Now 78, Atwood has acquired near-symbolic status: somewhere between a soothsayer, a standard-bearer, an internet celebrity, and a diagnostician of the body politicby Andrew Dickson / May 12, 2018 / Leave a comment
When the American comedian Michelle Wolf launched her blitzkrieg on the Trump administration at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in April, few emerged unscathed, least of all the president. But Wolf made a special target of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, sitting a few seats away from her on stage. “I have to say I’m a little star-struck: I loved you as Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale,” Wolf cooed, to the sound of hundreds of journalists holding their breath. “Mike Pence,” she said, addressing the vice president, “if you haven’t seen it, you would love it.”
It would probably have been more surprising if the evening had passed without a reference to Margaret Atwood’s dystopia: the age of Trump seems to have become the age of Atwood. The television adaptation of her 1985 novel about women-hating Christian fundamentalists taking over the US, broadcast here on Channel 4 and now in its second series, has become a lightning rod for the #MeToo movement and millennial anti-Trump sentiment.
Sales of the book rose by 200 per cent after the 2016 election. On the Women’s March just after the inauguration, protestors dressed up in the scarlet robes and snow-white bonnets worn by the Handmaids and waved placards reading “Make Atwood Fiction Again.”
A concurrent television adaptation of her 1996 historical novel Alias Grace is even more timely: it focuses on the true story of a 19th-century immigrant woman accused of murder, trapped in a broken legal system.
Yet Atwood’s willingness to speak out on issues of the moment can also upset her fans. Earlier this year, she wrote an article in The Globe and Mail, Canada’s most-read newspaper, entitled “Am I a bad feminist?” in which she refused to renounce an earlier statement comparing the #MeToo movement to the Salem witch trials and insisted that men accused of sexual harassment should be given a fair hearing. Social media erupted; many accused the author of betraying feminist principles. On Twitter, Atwood coolly responded by drawing attention to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The Canadian academic and critic Aritha van Herk tells me: “She doesn’t have perfect judgment… but she does want to ask hard questions about power and process. She’s always done that.”
That Atwood, of all figures, was being accused of being a bad feminist shows how febrile the debate around #MeToo has become, and how invested in her pronouncements many people are. The author, now 78, has acquired near-symbolic status: somewhere between a soothsayer, a standard-bearer, an internet celebrity (she has nearly 2m followers on Twitter), and a diagnostician of the body politic. In Canada, she is not so much a celebrity as a megastar, regularly stopped on the street for selfies and autographs (a boutique coffee roaster worked with her to create a signature “Atwood blend,” the proceeds of which go to the protection of birds). Here in the UK, she’s almost as famous: this spring, she has been accorded the unusual accolade of speaking at the Hay Festival without having a new book to promote. Tickets, naturally, have long since sold out.
Atwood herself appears unfazed by the fuss—indeed, she gives the impression of having somehow expected it. Backstage at the 2017 Emmy awards, where The Handmaid’s Tale won nearly everything going, she said she was gratified that people were finally harkening to what she’d been saying. When the novel was first published, she said, “the frame for this book was different, by which I mean that fewer people were ready to believe that it was really real.”
She added dryly: “more people are willing to believe that now.”
Born in 1939 in the Canadian capital, Ottawa, Atwood spent swaths of her childhood in backwoods areas of northern Quebec, and in cabins on the shores of Lake Superior. There are legends that she didn’t attend school until the age of eight (or perhaps 11); that she taught herself to read. The reality is more middle-class: her father was an entomologist and her mother (also called Margaret) was a dietitian. Though the family lived in the woods in near-isolation for stretches of the year—required by Carl Atwood’s bug-collecting—in 1948 they moved to the city, when he was appointed to the zoology department of the University of Toronto.
Atwood, a formidably talented student, went to the same university, where she encountered Northrop Frye, then Canada’s leading literary critic. A pioneer of “mythopoetics,” which aims to identify the imaginative archetypes that lie beneath texts, Frye influenced the young Atwood profoundly. She had written incessantly since her teens, and had ambitions to make a living from it. Seeing no way to make that work in early-1960s Canada (“it was thought presumptuous,” she has said), she began a PhD at Harvard in 19th-century Gothic literature.
By the time she abandoned it two years later, Atwood had already forged a reputation as a poet. In 1966, her second collection, The Circle Game, won a major Canadian award. The collection’s unillusioned voice and sharp, spare language (“We might mistake this / tranced moving for joy / but there is no joy in it”) hint at what would come in her later fiction.
