings about the follies of our present but drawing short of offering solutions. She’s especially fond of leaving her fictional characters (and, by extension, her readers) dangling before a moral precipice. Offred, the enslaved concubine of The Handmaid’s Tale, Grace, the anguished and possibly murderous servant girl in Alias Grace, Snowman, the post-apocalyptic survivor in Oryx & Crake, and Iris, the embittered writer in The Blind Assassin are complicated, prickly characters, limited in perspective and set adrift in uncaring and terrifying worlds. Atwood’s readers often feel like they are in the same boat. To read Atwood’s fiction is to be a nervous student in a classroom: alert, inquisitive, ready to connect the dots and have assumptions challenged. Atwood flatters readers who work hard, but offers few concessions to those who want an uncomplicated holiday read. Accordingly, anyone who turns to Of Writers and Writing expecting to find inspiring advice on the writing life will be sadly disappointed.

Along the way, there is some fun to be had. Atwood is at her most enjoyable when reminiscing about her youth in post WW2 Canada, a period when writers were told they couldn’t hope to make a living from their own, and so were doomed… to a devotion to art for its own sake”. She takes particular pleasure in skewering the sexist assumptions still operating about the role of the writer. “[T]he word ‘genius’ and the word ‘woman’ just don’t really fit together in our language,” she writes, “because the kind of eccentricity expected of male ‘geniuses’ would simply result in the label ‘crazy’, should it be practiced by a woman.”

In her second and most satisfying chapter, “Duplicity”, she mines a rich stream of thought about what she calls “the doubleness of the writer”. The writer exists as a kind of Jekyll & Hyde character, existing both in the world and in the pages of their work, and thus subject to suspicion for deception. This appears to be especially true of the novel, and Atwood provides a bracing account of the various tricks employed by novelists to lend authority to their lies and scribblings. She is intrigued by what the tension between the inherent untrustworthiness of the fiction writer, with “his slippery evasiveness, and his potential lack of authenticity” (note the use of the male pronoun) and the sense of permanence and authority wrought by the written text.

The idea of doubleness appears to provide Atwood with a useful guise to escape from her reader, allowing her to remove herself from what she hints at is the unwelcome burden of being a writer. “We assume too easily that a text exists to act as a communication between the writer and the reader. But doesn’t it also act as a disguise, even a shield – a protection?” she argues, referencing Cyrano de Bergerac, the big-nosed scribe who wrote love-poems by proxy. Elsewhere, she warns that “you can never actually meet the author of the book you have just read” – a warning, perhaps, to her fans to flock to book readings and Meet the Author events to not get their hopes up.

She devotes a significant (and, to my mind, unwarranted) amount of time to describing the abuses suffered by the writer:

“’Is it necessary to suffer in order to be a writer?’ aspiring writers are in the habit of asking. ‘Don’t worry about the suffering,’ I have tended to say. ‘The suffering will occur whether you like it or not.’ What I ought to add is that, many times, the suffering is a result of the writing, rather than its cause. Why? Because there are a lot of people out there who’ll be damned if they let you get away with it, you jumped-up smarty-pants.”

The waters are treacherous, Atwood warns, and surrounded by sharks on all sides. A writer may be “either poor and real, or rich and a sell-out with a price tag on your soul”. She cautions against the dangers of embracing the “high minded art for art identity of the writer”, a position she claims is especially risky for women, but points out that “all attempts to bend art to some kind of useful purpose, or to prove that it had such a purpose… came to grief in the end, because what they amounted to was censorship.”

Even a writer does so identify with a moral or social purpose, further problems await. “Will you end up on a panel discussion,” she asks, “and if so, is [it] in Hell?” Panel discussions are a running joke throughout the book. “I want to run a mile – although I don’t always manage it – when asked to participate in such discussions”, Atwood claims. They appear to be for her what the crown of thorns was for Jesus: an act of torture that somehow reinforces her sense of martyrdom to her cause.

The role of a Writer (note the capital W) “is not always a particularly blissful or fortunate role to find yourself saddled with,” Atwood tells us, “and it comes with a price; though, like many roles, it can lend a certain power to those who assume the costume.” Sadly for us, Atwood doesn’t elucidate on this power is or what it feels like to hold it. This is a wasted opportunity, given how readily and extensively she has “assumed the costume”.

