| Fiction’s high priestess
NEGOTIATING WITH THE DEAD: A WRITER ON WRITING By Margaret Atwood, Penguin, £ 5.60
Margaret Atwood is not one to offer glib answers. Her characters have always floated precariously on a sea of grey, and it is no surprise that when she speaks out as a writer — that too, “on writing” — she is careful not plunge into didacticism.
Negotiating with the Dead is a modified volume of six Empson Lectures she delivered at the University of Cambridge in 2000. This is Atwood’s voice around the time of the creation of The Blind Assassin, and these essays are, in part, a confrontation of some issues she has grappled with during the evolution of the Booker Prize-winning novel. That book, in fact, holds the voice of three writers — Atwood herself, and two characters behind the novel within the novel. The identity of the real writer of the fictional novel is forever shrouded. Through these lectures, she seems to be voicing some of these ambiguities. But there are no pat answers; most remain in the delicious space of possibility.
Atwood divides her attention equally among the six chapters. The first, she admits, is the most autobiographical, and those familiar with her work would be happy to revisit themes from Cat’s Eye. Her unconventional childhood led her to decide, at the age of 16, that she would be a writer — that too a poet — not a likely choice for a Canadian woman in 1956. She speaks of the writers she saw around her: “They fell upon the thorns of life; they bled”.
The writer’s duality — again, a keynote of The Blind Assassin — is the subject of the second section. The writer has to be separated from the work, she feels. The Romantic Byronians are proof that, sooner or later, the larger-than-life-writer bubble has to burst.
The discussion in the third chapter revolves around art for art versus art for a cause versus art for money. If the writer is the high priest — or priestess — is art the religion' If beauty is truth, how far from morality is aestheticism' These ponderings also take us forward to Atwood’s most recent release, Oryx and Crake. The voice of Atwood the novelist can never be too far beneath the surface.
“There are no neat answers; but if you take up writing, you’ll run into the questions sooner or later.” Atwood extends the exploration of truth vis-à-vis the artist’s role. Herein lies the insight to so much good literature, Atwood’s own included, of course: “Value judgments on the characters or the outcome need not be made by the writer… the reader will judge the characters, because the reader will interpret.”
Next, she turns to the relationship of the writer and of the book with the reader, the two not always the same thing. Who is the reader, and how does one find the “right reader”'
The motivation to pick up the pen can be varied, but at some point, Atwood concludes, they have to make “the trip to the Underworld”. Her “hypothesis” is that “all writing of the narrative kind… is motivated deep down by a fear if a fascination with mortality — by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead”. Writers, fuelled by the fear of death, pour themselves into a work that may be deemed worthy of granting immortality.
One is not sure how seriously Atwood takes her own theory. That it is not absolute is certain, for she herself offers so many other reasons for why a writer writes. After drawing from the classics to prove the literal sense of this manifesto, in the final paragraphs, Atwood makes her point clear. Without the artist’s imagination, the experiences of the past and possibilities of the future remain dead to the world. “The dead may guard the treasure, but it’s useless treasure unless it can be brought back to enter the realm of the audience, the realm of the readers, the realm of change.”