Friday, March 5, 2010

An Evening with Margaret Atwood

The town where I live is home to a small liberal arts college with a big reputation. Last week, a friend of mine who works there informed me that Margaret Atwood was scheduled to give a lecture and sign books! Naturally, I was very excited about this. I did see Salman Rushdie and Umberto Ecco onstage together during my own university years. To this day, however, I could not tell you what they talked about. Hard to believe that two such renown authors can be so dull, but it's true. The only thing I remember is someone's cell phone going off while Ecco was reading a passage from his new book.

(I've never read Ecco. Bad book blogger, bad!)

So I went last night with my hardcover copy of Oryx and Crake, the only Atwood novel I've read so far although I hope to remedy this situation as soon as possible. The event was held in the campus chapel, a surprisingly cozy space yet equipped with two large balconies enabling it to hold a good-sized audience. Atwood was introduced by a Canadian creative writing professor, who joked about her countrymen's penchant for understatement and self-depreciating humor. Although Atwood's primary subject was Frequently Asked Questions she receives, she picked up on this particular topic as well. Her favorite Canadian joke: "What does a Canadian woman say when you ask her for sex? 'Okay. But only if you're having some too.'"

After warning us that Canadians were infiltrating our town, Atwood then brought up her Twitter activities, which have lately included searching for a new Vancouver Olympics slogan. Atwood said she was inspired to do this after a fellow Canadian expressed his concern to her that "Own the podium!" was just too bold for Canada. Her favorites suggestions included:

"Rent the podium!"
"A podium? For me?"
"Sorry, do you mind if we try out the podium this time?"
"Perhaps a bronze?"
"Occasionally borrowing the podium."
"Please don't bother. I'll just sit under the podium."
"I'll have that podium if it's all right with you, eh?"
"A podium might be nice."

I actually ended up learning quite a bit about Canada during the half-hour talk. Apparently Atwood, in addition to Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, had published the first-ever anthology of Canadian writers back in the early 70s. Until then, she said, many Canadians didn't realize they had their own native literary tradition distinct from the overwhelming cultural influence of Britain and the United States. Although Atwood is often asked what writers she would include today, she believes that such a book is no longer needed, as the Canadian literary scene has exploded and gained considerable international prestige.

Of course, when this anthology initially came out, it had its fair share of detractors. Atwood was asked by several on the Left why there was no "worker's writing." To which she replied, "Because they didn't write anything!"

Settling into her main theme, Atwood started off with a question she had recently received which she had never received before: "Why are there so many tins of sardines in your books?" In response, Atwood said that she had never noticed this although she supposes it's because she had been camping so often growing up and canned food, including sardines and "klim" (a kind of powdered milk), is what you eat while camping. She has also been asked, on other occasions, why there were so many bathtubs in her books. This is because she has spent a good deal of time in bathtubs rather than showers. However this is more common, she added, for the generation following her own, which had been scared silly by Psycho. Atwood also added that too many authors leave their characters with nothing to eat, and often without good hygiene as well. (This reminded me of The Museum of Eterna's Novel, in which Macedonio Fernández laments the resignation of the cook character for precisely this reason: What will they eat???)

Atwood has also been asked if she hates men. "All men? Because I'm none too keen on Hitler." Do men like her? "I don't know. Why don't you ask some?" Does she hate religion? No, because religion arises from something very deep in the human psyche, related to storytelling, and for this reason she disagrees very strongly with someone like Richard Dawkins, who thinks we should just do away with all religion. What she hates is what religion can become - something to "beat people over the head with."

What was the most thought-provoking criticism someone had made of her work? "That I cut off men's heads and use them as a ladder of ambition." That had been in the 1970s. Most people to day are too stupid to come up with that one, Atwood declared.

And what does she think of the future of the novel? Well, the Kindle and the "unfortunately-named" iPad are certainly here to stay, but seriously, would you really store your will on your computer?

But one aspect of her talk I found most interesting was her thoughts on genre regarding her dystopic novels, including the recent Year of the Flood. Margaret Atwood has drawn some fire from sci-fi circles (I've seen this in the blogosphere too) for insisting that her works be classified as "speculative fiction" rather than as science fiction, even though they are set in the future and include technologies and social conventions that don't yet exist. Atwood started out by asserting that her generation was raised on science fiction and that she had grown up reading American pulps like Weird Tales. I love science fiction, she said, but I don't think my books are science fiction. Science fiction, she went on, is divided into three families. The first is fantasy, which features dragons, like those in Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books, which has absolutely amazing dragons that she, Margaret Atwood, can never hope to write.

