The Talent and Relevance of Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale television series based on Margaret Atwood’s iconic 1985 novel is a smash hit — helped by the fact that this screen adaptation is very relevant during the time of a Trump administration that’s profoundly mean, sexist, macho, misogynist, anti-women, and patriarchal. Also, I just finished reading Atwood’s 2013 novel MaddAddam — the great third installment of the speculative-fiction trilogy whose first two books were Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood.

So I thought I’d write an Atwood appreciation — one that combines new material with some material from the first literature blog post I ever published, on June 2, 2011. That post was an Atwood appreciation, too.

MaddAddam is one of those novels that has it all: memorable characters, adventure, scares, intrigue, humor, satire, snappy dialogue, romance of a sort, non-preachy social commentary (ranging from the environment to gender relations), and more. The postapocalyptic story of a small group of people who survived the almost total eradication of Earth’s population shows that Atwood is still a terrific novelist in her 70s — and that she has a way of sounding so current and up-to-date that one could mistake her for a writer in her 20s or 30s.

The 1939-born Canadian author is well known for bestselling fiction set in a dismal near-future. Heck, The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the 20th century’s great dystopian novels — up there with Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four — about a U.S. society in which women have lost their rights and the relatively small number of fertile ones are forced to become “handmaids” basically raped for reproductive purposes.

But there’s an astonishing variety to Atwood’s canon. She has also written gripping historical fiction (the well-researched Alias Grace about a 19th-century double murder), many contemporary novels (such as Cat’s Eye about a middle-aged Canadian artist and The Robber Bride about three longtime friends dealing with a nemesis), and even a book from the perspective of Odysseus’ wife Penelope as her legendary hubby is off adventuring (The Penelopiad). Other Atwood novels contain elements of mystery (Surfacing) and surrealism (The Edible Woman). And the ultra-prolific author has penned short stories, children’s books, nonfiction books, poetry, and more. In fact, Atwood was a widely published poet for several years before her first novel was released — a career arc like Sir Walter Scott’s.

Atwood’s fiction is also quite layered. She often shifts scenes from the present to the past to the present — MaddAddam does this quite a bit — while managing not to confuse her readers. The Blind Assassin even includes a novel within that Booker Prize-winning novel. And several of Atwood’s novels contain poems, letters, newspaper stories, and other devices. Plus her characters are complex, three-dimensional people — with the “good” ones usually having some negative traits and the “bad” ones usually having some positive attributes.

No appreciation of Atwood would be complete without an example of her wonderful prose. In the “Hairball” story that’s part of her 1991 short-story collection Wilderness Tips, Atwood describes a character’s name this way: “During her childhood, she was a romanticized Katherine, dressed by her misty-eyed, fussy mother in dresses that looked like ruffled pillowcases. By high school she’d shed the frills and emerged as bouncy, round-faced Kathy, with gleaming freshly washed hair and enviable teeth, eager to please and no more interesting than a health-food ad. At university she was Kath, blunt and no-bullshit in her Take-Back-the-Night jeans and checked shirt and her bricklayer-style striped-denim peaked hat. When she ran away to England, she sliced herself down to Kat. It was economical, street feline, and pointed as a nail.”

Give this author a much-deserved Nobel Prize!

If you’ve read Atwood, what do you think of her work? And, in your opinion, what other living authors deserve a future Nobel for literature? A list of past winners can be seen here.

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, with a silly focus on the date August 10 through the centuries, is here.

45 thoughts on “The Talent and Relevance of Margaret Atwood

  1. Just another try to post this:

    Dave, this an off-topic comment, but I finally got around to watching the entire Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” DVD, and I’m so glad that I finally did so. I feel as though I want to go back and reread all of the many books I’ve read about the Civil War years ago. I think part of this is because I surmise that I probably have loved non-fiction books as much or more than the novels I also read (other than my crime fiction, Jane Austen, and a few other authors). I still have my Civil War textbook from college, as well as many of the books I read back then, one of which was Mary Chesnut’s Civil War Diary, which is quoted many times in Burns’ documentary (by Julie Harris).

