16 April 2021

On Writers and Writing by Margaret Atwood



I have recently become obsessed with reading books by authors about writing. I also mentioned in a recent review that during the pandemic I had this craving to buy every single novel by Margaret Atwood. After reading her debut novel The Edible Woman I decided to pick up her take on writers and writing. 

On Writers and Writing by Margaret Atwood is 256 pages long. It is similar to other books of this nature in that it blends literary criticism with memoir. Atwood talks about growing up in northern Canada and how quickly she became obsessed with reading. She talks about how difficult it was to be taken seriously as a woman whose career aspiration was to be paid for her poetry and prose. 

So much a part of the job description did it appear that after my first two slim volumes had been published I was asked, in all honesty, not whether I was going to commit suicide, but when. Unless you were willing to put your life on the line - or rather, dispose of it altogether - you would not be taken quite seriously as a woman poet. Or so the mythology decreed."

I don't want to mislead you about the nature of this book. Atwood does reference her own personal life and career as an author, but that makes up about 10 per cent of the book. Of all the books I've read in this genre, I would say this one is mostly focused on literary criticism. 

Atwood says in the introduction to the book that she was invited to give a series of lectures on writing, and that this book was born out of those speaking notes. She expands on a few things, but each chapter reads more like an academic essay than anything too personal. At times I found it a bit dry or hard to focus on. If you hated your English Lit class, you may not love On Writers and Writing

... I spoke about the writer's perception that he or she is two: one that does the living and consequently the dying, the other that does the writing and becomes a name, divorced from the body but attached to the body of work."

Margaret Atwood

Each chapter focuses on a different element of writing and being an author. Chapter three discusses making money as an author, and what that means for the art form. There's also a chapter where she talks about the moral implications of writing which I found pretty interesting: 

"There's 'good,' there's 'good at,' and there's 'good for,' in the sense of good for other people. In which of these ways should art and artists be 'good.'"

Atwood mentions how your entire identity almost disappears as you publish more and more writing, and how the public ties you to your subject matter. I thought this statement was particularly interesting because people are always asking Atwood if she defines herself as a feminist or not. Her most famous work is The Handmaid's Tale which has become even more famous in the United States with the Hulu TV series starring Elizabeth Moss. It's hard to escape that subject matter...

It's an old role, this. 'I was there, I saw it, it happened to me:' these are seductive recommendations, and make a deep appeal to the imagination, as writers from Herodotus on have known. 'Good prose is like a window-pane,' says George Orwell, implying that what we see through this clear window will be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." 

If you are a fan of Margaret Atwood, or interested in writing as an art form, then I would recommend this book. I love Atwood, and am still planning on filling out my bookshelf with the rest of her novels. 

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