The second is science fiction proper, which Atwood sees as descended from H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds. And then there's speculative fiction. Now I had always thought this was an umbrella term for sci-fi, fantasy, and horror all together (and that's how I use it on this blog - see the "Speculative Fiction" category). Atwood's definition, by contrast, refers back to the works of Jules Verne, who disparaged H.G. Wells for "making things up!" Verne wrote stories that could conceivably occur. A lot of what he described did not exist in his time but has since come true. Hence, Atwood sees speculative fiction as projecting current trends and speculating as to their possible outcome. Speculative fiction, unlike Star Trek and Star Wars, can actually happen. Atwood pointed to her own Oryx and Crake, which focuses on genetic engineering. People think I'm just speculating as to the direction genetic engineering will take, she stated, but in reality a lot of what I wrote about is already real. (Seriously? And they make fun of me for eating organic!) Similarly, The Handmaid's Tale depicted the anti-feminist backlash of the 1980s gone seriously awry.

At this point, I found myself thinking of cyberpunk, which refers to stories set in the near future and centering on cybertech as opposed to aliens and spaceships. William Gibson is its Verne/Wells, having got the ball rolling with his mid-80s novel Neuromancer. The genre has since expanded to include such diverse works as Neal Stephenson's fanboyish novel Snow Crash, Masamune Shirow's philosophical manga Ghost in the Shell and its anime spin-offs, and the epic Matrix films. Obviously, you can argue that cyberpunk is perhaps more grounded in reality than something like Flash Gordon or Battlestar Galactica, but I'm still not sure where it would go in Atwood's three-tier definition of science fiction overall. (Actually, I don't remember if "science fiction" was the umbrella term she used for these three groupings. I would think "speculative fiction" would be the right word, but apparently not. Again, according to Atwood, that refers to something very specific).

My first impulse is to include cyberpunk in Atwood's definition of "speculative fiction" (especially since Oryx and Crake is very much a part of the related biopunk genre) but I'm not sure it quite fits. Is The Matrix really any less fantastical than Star Trek? What about something like Dan Simmons's Hyperion series, which contains elements of cyberpunk, science fantasy, and space opera? And isn't fantasy a whole 'nother species from science fiction? Is Atwood really including J.R.R. Tolkien in the same family as Philip K. Dick? And by referring back to the pulps she had been raised with, is Atwood implying that science fiction (her H.G. Wells version) is somehow less "serious" than her brand of speculative fiction? She may claim to love science fiction but I love vampire novels and admit that most of them are pretty trashy. I'm not convinced that enjoying something is always synonymous with respecting it. In the end, I understood what Atwood was getting at, but really, all science fiction is speculative. Which is kind of the point of science fiction, as distinguished from The Lord of the Rings, which is pure, um, fantasy.

Now that I think of it more, I think that's where Margaret Atwood trips up: by lumping traditional (or "high") fantasy in too much with science fiction, which subsequently de-legitimizes or destabilizes the latter's predictive, science-based aspect. But then, my background here is sketchy so maybe someone more familiar with these genres can examine this further? So, not too sure on Atwood there.

From here we moved on to the Q&A section. Unfortunately, I did not get chosen despite raising my hand. (Darn!) Atwood talked some more about promoting native Canadian cultural output and answered a student's question about the inclusion of the academic material at the end of The Handmaid's Tale (basically to give the book an element of hope and to establish that that particular regime did not last forever, and that people were able to move past it and examine it critically). She was also asked by another student if she felt that there were still problematic expectations of women writers. Atwood expressed some skepticism at this, pointing to the sheer diversity of female literary output, which ranges everywhere from "Twilight to Virginia Woolf." I tell you, I positively squeed at that. Margaret Atwood does not approve of Twilight.

EPIC WIN!!!!1!1!!eleventy!!!!

She also made the distinction between "zombie slayers" and To the Lighthouse. Personally, I am totally down with the idea of female zombie slayers but I get her point.