    I do think that there are many novels that mean something to us today, but I don’t think there is anything as moving to me as reading about the Civil War, especially after the events of this past week in Trump’s world. The theme of “Ashoken Farewell” is running through my head constantly, and I want to get a copy of the sheet music to see if I can learn it on piano. It’s just so sad to me to read or listen to the eloquent letters or speeches by both leaders and soldiers of the Civil War, as compared to the inane utterances of our inane POTUS, but I fear he doesn’t deserve to have that respectful title. Sorry to go off on that tangent, but I fear for our country, and every day seems to get just a little bit worse!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry, Dave, I just realized that I wrote “Ashoken Fairwell” instead of “Ashoken Farewell” so that I now feel as dumb as our President (e.g., “heel” instead of “heal” in one of his latest tweets!) 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s okay, Kat Lib. I’m currently without wifi, so I can’t fix your comment (I’m using my iPhone until the wifi is fixed where I’m staying). You are so much smarter than Trump it’s like you’re from different planets — you Earth, he Planet Ogre.

        Like

    • Thanks, Kat Lib. Well said! As long ago as it was, the Civil War almost seems rather recent because of things like Trump’s Confederate-like views. 😦 And of course that war was one of the most dramatic, horrible, but necessary moments in U.S. history.

      Like

  2. Off-topic, but:

    Books are a refuge for many, certainly most here, myself very much included. And one may find oneself far afield in search of the novel in novels, only to find after a journey of many miles to have arrived more or less where one started.

    Such was my very recent experience while reading Paul Busson’s “The Man Who Was Born Again” (1921). The plot concerns a man who has distinct and voluminous impressions of a former life he is certain he had lived in the late 18th century. A fascinating book, written in Austria after the First World War, itself a time and place far from here and now, I was confident I would be whisked away from the troubling present by this fantastic vehicle.

    But the Dover edition I read contained two novels, the second being the more famous The Golem by Gustav Meyrink (1913).

    I learned from EF Bleiler’s introduction that Meyrink was also the author, that same year, of “Des Deutchen Spiessers Wunderhorn” (rather freely translated as ‘The German Neanderthal’s Magic Horn’). Bleiler goes on to say “‘Spiesser’ does not lend itself to a one-word English translation: it is a slang term for a person who combines smug arrogance, stupid boorishness, pettiness, philistinism and reaction.”

    And just like that, I was yanked back into our awful present, as ‘spiesser’ is a word presciently yet tailor-made for our awful president, from whose serial malignities I was vainly attempting to be distracted, by the consolations (pace Boethius) of literature. There is no escape– even in escape fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So true, jhNY. Trump is such a noxious/overwhelming presence that almost any fiction we read — even escapist fiction, as you note — can remind us of him. “Spiesser” sounds like a perfect word for America’s worst-human-being-on-the-planet “president.” Or maybe Alt-Spiesser…

      (Just did a library run today and the latest Reacher book — 2016’s “Night School” — was finally there. Can’t wait to read it!)

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have been meaning to reacquaint myself with my local branch for just such a purpose, more or less. As I often can’t tell which I’ve read by title alone, I’m hoping to see most if not all of the Reacher series in one spot, so I can try to figure out which I haven’t, my task being further complicated by those first chapters sometimes inserted in the back of the books.

        Sometimes, having read the excerpt in a moment of weakness, I have to get to the second chapter to make sure. Takes time and study. Not the sort of project to be undertaken in an airport gift shoppe.

        I think this is what is generally known as a First World Problem.

        Liked by 1 person

        • My first-ever attempt to reply to a comment via an iPhone (currently on the road, with my wife driving).

          Local library branches can be great. Of course, suburban and city ones have their differences. And, yes, remembering which Reacher books we’ve read or not read can be “interesting.” I think there are three Reacher books I haven’t read, but not totally sure. I had no doubt I hadn’t read “Night School” only because it’s the latest.

          Funny last line by you!

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      • I did buy the book from the library sale for three bucks, but have not even read it. Having difficulties with ” 3 dogs night”, meaning mine and two of my grand doggies in my bedroom so developed insomnia, plus cleaning temp lady cancelling twice at the last moment.

        But good news Dave, found a book by Lee Child ” No Middle Name”, The complete collected Jack Reacher short stories.

        https://electricliterature.com/the-entire-presidents-committee-on-the-arts-and-humanities-just-resigned-8834588bc3bf

        Liked by 1 person

  3. My reading of the Atwood oeuvre has to date been confined to one novel: “The Blind Assassin.” I confess freely to have been more intrigued and taken in by the tale within the tale, and less interested in the realistic-ish portions of the book.

