Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Atwood's Dystopias for the Comfortable

Margaret Atwood, the much-lauded author of several dozen books, including several famous works of dystopian speculative fiction, got into a bit of hot water earlier this month over her defense of fellow writer Steven Galloway. Galloway stood accused of sexual misconduct at the University of British Columbia, whose administration fired him after an ineptly-conducted investigation. Atwood and other professional colleagues signed a letter of protest to UBC in 2016. Last year, with the long-delayed rise of the #MeToo movement – and, I suspect, with  growing doubts about Galloway’s innocence – many of the letter’s supporters withdrew their signatures. Atwood, however, not only defended Galloway but published a self-aggrandizing op-ed in favor of established institutions and against revolutionary “terror and virtue” – that is, in favor of the status quo. The essay was learned and intelligent, but the author deployed both of those virtues in defense of her own narrow privileges.

In The Root, Clarkisha Kent has some incisive and some usefully caustic things to say about Atwood. White privilege and cultural appropriation, Kent argues, find their way into a good deal of Atwood’s writing, both non-fiction and fiction. The Handmaid’s Tale, M.A.’s most famous work, stands as Exhibit A. Members of Atwood’s own privileged class (including myself, I must confess) see Handmaid’s Tale as a canonical, irreproachable work of dystopian and feminist fiction. Kent (following the lead of Ana Cottle) presents it instead as a “white feminist” nightmare, a scenario in which white American women are subjected to and ennobled by the same treatment actually meted out to African-American slaves: degradation, rape, forced pregnancy, elimination of human rights and identity. Atwood does this with barely a nod to persons of color. Indeed, she set Handmaid’s Tale at one of the citadels of modern white American privilege, a place where Atwood herself went to graduate school: Harvard University. M.A. horrifies the reader not by recalling the ghastly treatment of women in historic (and modern) slave societies, but by positing a threat to the well-being of upper-middle class whites. If one of the purposes of good fiction is to build empathy for others, Handmaid’s Tale fails the test: it serves instead to boost the self-regard of the comfortable.

Atwood’s tendency to appropriate the experiences and creative work of others extends to her treatment of genre fiction, or at least science fiction. I’ve written before of her dystopian novel Oryx and Crake and Atwood’s unattributed borrowing of at least one idea from Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants. Much of O&C reminds me of more recent work by Paul di Fillipo and Nancy Kress, some of whose more famous stories came out when Atwood was writing her biological disaster novel. One may defend M.A. by noting that she probably has no idea these authors exist, or by arguing that no author, particularly an accomplished and respected one, has the obligation to cite their sources in a work of fiction. I am not sure the latter is true – writers of historical fiction, for example, usually mention the non-fiction works that informed their own. The former observation, if true, merely reinforces our view of Atwood as insular and privileged.

Unfortunately, M.A.’s work appeals to exactly the sort of people who craft high-school and college curricula and book-club reading lists, so I suspect Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake will remain widely read and discussed for years to come. Fortunately, we have other writers of speculative fiction with less insular views, a greater appreciation of racial and class oppression, and at least as much writing skill as Atwood, writers who are gradually gaining the regard of canon-makers. I look forward to a future where students are far more familiar with the works of Octavia Butler and Ursula LeGuin than with Margaret Atwood’s well-written but intellectually-confining future visions.


(Image of Margaret Atwood from

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