Saturday, November 26, 2011

Re: Reading Atwood

Over the last few weeks Kit Whitfield has published a series of, deconstructions and analyses of famous novels using the first sentences as each as hir point of departure. I recommend these posts to anyone who wants to read excellent and jargon free literary analyses.

As a fan of Kit Whitfield both as a writer and as a literary critic I began scanning my own shelves for books I would love to see hir analyze. Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale immediately caught my eye. I had been a science fiction fan from the time I was in grade school and so when I learned that Atwood had written a book set in a patriarchal dystopic near future I looked forward to reading it with some excitement. By the time I finished my excitement had morphed into annoyance which was shared with many other fans of science fiction. Much of that annoyance could be organized under three headings: genre blinkers, genre blindfolds and genre insecurity.
  1. Genre blinkers

  2. I (and many other science fiction fans) complained that Atwood had made critical errors in her world building -- errors that she would not have made if only she had first read some number of "classics" in the field.[1]. Some of our complaints boiled down to "if the group X is going to overthrow the duly elected government of the United States, that will not be the way they go about it." Which translated to "since that is not the method used in the classics then it is wrong." An interesting claim since it amounted to a prescriptive narrowing of imagination.

    Many of those "that isn't the way it would happen" complaints have been answered by recent "real world" developments. A number of Atwood's critics said that if anything like the events in the back story of the book happened in the United States people would immediately fill the streets and that there would be open rebellion against those attempting to overthrown the Constitution. Given the laws passed and regulations enacted in the United States since the terrorist attacks in 2001, the increasing paramilitarization of the police, the encroachments on the first, fourth, fifth and eighth Amendments to the Constitution, the increasing requirements to carry and produce government issued identification cards, and the frank and open way that legislators are working to restrict voting--the claim that Americans would not be willing to stand passively by as their democratic rights are stripped away carries far less weight than it once did.

    Atwood was also criticized as being "unrealistic"[2] because of the ease with which the powers that be in her book were able to strip away women's rights. Not only would the women be in the streets protesting any such attempts, so her critics argued, most men would be out in the streets with them. That is another argument that falls flat given events in the United States in the last two decades. Not only is it harder to get access to abortion (or even birth control) in much of the United States now than it was when The Handmaid's Tale was first published in recent years laws have been proposed that would make the rights of any woman secondary to rights of anything alive (or for that matter dead) in her uterus.

    As I wrote in my August 1 2011 post I owe Margaret Atwood two apologies
    Now, as I read my morning papers, I see bill after bill being passed into law in various American states that could have been included in the backstory Atwood provided for the dystopian America. Now, as I read my morning paper, I read about legal efforts to claw back from women the rights they have recently won. Now, as I read my morning paper, I read about official efforts to disenfranchise portions of the American population. Now, as I read my morning papers, I read about legal efforts to further entrench Christianity (and only certain flavours of Christianity at that) into American law.

    In short, every day as I read my morning papers I realize that I should not read The Handmaid's Tale as a non-science fiction writer's attempt to write within an established genre but as chilling and insightful examination of the American political/social psyche.
  3. Genre blindfolds

  4. Among some readers a new idea badly presented has far more worth than an old idea presented brilliantly. However many of these same readers only recognize as "new" something that happens to / is felt by a "classic" science fiction character. If every book ever written about life on Mars had a white, male narrative voice reflecting white male experiences then for the some readers writing a book about life on Mars with a female or black narrative voice would not constitute writing something "new." Just because a "thing" is new doesn't mean that its introduction will in any way change society or the ways in which human beings interact. Setting Romeo and Juliet on Mars instead of in Verona doesn't make the story any newer.
  5. Genre insecurity

  6. Atwood is one of those writers who has written books that those who love both literature and science fiction quite happily categorize as both yet who dislikes having her work described as science fiction, arguing that her dystopian novels...are not science fiction but speculations about the future. (The New York Times Sept. 21 2009). This, not surprisingly makes science fiction fans feel insecure for it sounds as if she is belittling the entire genre as having little worth. However I think if you read her statement carefully what she is saying is not "see those books in the science fiction section of the library--none of them is great and none of them is a piece of literature." Perhaps what she is really saying is "see all the absolutely marvelous, well-written, thoughtful books? Don't put them in the science fiction section where they will be lost to most readers. Liberate them. Place them out on literature shelves next to the works of Austen, Eliot and James."

    Atwood seems to me, to be saying that to put her book in the science fiction section is like putting Crime and Punishment into the same section of the bookstore as The League of Frightened Men. Depending on one's mood one might prefer to read the latter than the former but it helps direct the reader to find the right book and give some intimations as to how to read each book if they are shelved in different sections.

    Writers as well as readers suffer from genre insecurity. Readers who love "classic" science fiction fear that if good writers refuse to have their works categorized as science fiction then few good writers will attempt to write in the field. Good writers fear that some readers will not even pick up a book if it is labeled science fiction. They also fear that if people pick up their books thinking "this is a piece of science fiction" then the reader will not apply the same careful analytical skills that they use when reading other books.
If Atwood feared that some of her readers would make a category error when reading The Handmaid's Tale if they considered the book primarily as a piece of science fiction then I must confess that in my case her fear was accurate. I read the book years ago very consciously as a piece of science fiction. Yesterday I picked it up again, looked at the opening sentence and wondered what Kit Whitfield would make of it. Then I read the second sentence. And then the third. What a strange experience it was for me. This was a book I knew well and yet reading it now was a new experience. I set aside everything I (thought I) knew about how patriarchies should work, I set aside everything I knew about how dystopias should could into being. I finally read the book that Atwood wrote and it was a thing of wonder.
Rating: 5 stars

[1] Of course, there was something less than unanimity as to exactly which books and short stories those classics were.