    I tried, first after reading, to interest a painter of fantasy in doing a few pix out of that tale, but she was unpersuaded. She also resisted Ovid. Sadly, her own imagination was comparatively impoverished…

    Nonetheless, as something to muse on now, especially after the recent blog essay here, I have been thinking about what such illustrations would look like under the able hands of Mervyn Peake and Howard Pyle. And I am unanimous on this, to borrow an expression from “Are You being Served?”‘s Mrs. Slocum— each artist would have made splendid pictures from Atwood’s inspiration!

    The next Atwood book i am tempted to read is “The Handmaiden’s Tale”, as every once in a while, it is nice to know at least a little something about what everybody else is talking about.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY!

      “The Blind Assassin” is an incredibly clever, ambitious novel, but, when it comes to readability and emotional impact, I can think of several other Atwood books I prefer — including (not necessarily in order) “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Alias Grace,” “The Robber Bride,” “Cat’s Eye,” “Oryx and Crake,” and “MaddAddam.” Sometimes authors can overdo the gimmicks in a particular novel…

      Several Atwood novels — including “The Blind Assassin” — potentially lend themselves very much to artistic imagery.

      I think “The Handmaid’s Tale” is one of those books that deserve both the literary renown and the mass-audience renown it has.

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    • Ha! Thank you for the comment, ALOE VERA!

      Not that far off topic; I’m sure many right-wing men would love to ban “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and maybe a few of Margaret Atwood’s other novels.

      I’ve never read “Fanny Hill.” It definitely sounds racy, and it doesn’t seem like great literature, but I don’t think any novels should be banned.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Tom Jones’ Conquest of Fanny Hill, should it ever be written, would be a description of an affair, though not a military affair, or not precisely at any rate, even if Mr. Jones was in uniform before he was unbuttoned out of it.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Howdy, Dave!

    — If you’ve read Atwood, what do you think of her work? —

    The only Margaret Atwood book I have read to date is “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which my culture-vulture eyes finally got around to devouring this year, largely thanks to comments about it made by you and other members of the DAOLiterati. It’s excellent, now ranking as one of my favorite novels in one of my favorite genres, complementing other dystopian nightmares such as Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange,” Octavia E. Butler’s “Kindred,” Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” Jack London’s “The Iron Heel,” George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s “Player Piano” and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We.” Pretty good company.

    — And, in your opinion, what other living authors deserve a future Nobel for literature? —

    Despite the fact I am half Swede-Finn, the Swedish Academy has not seen fit to consult me on this matter. If it had, however, then I would have nominated The Great Stephen Dunn for the next available Nobel Prize in Literature. Here’s why: I have read most of Stephen’s poetry and all of “Shakespeare’s Sonnets” — and, on balance, I like (or love) the former more than I like (or love) the latter. Stick to the playwrighting, Billy.

    J.J. (Alias MugRuith1)

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.J., as a fellow Scandinavian, although I think I’m 100%, even if we’re not sure if my mother’s forebears were born somewhere on the Sweden-Finland border. Of course, the other question has to do with my father who was born of a Swedish single mother, and no one seems to know who his father was, but possibly a sailor, who therefore could have born anywhere. One of these days I want to take that DNA test that will tell me if there’s any other nationality other than Scandinavian in me, although I’m not sure what I’d do with that info, although than satisfying some question that I have about me dad’s biological father.

      In any case, I want to check out Stephen Dunn’s poetry, so thanks for that recommendation, J.J.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Howdy, Kat Lib!

        — One of these days I want to take that DNA test that will tell me if there’s any other nationality other than Scandinavian in me —

        I share your interest in this approach to genealogy. Although I describe myself as half-Irish, half-Swede-Finn and all-American, I suspect my DNA test would produce at least one surprising result, based on my interpretation of the last name of one of my ancestors.

        — I want to check out Stephen Dunn’s poetry —

        As I mentioned in a comment on one of Dave’s blog posts last December, Stephen’s “Different Hours” won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. He also has written many other poems that I love, with a few linked below:
        — “With No Experience in Such Matters” (http://bit.ly/2gTsYPJ).
        — “What Goes On” (http://bit.ly/2gTwMjQ).
        — “The Routine Things Around the House” (http://bit.ly/2gaUqKm).
        — “Outfielder” (http://bit.ly/2h9ECcx).
        — “Learning to Be Strange in a Small Town” (http://bit.ly/2gsLLRz).