Ironically for someone often regarded as the greatest Canadian novelist of all time, it wasn’t a work of fiction that first made Atwood famous, but a volume of literary criticism. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, which came out in 1972, argued that the grounding myth of what was just starting to be known as “CanLit” was the motif of triumph against environmental odds. Starting from the Frye-like concept that the central symbol of English literature is the island and in America the frontier, Atwood argued that Canadian authors obsessively battle with the idea of wilderness. Writing was a form of resistance—a striking idea given her later output. “The book argued that victimhood is a position you can write from, around, and out of,” says Aritha van Herk.
In 1969, Atwood published her first novel, The Edible Woman, the story of a young woman with a marketing job who, after she gets engaged, can’t bring herself to eat. Subversive and bleakly witty, using an eating disorder to symbolise everything that was wrong with conformist, consumerist 1960s society, it was described by the New York Times as a “work of feminist black humour.” Like so much of Atwood’s writing, it seems remarkably ahead of the game.
“She bridles if you say she’s prescient,” says Lennie Goodings, a fellow Canadian and her long-time editor at the feminist imprint Virago. “And it’s true that many things in her books do exist, in some form at least. But she really is prescient.”
Her next novel, Surfacing (1972), focused on a woman who comes home to rural Canada to search for her missing father and find her own identity. Soon after it came out, Atwood divorced her first husband, the journalist Jim Polk, and became involved with the novelist Graeme Gibson (the couple have been together since 1973). Her next book, Lady Oracle, about a critically acclaimed poet who abandons her dull-as-ditchwater partner to embark on a series of crazed adventures, came out in 1976. Though Atwood has always denied that her work is autobiographical—she recently told the Guardian that “I’m not much interested in my deep, dark psyche, fascinating though it may be”—not everyone would agree.
In 1984, Atwood was in West Berlin on a writing fellowship. She began sketching out a new book, first longhand on yellow legal pads, then pecking it out on a huge manual typewriter. Travelling to Czechoslovakia and East Germany, she had witnessed the realities of living in a surveillance state. She’d also absorbed science fiction since being a teenager, and become horrified by the rise of the religious right in the US. What if she combined these motifs—setting the story in America during the near future, where women’s bodies are controlled by the government?
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood created a scenario in which ecological catastrophe has all but destroyed female fertility, and the US has come under the control of a Christian theocracy, who rename it after the Biblical Gilead. Her protagonist is Offred, a “Handmaid”—one of the few women still able to get pregnant—who is forced to live as a sex slave, systematically raped by a powerful man so that she will bear him children.
Stomach-churningly grim but stippled with gallows humour, the book reads like a feminist riposte to the male-centred dystopias conjured by Orwell and Huxley. It also offers pointed glances at apartheid South Africa, the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Wahhabist theocracies of the Middle East—not to mention America’s own puritan history. “If I was to create an imaginary garden,” Atwood later wrote, quoting the poet Marianne Moore, “I wanted the toads in it to be real.”
When it was published in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale was greeted with some perplexity. There were good reviews, but the Christian Science Monitor described it as “a bizarre anti-Utopia,” while the San Francisco Chronicle wrote it off as a “hodgepodge.” In the New Republic, Barbara Ehrenreich dismissed the book as “thinly textured” and “a test of the imaginative power of feminist paranoia.”
But The Handmaid’s Tale rapidly found its audience: it entered the bestseller lists and within 18 months Atwood was being feted as a literary celebrity. The Canadian women’s magazine Chatelaine trailed the author on the New York publicity trail, where she talked about what it was like to spar with Norman Mailer. “There’s something about her manner that almost excites deference,” the reporter wrote.
The book has since been translated into more than 40 languages and has sold millions of copies. As well as the television series, it has been a movie, a dance piece and a chamber opera.
The critic Alex Clark encountered The Handmaid’s Tale as a teenager, and, like many readers since, she found it “mind-blowing.” “It was just so inventive,” she tells me. “It has a powerful streak of violence in it, and a toughness; there’s a willingness to see people behave in terrible ways. It really felt like something new.”
For Van Herk, the novel is so potent because the book cleaves closely—often horribly close—to fact. “For every part of that book, she found a reference to an actual event or report; that’s what she used to build it. She’s hyper-aware of what’s going on around her. People often talk about her unerring ability to predict the future. It seems uncanny—but in fact it is the ability to pay attention.”
Like so many of her heroines, Atwood has never wanted to be pigeonholed or trapped. Describing her daily schedule, she once proclaimed, “I have no routine,” and that goes for her output too. She has continued to publish poetry and non-fiction, as well as children’s books, short fiction, music libretti and graphic novels (at a conservative estimate, at least 50 separate works). Even within the novels—now 16 and counting—Atwood seems impatient with the restrictions of genre.