[2] In science fiction the charge "unrealistic" can mean 'this isn't the way in which the physical universe actually works' or 'actual sentient beings do not respond in these ways to these circumstances.' However if a particular exception to scientific realism/truth/accuracy has deep roots in genre writing then it gets a pass. And since science fiction writers generally wrote from a narrow range of real world experiences readers had long since learn to accept as "realistic" behaviour and attitudes that would be considered highly unrealistic/believable in other cultures, classes or social groups. Readers who were women, African-Americans and members of the working class had simply come to learn that however people acted in the real world this is how they functioned in the world of science fiction. Which may explain why so many readers who belonged to those groups disliked science fiction as genre and read little of it.


  1. I thought A Handmaid's Tale was credible from when I first read it, probably between five and ten years ago, probably because I am an ex-evangelical and I therefore may have more familiarity with the authoritarian religious mindset in the U.S. than you did when you first read the book.

  2. Very interesting! I have now deconstructed the first sentence as requested...

    My view about reader insecurities: I don't think that good writers will necessarily be deterred from writing science fiction by how it's labelled. Writers write the way they can; a writer trying to write against their own voice will produce unpublishable stuff.

    For instance: a while ago I sat on a panel at the British Science Fiction Writers' Association. Previously, our host and organiser had sent a questionnaire around various writers asking them their opinions on the genre. According to him, responses to the question 'Did you set out to write science fiction?' split roughly down the middle. About half the writers said that they loved the genre and deliberately set out to write something that would fit into it, and the other half (including me) said that they'd never set out to write 'science fiction', however you define it, but that it just came out the way it came out and got called science fiction by other people.

    It's something I've heard argued about genre before: that if we didn't have genre distinctions, it'd hamper creativity. I believe the opposite is true: that we have imaginative works because there are always imaginative people, and that how their work is categorised has little to do with that. After all, where do genres come from if not from original works that influence and are imitated? There has to be somebody operating outside the borders for a genre to begin in the first place, and I see no reason to assume that people will become less imaginative as history moves forward. Ingres said of painting, referring to the Classical subjects the Academy chose to insist upon, that 'Everything is done, everything is found. Our task is not to invent, but to continue...' and then along came the Realists, and Manet, and the Impressionists, and the Neo-Impressionists, and the Fauvists, and the Cubists, and the Futurists, and a huge wave of people whose works are now far more popular than Ingres's. We don't need to pay homage to what's gone before. We should respect it, but what we're going to do next is the most important thing.

  3. Ooh, another applicable quote from Ingres:

    "The way good inventions are made is to familiarize yourself with those of others."

    It's notable that the people who rebelled against his strictures produced work much more inventive than his own.

    Authoritarians like to call it decadent when there's too much freedom rolling around, but personally I think the real decadence is getting hidebound and imitative.

  4. What annoys me about The Handmaid's Tale is the assumption that it's always the religious right that would take over and be scary. ANY ideology can take over and be scary. In that sense, I have difficulty approaching the book with seriousness just like I have difficulty approaching "Left Behind" with seriousness.

  5. What annoys me about The Handmaid's Tale is the assumption that it's always the religious right that would take over and be scary.

    Since the book itself doesn't speak to the relative likelihood of any particular ideology taking over and "being scary" I can only presume that you mean

    What annoys me about dystopias is the assumption that it's always the religious right that would take over and be scary.

    And if that is the case then it speaks quite a lack of familiarity with dystopias---especially since one of the most famous, 1984 is most definitely not a story of the religious right and I have a shelves full of books full of stories in which scary worlds are imagined without any need to bring in the religious right.

    In fact the most common theme that runs across them is fear of technology.

  6. I thought _The Handmaid's Tale_ was well written and believable. Your comment about how genre affects your reading style interested me, because I could never understand why I was supposed to get so much more out of, say, _The Old Man and the Sea_ (a book I hated) or _The Handmaid's Tale_ as opposed, to, say, the work of Ursula K LeGuin or Octavia Butler, both of whom I find at least as good a writer as Atwood (better, imnsho). If I can't pick apart a book on its merits, then I start wondering what its formulaic qualities have to say about the culture it comes out of. I can't help that additional track, no matter how bad (or good) the story is.

    However, by any standard definition, Atwood's book most certainly *is* sf; and I deeply resented her disavowal of the genre, which, judging from her comments quoted in a _Locus_ article (not, perhaps, the most friendly source, but still) she knew perfectly well what her stuff was, she simply didn't want to take the literary or financial hit being shelved with the sf would cause.

    I never forgave her for that. If sf&f was good enough for LeGuin, Butler, and, oh yeah, Russ, it certainly ought to be good enough for Atwood. But no, she's gonna make this absurd and indefensible claim? You want to take advantage of the cool plots and themes setting your work in a speculative future gives you? Fine. But oh noes, you don't want to be with those nerdy sf writers? Too bad. Pick; one or the other.



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