        Meanwhile, “The New Yorker” has added audio files to Stephen’s poems on its online site: http://bit.ly/2glZfON.

        J.J.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, J.J. — what an enthusiastic (and funnily put) recommendation for Stephen Dunn! I will definitely check out more of his work; I read some of it when you previously mentioned it.

      I agree — “The Handmaid’s Tale” is definitely WAY up there in the dystopian-novel pantheon. Of which you named MANY worthy members.

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      • — Wow, J.J. — what an enthusiastic (and funnily put) recommendation for Stephen Dunn! —

        Enthusiastic? Yes! Funnily put? I will take your word for it. In any case, I am in the midst of reading “E.E. Cummings: Collected Poems, 1922-1938,” wherein the author takes 315 swings at the bardic ball: When he hits, he really hits; when he misses, he really misses. And he hits little and misses a lot, with a batting average well below the Mendoza Line. Ditto for “Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” In contrast, Stephen gets on base with a much higher frequency than the other two sluggers even as he matches them in poetic home runs. (Of course, Stephen has not written either a novel comparable with Cummings’ “The Enormous Room” or any plays comparable with “Hamlet,” “Macbeth” or “Much Ado About Nothing,” so those other guys are not exactly chopped liver themselves.)

        — I agree — “The Handmaid’s Tale” is definitely WAY up there in the dystopian-novel pantheon. Of which you named MANY worthy members. —

        Although I am unfamiliar with any of the adaptations of “The Handmaid’s Tale” in other media, I also could have named a number of the cinematic flowers in the dystopian field I have liked to various degrees in recent decades, even though I have not yet read the following source materials:
        — Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” series.
        — Phillip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (doing business as “Blade Runner” on the big screen).
        — P.D. James’ “The Children of Men.”
        — David Lloyd’s and Alan Moore’s “V for Vendetta.”

        Liked by 1 person

        • The funny part was: “Stick to the playwrighting, Billy.” 🙂

          Impressive when a writer (poet or otherwise) has a high batting average!

          I haven’t seen “The Hunger Games” movies, but was pretty impressed with the three novels.

          Like

  5. Have Atwood on my list. Currently gnawing through Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth” which is an engaging read.😁

    Seems to me a bit incongruous to have Bob Dylan as a Nobel Prize winner for literature in lieu of his spoken word songs/stories which I will not undermine the relevance.

    Dave,what do you think of his Nobel?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Michele! (Inadvertently “Anonymous.” 🙂 ) I was also VERY impressed with “White Teeth” — I think the novels of Zadie Smith and Margaret Atwood have some similarities in being socially conscious, hilariously funny at times, etc.

      Like you, I’m not fond of Bob Dylan getting the Nobel for literature — he’s obviously VERY talented but not a literature writer in the traditional sense. And some other living writers, such as Atwood and Cormac McCarthy, deserve it much more — and are not getting any younger.

      Like

  6. I have read several Margaret Atwood novels, including Handmaid’s Tale, and she is a fantastic writer. I was a long time ago that I read her work, and your essay about her has revived my interest in her. Her newer works sound intriguing and I didn’t realize she also writes poetry. I love that her characters are multi-dimensional – much more believable that stereotypes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Shallow Reflections!

      Margaret Atwood is definitely a fantastic writer, and for many years. Her first novel, “The Edible Woman,” came out in 1969, and she had poetry collections published before that.

      One fun thing about her 2003-2013 speculative-fiction trilogy is the wordplay she uses for naming things and places — like the AnooYoo spa.

      And, yes, multidimensional characters are very welcome. Atwood is clearly a feminist and a liberal, but she gives all her characters plenty of nuance.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Second attempt:

    Margaret is pretty fresh on my mind lately as I read ‘Alias Grace’ about three months ago (and the next candidate for an upcoming TV mini-series) and I just re-read ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ within the last couple of weeks and have watched five episodes of the TV series so far and watched the 1990 film version this past week. I have also watched several interviews with her over the years on YouTube. Regarding ‘Handmaid’, I got more out of it this time than I did 20 years ago. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it then; I just didn’t recall much about it beyond the basic setup. It is a powerful novel, obviously more frightening this year than in the mid-80’s when it first came out. Its power derives largely from the fact that it deals with how a repressive society does everything it can to hollow out the souls of its people, primarily its women, so that all that is left is an zombie-like shell. Fortunately Offred aka June does survive it and we have the hope delivered in the afterward that provides evidence that this is a society that DID come to an end.