She is capable of producing finely etched realism, evidenced in the scrupulously faithful Victorian setting of Alias Grace and her earlier Cat’s Eye (1988), set in mid-20th century Canada and told in flashback as a painter recalls her childhood and teenage years. Yet Atwood can’t resist the fantastical. Myths have been one source of inspiration: 1993’s The Robber Bride is a droll fairy tale in which a ruthless seductress apparently dies, then comes back to life and haunts her rivals (“if the title hadn’t already been used, you could call it ‘Women Beware Women,’” Salman Rushdie wrote). The Blind Assassin (2000), set largely in Canada during the 1930s and 40s, is a work of dazzling formal complexity, offering multiple time schemes and a pulp science-fiction story embedded within the main narrative. It won her the Booker Prize.
Atwood has repeatedly imagined herself—and us—into alternative universes, generally dystopian ones. The MaddAddam Trilogy, which started with 2003’s Oryx and Crake, envisions genetic engineering gone appalling awry. After a human-made virus wipes out the population, a few survivors cling on, worshipping oil as a deity and hounded by mutant “pigoons” and “wolvogs,” while cynical corporations called things like HelthWyzer and CorpSeCorps manoeuvre for control. (The Guardian called it “an epic B-movie” with nods to Milton and Robinson Crusoe). The Heart Goes Last from 2015 portrays a world in which capitalism has destroyed civil society; a couple are persuaded to renounce their freedom and live in a nightmarish, prison-like “social experiment.”
Though Atwood is often categorised as a science fiction writer, she prefers to call her work “speculative fiction.” “A few writers—Marilynne Robinson is another—are led by their brains, what they’re interested in,” suggests Lennie Goodings. “Margaret is like that. She’s a writer who deals with ideas, that’s what fires her. She’s always looking for the next idea.” Van Herk agrees: “She’s not just ambidextrous, she’s polydextrous.”
And though the books are indeed hugely varied, there are strong connective threads. The way in which women interact with the political structures that surround them is an obvious concern, as are the tangled intersections between power and desire, the corrosive effects of capitalism and environmental catastrophe. (Atwood has become increasingly outspoken on ecological issues, especially Canadian ones). She researches her novels deeply, and reads voraciously—not just in fiction but in economics, genetics, philosophy and many different areas. “She’s immensely restless,” says Goodings. “That sounds bad, but it’s not: she’s always questing.”
Technology has long been a fascination. Unusually among writers of her generation, Atwood was an internet evangelist, joining Twitter early on and championing digital storytelling. (She has mentored the British author and game designer Naomi Alderman, who gave her a starring role in her app Zombies, Run!; Atwood professed herself delighted). In the mid-2000s, she co-invented a device called the LongPen, which enables authors to sign books remotely via the internet and a robotic arm. Surprisingly, it has become a success, though now the device is mostly used by legal firms.
“She’s completely unafraid to try new things,” Clark says. “She has an urgent need to create something, to respond. With the books, sometimes you think, ‘this would be better if it had been cooked a few more times,’ but that’s just not who she is.”
The private person within this ceaseless activity is harder to pin down. A public figure since her mid-30s, Atwood appears to handle fame with armour-plated equanimity, assisted by a talent for one-liners. “If you’re put on a pedestal, you’re supposed to behave like a pedestal type of person,” she once observed. “Pedestals actually have a limited circumference; not much room to move around.”
“Not everyone appreciates her sense of humour,” Van Herk says. “I remember seeing her at a cocktail party once. A man came up her and said, ‘You’re Margaret Atwood? I thought you would be taller.’ She looked up at him and said, ‘I am.’”
“People sometimes approach her with enormous trepidation,” Goodings says. “She’s forensic. But there’s a silly streak, too: she loves to sing and tell jokes.” She points to Atwood’s fleeting cameo in the television version of The Handmaid’s Tale, where she played one of the fearsome “aunts” responsible for keeping Handmaids in line. “There’s quite a hammy side to her, actually.”
Even in her late seventies, Atwood shows little sign of flagging. She maintains a relentless travel schedule and writes as diversely as ever. Her most recent novel, 2016’s Hag-Seed, was a reimagining of The Tempest, set at a Canadian theatre festival. To an interviewer’s enquiry as to whether she might emulate Prospero and retire, she offered a decisive no. “The last part actors usually take is Lear,” she fired back.
Atwood’s in-tray would certainly overwhelm many younger authors—series three of The Handmaid’s Tale has just been commissioned, The Heart Goes Last is being adapted for television, and she is in the midst of a new graphic novel series with the artist Johnnie Christmas. Another novel is on the way, though its subject is a closely guarded secret; there is talk of more poems. Whatever else Atwood may be doing, she is certainly writing, and it is hard to imagine her stopping any time soon. “She’s having too much fun, I think,” says Goodings.
What did Van Herk reckon? Would Atwood ever hang up her boots? She laughs. “Put it this way: if she retires to a cabin in the woods, I’ll be surprised.”