Writing with Intent 1982-2004
By Margaret Atwood
Anansi, 442 pages, $39.95
Margaret Atwood speaks of writing as a vocation in which "the laying on of hands" occurs. "You receive your vocation and in your turn you must pass it on," she says in Moving Targets. She herself generously passes on her experience in novels, poems, stories, children's stories and works of non-fiction to future writers. Every 20 years or so, she scoops up her essays and reviews as a significant part of her legacy.
In Second Words, her first compilation of non-fictional prose, Atwood implied a hierarchy in the language-ladder: first fiction and poetry, then second-level words, non-fiction. In Moving Targets, there seems to be a shift in sensibility that permits non-fiction work to be just as moving (emotional) and as elusively in motion as fictional creation. Words hit their targets or miss them. One writes with the urgency of the Ancient Mariner whatever the nature of the telling.
Atwood seems less inclined to judge genres as being superior or inferior, and more inclined now to abide by Northrop Frye's principle that creativity resides in the linguistic execution within a genre rather than in the genre itself. What matters is the performance on the page. And sometimes the frankness of non-fiction (that the hooded female figures in The Handmaid's Tale, for example, were partly inspired by nuns and partly by Atwood's purchase of a chador in Afghanistan) equals the charm of fiction's tantalizing obliquity.
There's so much alive and kicking in Moving Targets that most readers will find something in which to take delight, whether it's what mortifies Atwood (sexism), what she feels grateful for (George Orwell and the encouragement of aunts), her film reviews ( Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner and The Night of the Hunter) or her literary criticism (Lucy Maud Montgomery and Elmore Leonard.) She nods appreciatively to Dennis Lee and Thomas King, and eulogizes Al Purdy, Mordecai Richler, Matt Cohen, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Marian Engel, Timothy Findley and Carol Shields. Along the way, she pays homage to international literary stars such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison and John Updike.
As much as she gathers in Moving Targets, she is not all-inclusive. I miss her sports articles on the Blue Jays. I miss her extended review in the Literary Review of Canada of Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, by Azar Nafisi. There's a shortened version here, but it's not nearly as good.
Occasionally one quarrels with the selections. Her brief preface to The Canadian Green Consumer Guide might have been blue-boxed without loss. She makes similar and more effective points in her full-length review of Bill McKibben's Enough.
Moving Targets is a surprise box. You don't know what you're going to get until you open it. But what you can count on from any Atwoodian performance is that you get humour (The Grunge Look, on her first trip to Europe replete with passport photo and a pre-Raphaelite pose with two girlfriends provides it); you get bite (the political writing on the United States provides that); you get lines of perfect pitch and tone. On Margaret Laurence's A Jest of God: "[It's]an egg of a book -- plain, self-contained, elegant in form, holding within it the essentials of a life." Who wouldn't want that on a book cover? On Alice Munro: "I think I would recognize an Alice Munro story in Braille, even though I don't read Braille." Can you say it any better?
The unexpected delight of this surprise box for me is the power and cogency of Atwood's political thought. Of her many disguises, political thinker is one that gets too little media attention.
Her diagnosis of the imperial dangers of the United States runs something like this: The Jolly Green Giant -- at the moment not very green and not very jolly but admittedly still a giant -- is on a rampage. Like Napoleon, who invaded one too many countries, the U.S. over-grasp finds itself in a quagmire in Iraq. Increasingly, it leans toward a kind of theocracy where, instead of false idols becoming gods, the god principle itself is made into a false idol. Can you be elected president if the word "God" doesn't pass your lips every other minute?
Atwood sees a U.S. public increasingly paralyzed by politically manipulated fear. "When did you get so scared?" she asks in Letter to America. The future she envisages consists of a few King Midases protected by a vast prison system and surrounded at home and abroad by serfs.
With her American ancestry, Atwood is in a good position to question and criticize the current direction of U.S. policies, foreign and domestic. Her letter is scathing, but it doesn't lack love for the noble dream of "the great Republic."
She reminds readers that you need "a certain amount of nerve to be a writer, an almost physical nerve, the kind you need to walk a log across a river" or to take on an empire. She hasn't lost her nerve.
J. S. Porter is the author of Spirit Book Word: An Inquiry into Literature and Spirituality.
Discovering native literature
Once upon a time long ago, in 1972 to be exact, I wrote a book called Survival, which was about Canadian literature; an eccentric subject in those days, when many denied there was any. In this book, there was a chapter entitled First People: Indians and Eskimos as Symbols. What this chapter examined was the uses made by non-Native writers of Native characters and motifs, over the centuries and for their own purposes. This chapter did not examine poetry and fiction written by Native writers in English, for the simple reason that I could not at that time find any; although I was able to recommend a small list of nonfiction titles. The closest thing to "imaginative" writing by Natives were "translations" of Native myths and poetry, which might turn up at the beginnings of anthologies, or be offered . . . in grade-school readers. . . .
The figures in the stories and poems I analyzed ran the gamut. There were Indians and Eskimos seen as closer to Nature and therefore more noble, as closer to Nature and therefore less noble, as savage victimizers of whites and as victims of savage whites. There was a strong tendency among younger writers to claim Natives as kin, or as their "true" ancestors. . . . There were a lot of adjectives.
Lacking among them was funny. Savage irony and morbid humour did sometimes enter the picture as a king of self-flagellation device for whites, but on the whole Natives were treated by almost everyone with the utmost gravity, as if they were either too awe-inspiring as blood-curdling savages or too sacrosanct in the stature of holy victim to allow of any comic reactions either to them or by them. Furthermore, nobody ever seems to have asked them what, if anything, they found funny. The Native as presented in non-Native writing was singularly lacking in a sense of humour. . . .
Things are changing. Natives are now writing fiction, poetry, and plays, and some of the literature being produced by them is both vulgar and hilarious. A good many stereotypes are hitting the dust, a few sensibilities are in the process of being outraged. The comfortable thing about a people who do not have a literary voice . . . is that you never have to listen to what they are saying about you. Men found it very disconcerting when women started writing the truth about the kinds of things women say about them behind their backs. In particular, they did not appreciate having the more trivial of the human foibles revealed, nor did they appreciate being laughed at. Nobody does, really. But when I heard that the nickname given to a certain priest by the Indians was "Father Crotchface," because of his beard, it caused me to reflect. For Instance, Father Crotchface and His Brethren would have altogether a different ring to it, no?
-- From A Double-Bladed Knife , in Moving Targets