The Human Nature of Margaret Atwood

Just because something has a woman in it doesn't mean it's feminist.
Publish date:

She was named one of The 100 Best Writers of the Century by Writer's Digest in 1999, so if you're looking for a fly-by-night success story, you have the wrong person. Margaret Atwood is far from the one-time success writer, with over 50 titles including Alias Grace and The Handmaid's Tale, spanning everything from poetry, fiction, social history, criticism to children's books, and now an opera. It's obvious to most that Atwood is nothing short of a literary giant.

Atwood continues this literary prowess in her new novel The Blind Assassin (Doubleday). Just like any author with a new release, Atwood says that she hopes readers expect a story that will "interest" them.

Spotlight Question

You tend to keep the endings of your novels very open and ambiguous. Why not provide an absolute, concrete ending? Well, partly because I live in the 21st century and we don't have a lot of total faith anymore in: 'This is the happy ending, this is the only happy ending and this is the only way the story can possibly end.' We tend to consider alternatives ... We don't get closure in our society as much as we used to—things are just more open-ended, so it's partly for that reason. And the other reason is that I like the reader to feel that they can participate in the active imagination that is the novel.

"Set mostly in the tumultuous '30s, The Blind Assassin concerns two sisters, one of whom has driven a car off a cliff in 1945," she says. "The survivor, Iris—now 82—tells the story behind this event, and also behind the posthumous publication of the notorious sex and science fiction novel, The Blind Assassin."

Being the successful writer that she is, Atwood knows that with every new novel looms the threat of criticism; however, she doesn't let that threat bother her. "No matter what you do, some people won't like you."

She says that the best piece of advice ever given regarding literary criticism is in the introduction of John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, Part 2, where Bunyan holds a conversation with his book. He gives the book instructions to go out and present itself at people's doors. The book responds that it's afraid, and Bunyan tells the book to keep a stiff upper lip. Then the book asks what to do if people don't like it, and Bunyan says that some people don't like chicken and others fish—so, obviously, some won't like the book.

Atwood's casual attitude about writing and the criticism it renders is what makes her the writer she is today.

"When you're publishing a book and doing that [book] tour, you automatically don't have time to get too worried about the reviews."In fact, most of the time Atwood doesn't even read the reviews of her work, so she simply "saves them for later."

The obvious time constraint on authors could feasibly render them inactive for any given period of time, but not Atwood. She completed The Blind Assassin while writing an opera for the Canadian Opera Society, a project she is still working on.

Her obvious devotion to simultaneous writing projects also lends to her talent of writing in a variety of genres. Most consider such dexterity literary genius, but not Atwood—she writes in a variety of genres simply because no one told her not to.

"I think if I had gone to creative writing school they probably would have said pick one or the other. But since I didn't do that because there were hardly any at that time, I didn't see any reason why I shouldn't do what struck me."

It's what strikes her that makes Atwood a prolific writer—a writer who is often called out on the manifestation of her political activism in her works. However, Atwood doesn't see her political activism as something inherent to writers, but rather as a regular duty that people, as citizens, have. She does recognize, though, that writers tend to be a mouthpiece for such activism.

"Writers often get shoved to the forefront partly because they are articulate, partly because they often do have opinions.

"But also partly because they don't have jobs—nobody can fire them and therefore, they find themselves being spokespersons for people who might think the same thing but be afraid to say it."

It's that understanding of human nature and her role as a writer that fuels Atwood's craft. She recognizes that, as a writer, you need to do what "beckons" to you.

"In other words, falsely straining yourself to put something into a book where it doesn't really belong, it's not doing anybody any favors. And the reader can tell."

Atwood recognizes that readers can tell a lot of things simply by the literary devices writers employ. Sometimes, though, readers misunderstand these devices. For instance, many people call Atwood's novels "pro-feminist" for the mere fact that she employs strong female characters, but that's not entirely the case. "Just because something has a woman in it, doesn't mean it's feminist.

"You can call James Joyce's Ulysses a feminist novel and it would be. But what kind of world are we living in when half of the human race is women and you put some of them in your book, you're a feminist?"

So, instead of seeing her novels as pro-feminist, Atwood likes to look at them as stories of human nature. "They [novels] don't purport to be factual relations of events that actually happened," she says. "In other words, they're not like stories you read in the newspaper in which you kind of hope they might be true." Rather, she says the idea of a novel with regard to human nature, is that it's not true about one particular character, but "true about human nature."

This article appeared in the October 2000 issue of Writer's Digest.


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