Author Margaret Atwood visited The Globe and Mail editorial board on Thursday, April 21. Following are some excerpts from that conversation. For the complete transcript, click here.
Ms. Atwood: Okay, so the reason I've positioned myself politically is so that you would not accuse me of "Red Emma." You know you're in the middle when people shout at you from both sides. And, therefore, I seem always to be traditionally in that position.
When I published Survival, I actually got attacked more from the left than from the right. Why was that? Because the right didn't notice. They didn't read it, or else they would write letters. This was in the age of letters - remember when people wrote actual letters? The coloured pencils, underlining capital letters, the coloured pencils, underlining things.
That's now the equivalent of The Globe comments section. Comments on the Wednesday piece were pretty much all good, oddly enough. Because usually, you know, you get yelled at from both sides.
But the left yelled at Survival because they were, at that point, internationalist, and suspicious of anything smacking of nationalism. And also they felt there wasn't enough "working persons" writing in the book. Reason being, brackets, not many working people had written, but never mind that.
So that is where it was, and in fact the cultural nationalism of the sixties and early seventies as [Jacques]Parizeau pointed out was not a radical movement, it was a Conservative movement, because it was your Red Tories who were traditionally interested in culture, history, and national affiliations. They were at that time.
I think a lot of Canadians would fall into that Red Tory category, by which I mean fiscally conservative and socially tolerant. But they now have no Conservative person to vote for. Because those people have been eliminated pretty much. There are no Flora MacDonalds in that party any more. What would Flora say? This is the thing you ask yourself. What would Flora say?
So what's on my mind, because I write a lot about utopias and dystopias. And was imprinted quite early on on George Orwell - another reason the Stalinists yelled at me. Did not like George.
I read Koestler when I was 14 and it made a deep impression. It was certainly very in sync with 1984. Except one of them was fiction, and the other was less fiction. So utopias and dystopias - which I studied as a Victorianist - in the 19th century was of course the age of utopias.
There were thousands and thousands of them written, and a number of them were set up. There's an interesting new book called In Eutopia, in which he follows both the literary utopias and the actual ones to see how they fared. But there were tons of them in the 19th century, and thenin the 20th century were saw two big, and several somewhat smaller experiments, in real-life utopias setting up, and those would be the Soviet socialist republics. And they would be Hitler's Germany followed by things like Cambodia and Mao's China.
They all started as utopias. They all started by saying we're going to make your life so much more unimaginably better. And, by the way, it's inevitable. So you're either with us or against us. And if you're against us, I'm sorry, but we will have to eliminate you. Because you're standing in the way of the greater happiness of the greater number and the greatest good. And the improvement of humanity and all the rest of it.
And that's why people like me are always a little nervous about words like "progress" because we've seen the ends to which that word has been put over the years. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try to make things better, but making them better all at once with sweeping true-believer plans makes us very, very nervous.
So when we're looking at political parties, we think, are there any of these sweeping destroy-everything-build-everything-new true-believers going around these days. Who is most likely to think they have to tear it all down and start over from zero? Who is more likely to say you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs? Who is most likely to be saying the end justifies the means. Those are the things that make us nervous. Those of us who study utopias and write dystopias.