Like many of Atwood’s fans, I’ve had the opportunity to see her in action at a literary festival – though not as yet on a dreaded panel discussion. As in this book, her antipathy at the prospect of meeting her public was made devastatingly clear. Watching Atwood preside over a Q&A session was much like watching a cat playing with a mouse before she decides whether to kill it. “I’m pleased to be interviewed by someone with my nose and my hair”, she began, in reference to Kate di Goldi, the well-regarded children’s author and critic who chaired the panel. It was a comment was probably meant to be light-hearted and show sisterly solidarity, but it landed like a back-handed slap.

But that was nothing in comparison to what she had in store for the punters. One by one, Atwood’s faithful subjects approached the microphone, trembling as they asked a series of (mostly) earnest and unimaginative questions. Atwood batted them all away one by one, with a frosty stare and a series of well-timed, husky voiced put-downs. Still more horrifying was Atwood’s description of what it entailed to “assume the costume”. She explained, without any apparent sense of irony, that festivals wishing to book her were required to complete a questionnaire detailing where Ms Atwood would stay and would pick Ms Atwood up from the airport and what number Ms Atwood’s assistant would call if no car was waiting – Ms Atwood presumably being too busy being a Writer to make the call herself.

Then came our instructions for approaching the papal throne to have our books autographed. Only books by Ms Atwood would be signed, we were warned – anything that was not a novel by Ms Atwood would not be signed. We were to print (not write) our names on a Post-it and paste this on the page we wished to have autographed, so that Ms Atwood could read it clearly and not have to ask for our names. We were to place the book in front of Ms Atwood and then remove it afterwards, so Ms Atwood wouldn’t have to lift the book herself and risk distressing her dainty wrists, now apparently prone to arthritis. There were to be no conversations with Ms Atwood that might hold up the queue, and certainly no more questions. And finally there were to be no photos or recordings made of Ms Atwood while she sat at the table – though in those more innocent times, before the ubiquity of camera phones, people generally lacked the chutzpah to take selfies with their literary heroines.

I lined up with the rest of the faithful and waited my turn, wondering if I would be turned to stone if I dared to look into her grey basilisk eyes. I watched as she scrawled her name across the page in elaborately illegible cursive, then looked up at me again. There was a brief pause as we regarded each other. “Thank you,” I said. I wasn’t feeling particularly grateful. Part of me did want to say thank you, genuinely, for the extraordinary gift of The Handmaid’s Tale, a book that electrified me as an undergraduate. But all the gratitude was lost in a mild feeling of disgust. She said nothing, and so I swept my book up and shuffled off, to be replaced by another wide-eyed admirer. It was, without question, my most unpleasant experience of ever encountering a writer. By trying to insulate herself against the messiness of real life, Atwood became – at least in that moment – the kind of jumped-up smarty pants she’d always feared becoming.

The accepted convention is that writers who attend book events are kind, generous and self-deprecating. Atwood doesn’t have to play this line, of course. I fully support her right not to have all the answers and to refuse to be answerable to anyone but herself. I also appreciate that marketing your book might be a drag, and that it may be irritating to answer banal questions like “Are you a feminist?” when you have been answering that question through your work for forty years. But there’s something disappointing and borderline reprehensible about Atwood’s attempt to have it both ways – claiming for herself the authority of prophet even as she attempts to disavow it.

The same dubious agenda applies in On Writers and Writing. Atwood is a colossus in the literary world, someone of almost unrivaled reputation and influence, who can do or say or write (or not write) pretty much anything she wants. The sad but strangely reassuring lesson of this book may be that no one, be they ever so mighty, is free from the slings and arrows of self doubt, the pain of unkind reviews, the terror of the blank page, or the exertions of inauthentic friendliness required in a book tour. Perhaps there’s only so much that even the most robustly intelligent and fearless minds of our age can put up with before they retreat into their crab shells and send out questionnaires to be completed before they come out again.

Faced with critics and unkind readers on all side, Atwood’s advice to fellow writers appears to be to go it alone. On Writers and Writing teaches us that there are no rules worth following, except the ones you make for yourself; no moral position is defensible or unassailable; and along the dark path there are naysayers ready to drag you down again, so you might as well ignore them and plod ever onwards until you reach your own final chapter.

I’d recommend On Writers and Writing as a springboard for a lively debate on the art and industry of writing. Just don’t look to Atwood for easy reassurance or platitudes about a future career as a writer. And for God’s sake, don’t forget to pick her up from the airport.

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