Why did we start treating Margaret Atwood as a prophet?

For decades, Margaret Atwood occupied a cozy place in the world of literature. She had a recognizable name, she wrote well written if not formally daring fiction about “big issues” like feminism and technology and climate change, and every once in a while you’d see she had a new book out. “Oh, that’s nice,” you might think. “Something to read in the bathtub.”

But then a television adaptation of her 1985 dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale gave her a renewed prominence, which she seemed to cash in on in 2019 with a sequel called The Testaments. Her original vision of women trapped in compulsory breeding programs by religious zealots was proclaimed prophecy by a lot of upper-middle-class women who had stopped paying attention to the state of women’s rights outside of their urban centers and were shocked by the election of right -wing figures like Donald Trump. She was no longer seen just as a novelist: she was a sage.

And so, now we have a collection of her nonfiction, a 500-page tome comprising book reviews, transcripts of talks, introductions to other people’s books, essays for literary magazines, and other random filings about “women’s issues,” 19th-century sea voyages, the right vinegar to use in meringue, The Wizard of Oz, the Clean Air Act, how Dante and Shakespeare wrote about trees, her famous friends, the process of writing her second novel, and one slightly confusing essay where she pretends to be a space alien considering the concept of “human rights”. There are anecdotes that will force a chuckle out of a certain kind of BBC listener, and everything is written with the same gentle smile she displays in every author photo.

It’s interesting to read Atwood’s essays while considering the changing role of the public intellectual – after all, maybe knowing a lot about one thing doesn’t give you the authority to speak about all of these other things. Fame is enchanting, it’s true, but being pretty good in a movie or being able to conjure fictional worlds doesn’t in fact imbue you with wisdom about a war, the science of vaccines, or how other people should live their lives. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with writers addressing topics they are particularly knowledgeable or passionate about. The problem here is Atwood’s tepid level of engagement from her – she will, it seems, calmly pontificate about anything – and the uncritical weight given to her words from her.

For a collection called Burning Questions, there is very little urgency. A few serious problems are mentioned – there were a couple of years where “totalitarianisms were preoccupying” her de ella, as she writes in the introduction – but they are discussed briskly, in a reassuring tone. Yes, climate change is happening, but “small choices do make a difference.” If we just give money to the right causes, if we live like she does, with a list of “permissible fish” in her purse de ella when she goes to the grocery store, it will probably turn out all right. There’s no real evil in the world, it’s just silly people being silly and maybe they will have a change of heart if they read the right book or watch the right 90-minute documentary.

Despite her willingness to tell us how to live in her non-fiction, Atwood thinks fiction should be above that kind of soap-boxing. In her essay “The Writer as Political Agent? Really?”, she works with an out-of-fashion notion of the writer as a truth teller whose relationship to politics and revolutionary ideas must be tenuous. She doesn’t believe writers should call for change; Victor Hugo’s job was merely to observe and “tell the stories of the oppressed and marginalized”, not to suggest ways of actually helping them. Which is a commonly held idea about what art is for, but it is only one perspective on art, a very (God help me) bourgeois perspective. And while I agree that much of the more fashionable political art of today shades into dull propaganda, Atwood’s version of literature – disengaged, “far-ranging human imagination and… unfettered human voice” – is only a small speck of human cultural production . Her idea of ​​what art is for neutrals or ignores the Romantics, the anarchists of 19th-century New York City, the Bolsheviks, Ovid, punk music, samizdat culture, Tagore and Courbet, and everything else created not with a smile but a scream.

Her essays on other writers are thoughtful and engaging, and I enjoyed her work on Anne of Green Gables very much, but when she attempts to engage with the “burning questions” of our time, from the treatment of women to environmental collapse to religious persecution , I keep feeling like I would rather be hearing from another, maybe more piercing voice on this, as she refuses to disturb the reader with the real stakes of these issues. The real Burning Questions we’re left with are for all of the assigning editors who commissioned this work from her: perhaps next time when they’re tempted to give Margaret Atwood a call, they could pause and ask, “Is there someone else we could get for this?”


Burning Questions is published by Chatto & Windus at £20. To order your copy call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop

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