Book review: On Writers and Writing

Margaret Atwood interrogates the myths around the idea of being a writer. Val Nolan is impressed by her conclusions.

On Writers and Writing

Margaret Atwood

Virago, €14.50 

WHO DO you think you are? — Margaret Atwood asks early in this volume. It is a question which frames On Writers and Writing as a challenge to both creators and consumers of literature.

Within its pages, Atwood dares authors and audiences to rethink their self-constructed identities and their “position in relation to the rest of humanity”. As such, this collection of essays serves as a witty and cerebral exploration of creative possibilities rather than a text of a dourly didactic nature.

That a writer like Atwood advocates for protean qualities on the part of both creative practitioners and their readerships should not be a surprise.

After all, this genre-bending Canuck has won everything from the Arthur C Clarke Award to the Booker Prize. Best known on this side of the Atlantic for dystopian but prescient work including The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and Oryx and Crake (2003), she has further made a robust contribution to the critical recognition of Canadian letters as a separate and energetic literary tradition.

The seeds of On Writers and Writing lie in Atwood’s Empson Lectures from 15 years ago, her contribution to a Cambridge event which, in the proud tradition of academia trying to claim back those whom it once rejected, celebrates William Empson — he of Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) — who the university expelled when he was found in possession of contraceptives.

Yet the style Atwood adopts here is not as abstract as the volume’s origins might suggest. It is intelligent, yes, but for the most part conversational, often jokey, and closer to an informal sit-down than it is to a scholarly address.

“I am a writer and a reader, and that’s about it,” she says, selling herself quite short but succulently setting out her self-deprecating stall. Here her focus darts frantically around as might one’s eyes in a well-stocked library.

Her discussion circles “a set of common themes having to do with the writer”, with their medium and their art. Indeed, in many respects this book is — like her multi-layered historical novel The Blind Assassin (2000) — an effort to understand the character of those who create characters.

Again and again she interrogates the myths we as a society have constructed around the idea of being a writer, our very own “many-headed Hydra” indebted to melodramatic notions of creativity “inherited from the Romantics”.

She is, for instance, wary of the way culture fetishises the artist starving in their garret “like a self-mortifying Christian ascetic of old”. She is acutely aware too of the extent to which creativity is rooted in a more pagan “desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld”; to write is thus to subject one’s self to a little death of sorts, a petite mort which inevitably brings up the eroticised aspects of the creative act.

“It’s a short step from that to the femme fatale” stereotype, be it Salomé or Sylvia Plath, and so the manner in which creative women have long been sexualised by the male establishment out of fear or lust or both.

This constraint on the role and position of women in literary circles is a key concern for Atwood. “The word ‘genius’ and the word ‘woman’ don’t really fit together in our language,” she says, “because the kind of eccentricity expected of male ‘geniuses’ would simply result in the label ‘crazy’ should it be practised by women”.

Of course such issues are not merely theoretical for an author who has lived with their effects for decades. In what is halfway between the book’s moment of deepest frustration and its darkest instance of comedy, she reveals that she withdrew from poetry as a young women after being asked one too many times “not whether I was going to commit suicide, but when”.

Yet as a “highbrow” writer who happens to pen bestsellers (“Not on purpose,” as she allegedly assured a patronising Parisian intellectual), Atwood is also ideally placed to consider the on-again, off-again discord between the genres of literary and commercial fiction. She does so here by examining the sacred or religious function of literature — “Art with a capital A” — and asking if “the mark of a true priest is his lack of interest in money”?

This dichotomy of “Apollo vs Mammon”, as Atwood memorably phrases it, provides an intriguing means of exploring the issue of recompense, one which is too often dismissed as vulgar, occasionally even as prostitution, by the literary community.

“There are,” she says only “four ways of arranging literary worth and money: good books that make money; bad books that make money; good books that don’t make money; bad books that don’t make money.”

Is a writer a hack for cranking out “stuff he thought would appeal to his audience”? Obviously not, though while Atwood provides (admittedly exceptional) examples of those who “lived by the pen”, Shakespeare and Dickens among them, she stops short of fully legitimatising art for money’s sake. In that way, On Writers and Writing raises more questions than it answers.

But then that is the author’s stated intention: to generate debate and let the reader draw their own conclusion.

First published in 2002 as Negotiating with the Dead, these efforts by Atwood to engender discussion around the mutable nature of professional creative practice reveal a great deal about herself as a thinker, an author and, for that matter, as a voracious reader.

Existing Atwoodians will delight in the humour, intelligence, and breadth of reference to be found here, while novice scribblers of all genders and genres are also sure to benefit.

Though this book is not a guide to how one might begin writing, its provocative and insightful sketches of the kinds of writers which one could become are arguably of much greater value.

Dr Val Nolan lectures on contemporary literature and creative writing at NUI Galway.


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