The signing of books segment took place in another building. They did not have the decency to tell us where said building was located. I ended up following a bunch of people in the opposite direction! The actual place was not far, but as I walked I was struck with a feeling of nostalgia reminiscent of what I felt when I returned last May to my own university for my friends' graduation. I realized how so very much I missed college. And the students here looked so young! I stood in line behind several of them, including a guy who announced wearily that it "music theory time." I stood there and found that I wanted nothing more than to join them. I missed this insular world of brick buildings where the only things that mattered were studying and partying with people one's own age.

To any and all present college students: Don't graduate! Take that triple major. Stay where you are!

I had my camera with me, but the line was long and it suddenly felt so gauche to ask Margaret Atwood to pose for a picture with me. So I didn't. They had these little cards and a sign asking you to print in block letters the name you wanted Atwood to put in your book.

I saw Atwood for all of fifteen seconds, in which she signed my copy of Oryx and Crake. I have the book right here as I type this. I wanted to remove the page and have it framed but my mother insists that the point is to leave the page in the book. But it's the title page! Isn't it obvious what book it came from?

So what do you think? Get the page framed or keep it shut up in the book?


Wendy said...

I'd open it to the autographed page and then frame the whole book in a shadow box :)

I am SO jealous that you got to see Atwood in person and listen to her speak. She is one of my most favorite authors!

E. L. Fay said...

Hmmm . . . That's a good suggestion. But I like the book, though. What if I want to read it again?

claire said...

Keep the page in the book! That was an awesome retelling of events, thank you very much.

(I rather think you the kind of reader who would love Eco.)

JoAnn said...

I am so sorry I missed this!! Had planned on attending, then had something come up at the last minute. The Twilight comment alone would have been worth the drive...

mel u said...

Sounds like a great evening-I have read three of her books so far-Handmaidens Tale that I loved, The Penelopiad that I like a lot and Cat's Eye that dragged a bit for me but still worth reading-thanks for this very detailed well done recreation of the evening

Anonymous said...

How wonderful! She's one author I'd love to see (hear?). Thanks for sharing.

Oh, and keep the page in the book. Maybe you could get one of those book stand thingies (like for cookbooks) and display it that way.

Valerie said...

I have never read Atwood, but picked up a short story collection of hers recently. Your blog post has just made me move it up higher on the TBR list!

Yeah, I remember my college days and wish I had appreciated it more back then!

Emily said...

"A podium might be nice." Genius.

What an effective relation of her talk! I feel like I was there. And interesting about the genre classifications...I definitely think fantasy & sci-fi are related, but separate arms that both branched off from the same ancestor (I think of that ancestor as Romantic lit, with Frankenstein on the sci-fi side and things like Pollidori's "The Vampire" and Keats's "Eve of St. Agnes" on the fantasy side. Agree that it's difficult to actually USE Atwood's sci-fi versus speculative division - what about something like Orwell's 1984, which is ostensibly set in the future but is more like an exaggerated fairy tale/cautionary tale about how Orwell saw the current world (he thought about naming it 1948? Interesting to consider.

Thanks for sharing this! (PS - I get a bit nostalgic about college, too, and did more so for the first few years out. Really enjoy class. But am also glad, at this point, to be out on my own.)

E. L. Fay said...

Claire: You're most welcome. I have had Ecco on my TBR list for awhile but just haven't gotten around to him yet. Hopefully someday soon.

JoAnn: Yep, you and I are in the same general area. That's too bad you couldn't make it. Atwood is an incredibly funny and engaging speaker.

Mel U: I will be reading The Handmaid's Tale sometime soon (maybe April). I always thought it sounded too over-the-top but I keep hearing good things about it from other bloggers. Seeing Atwood in person cinched the deal for me.

Softdrink: That's what I was thinking - one of those cookbook stands or maybe a shadowbox like Wendy suggested. Anyway, I've decided not to rip the page out. That would've been a silly thing to do.

Valerie: Oh do tell us how the short story collection turned out. So far, I plan on reading The Handmaid's Tale and The Year of the Flood, but having a third Atwood book to add to my TBR list would be great.

Emily: I think Atwood would definitely consider 1984 to be speculative fiction. But your comment got me thinking. I'll address it further in my Sunday Salon post today.

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