Why did I go to this trouble you ask? I heard tell of some piece on the overpraised prescience of Margaret Atwood, accusations that her reputation was unfounded. So I had to read it for myself.
Last week, Margaret Wente acknowledged the uncanny similarities of life as depicted in The Handmaid's Tale to the plight of women in, for example, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.
But that is not what Ms Atwood and her fans have in mind. To them, The Handmaid's Tale was prescient because it predicted — life in the United States! Yes, people. They are not referring to life under the Taliban, or life under the theocrats in Riyadh and Tehran. They're referring to life under George W. Bush! After all, they point out, the Christian fundamentalists are now in charge of the United States, and human rights have been ground into the dust. Presumably, we'll soon be bundled up in burkas, if Dubya has his way. Among the artistic classes of Canada and Europe, this version of America as dystopia is simply accepted as a fact.
How is it possible to confuse the oppression endured by the walking shrouds of Jeddah with the oppression endured by the soccer moms of New Jersey? Beats me. When last I checked, women in America were robust participants in public life, had freedoms unparalleled in human history, and could even go out wearing anything they pleased except for fur. The only rivets in their lips were the ones they put there themselves. You might have some very serious quarrels with the Bush regime, but it's no Taliban. Actually, they're the folks who overthrew the Taliban. Or am I missing something?
You are missing something.
Dystopias are generally written as warnings, not as certainties of our future. It's fiction. We grant it creative licence.
"Ms Atwood has built a phenomenally successful literary career on her creepily paranoid view of Western civilization and its prospects." Umm, no. She built a phenomenally successful literary career on her talent for portraying women with insight and humour, even if their social constructs were viewed a little cynically. Paranoia? Two dystopias. After having established herself as a literary figure.
"Ms Atwood is routinely compared with George Orwell, whose 1984 is perhaps the most chilling version of the future ever written. This is an awful slur on Orwell, who knew who the real totalitarians were, and depicted the psychological truth of a totalitarian state with a chilling realism Ms. Atwood cannot even hint at." Meanwhile, Wente believes we are in a place to fully dismiss The Handmaid's Tale because it was set in 2005. Atwood is a false prophet because life hasn't turned out as she predicted by an arbitrary date. How, I wonder, does Wente recollect 1984 London: was it a year of totalitarianism and misinformation under Thatcher, precisely as Orwell had envisioned 36 years earlier? Does Wente think it came to pass in reality, or does she acknowledge that it is in some ways metaphorical, an extrapolation to the extreme from grains of truth?
What Wente's missing is that the seeds are still there, in the United States of 2004, and if anything they have taken root since The Handmaid's Tale's writing. (Orwell's vision of propaganda has never been truer than in post-9/11 USA.)
A couple letters to the editor set Wente straight, recalling the anti-abortion movement in the United States and defeat of the equal rights amendment, the joining of church and state, the religious right's views on abortion, same-sex marriage and stem-cell research
Another letter diputes the claim that it is only the United States Atwood had in mind while writing the book.
One reader notes, "As she sometimes does, Ms. Wente conflates the United States with the whole world, then assaults The Handmaid's Tale as an anti-American rant. . . The novel may be set in part of the present U.S., but it was clear to me when I first read it . . . that while for most North Americans it might represent futurist dystopian fiction, for many women elsewhere on the planet it came horribly close to reality."
One English professor (!) wrote "My overall complaint with everything I've ever read by Margaret Atwood is that she writes of worlds completely lacking in joy. To me, that tone must somehow reflect the writer herself." Thank god I was never in one of your classes! (Imagine, a course full of books by writers who weren't alcoholics or suffering from depression! What? no happy endings?)
A couple other letters praise Wente for her insight, reassured that it's OK to be Canadian (though Wente has never given up her allegiance to the United States) and not to like Margaret Atwood. The rest of us Canadians lack critical objectivity, because we're OK with her genre-switiching and evolution as a writer.
This weekend in The Globe and Mail, J.S. Porter favourably reviewed Atwood's newly published collection of essays:
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.
The review also does something to dispel some of Wente's "argument":
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.
Moving Targets is "alive and kicking."
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.
Didn't you know about the political insight? That's why she's good at writing dystopias.