Atwood has covered a great deal over her extraordinarily prolific career, but she’s returned again and again to certain preoccupations — preoccupations that are not currently fashionable.
When Michelle Dean accepted the National Book Critics Circle Award for excellence in reviewing this March, she mused that she had been rereading recently, and was struck by how unusual it felt in the context of 2017.
“So, if you’re born in 1932, you’re born into the Depression.
That’s going to have an effect on you.” Atwood herself was born in 1939 to a Canadian entomologist, so her early life was dominated by two things: World War II, and the Canadian wilderness.
At the time, Atwood has said, female poets were expected to be mystical and mysterious and probably suicidal, like Sylvia Plath; interviewers asked her, she writes in the essay collection , “not whether I was going to commit suicide, but when.” It was an image entirely at odds with the way Atwood describes herself, which is as “a nice, cosy sort of person, a bit absent-minded, a dab hand at cookies, beloved by domestic animals, and a knitter of sweaters with arms that are too long.” (Having briefly met Atwood, based on first impressions I find it much easier to imagine her saying, “I eat men like air,” like Plath’s Lady Lazarus than to imagine her knitting sweaters, but on this she disagrees with me.) Atwood would expand on this disconnect in her third novel, 1976’s , in which the heroine is a nice, silly woman who accidentally hypnotizes herself into writing serious poetry when she is procrastinating at her day job of churning out pulpy costume dramas, and is promptly flummoxed by the ensuing publicity.
The interviewers want to turn her into a feminist and pretend that she forces them to call her after she politely tells them she has no preference, and they treat her as a mystical goddess figure to the point that she begins to see her public persona as a separate self: “She was taller than I was, more beautiful, more threatening.
She wanted to kill me and take my place, and by the time she did this no one would notice the difference because the media were in on the plot, they were helping her.” It’s a telling characterization from Atwood, who would have a vexed relationship with the press for the rest of her career — especially when it comes to the question of genre: how she sees it, and how her critics see it.
Atwood’s readers often describe her as a writer of feminist science fiction, prompting Atwood herself to declare she is nothing of the sort, thereby offending both feminists and science fiction fans.
In part, that disconnect comes about because Atwood insists on defining her own terms.
She’s interested in women’s rights, and she’s interested in the possibilities of technology for the future, but those questions don’t necessarily fall within the bounds of feminism and science fiction as she defines them.