    The first book of hers I read was a short story collection owned by my first wife, ‘Bluebeard’s Egg’. The deep blue, almost magical cover drew me in. I don’t recall much about it other than that I liked it pretty well, although I wasn’t immediately curious to devour her other books. The next one I read was ‘Cat’s Eye’, which was much more powerful, although I need to re-read it as well. Then I finally read ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, the one that was hyped up so much and which my first wife (who also owned ‘Bluebeard’s Egg’) declared had given her nightmares. I guess I stubbornly wanted to read another one before the most popular one first.

    Her power kind of crept up on me. She didn’t initially blow me away but the more I thought about her books, the deeper they seeped into my soul. Without even reading all those other novels, I know that the sheer body of work makes her one of the major North American writers. She is also the most famous writer Canada has produced to date. She’s probably the ONLY Canadian writer most people can think of. Well, at least there’s one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, bobess48, for your wide-ranging take on Atwood! Definitely the most famous Canadian novelist, though L.M. Montgomery and Nobel winner Alice Munro (among others) also have plenty of renown.

      Interesting how the times caught up with “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which really is a visionary novel.

      “Cat’s Eye” is a deep, absorbing book that really shows how childhood trauma can do a number on somebody well into their adult years. Seems to be autobiographical in some ways, though the “Cat’s Eye” protagonist is a painter rather than a writer.

      Like

      • At least I can now mention my favorite Canadian author, the mystery writer Louise Penny. She has a series of novels featuring Armand Gamache, Chief Inspector of the Sûreté du Québec, his subordinates, his lovely wife and his dog, Henri. Most of the action occurs in a little town in Québec called Three Pines, that doesn’t appear on a map, with such great characters: the gay couple who own and run the B&B, a female artist, a black lady who owns a bookstore, and the somewhat crazy old woman poet who has a duck for a pet. In the later books, Gamache has retired to Three Pines, but of course there are still mysteries to solve. I just went over to Penny’s website and see that there’s a new book in the series, so thanks Dave, for getting me to find my next book, one of the few mystery series that I’ll buy in hardcover!

        Liked by 1 person

          • My sister, who introduced me to Louise Penny, said that she recommends people don’t start with the first few books. Penny is definitely one who gets better with age. I was looking up her various books, and her 5th book, “The Brutal Telling,” notes that, “Gamache follows a trail of clues and treasures—from first editions of Charlotte’s Web and Jane Eyre to a spiderweb with a word mysteriously woven in it” — which you might find of interest. My personal favorites are “A Trick of the Light,” and “How the Light Gets In,” based on a quote by Leonard Cohen — “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

            Liked by 1 person

            • Thank you, Kat Lib! I’ll look for one of those three books during my library visit this week. Yes, some authors don’t hit their stride until their second, third, fourth, fifth, etc., novel. John Steinbeck first few novels before “Tortilla Flat” were certainly not his best, and Jack London’s first novel (before the riveting “The Call of the Wild”) was almost laughably bad in parts.

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  8. I enjoyed this, Dave–Atwood is my favorite author. “Cat’s Eye” is probably the novel I liked best, and I just read her book of poetry called “Morning in the Burned House”–also excellent! I too would love to see her get the Nobel Prize. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, kconstantine!

      “Cat’s Eye” IS excellent — the first Atwood novel I read after “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and I was so impressed that I immediately binged on many of her other books. 🙂

      I’ve never read Atwood’s poetry — I should!

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  9. Hi Dave, I think this is the post that I have nothing at all to say about it. I don’t think that I’ve ever read anything by Atwood, although I find her very intriguing, especially with “The Handmaid’s Tale’ gaining so much interest. So, I’m going to sit back and hear what others have to say about it, and put it on my to-be-read list.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kat Lib!

      One of the reasons I rarely focus on a single author is that some readers of this blog may not have gotten to that author. But, once in a while… 🙂

      If you do read an Atwood novel, I’d be very interested to hear what you think!

      Like

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