Margaret Atwood on Determining Political Imperatives in Literature

Margaret Atwood, one of Canada’s best-known and admired authors, sits atop a gilded throne above a glistening moat at her home in Toronto’s winter garden. But she and the setting—gilded, immaculately decorated with sculptures,…

Margaret Atwood, one of Canada’s best-known and admired authors, sits atop a gilded throne above a glistening moat at her home in Toronto’s winter garden. But she and the setting—gilded, immaculately decorated with sculptures, hand-sewn wallpaper, and elaborate plants—are both symbols of the literary giant’s surprisingly feminine aesthetic.

Atwood is a feminist and social justice advocate—and, by those standards, a rather masculine one. But unlike many activists, she can be reliably described as a feminist; indeed, Atwood herself once wrote, “Many women, including myself, still regard themselves as belonging to the category of feminist.”

But like many other feminists, she is also straddling the lines between art and politics. “It’s very easy for one of us to take a feminist cause,” Atwood told me in an interview, “take an art subject, take a business subject, and say, ‘My outrage is for the sake of humanity!’ But I’m always concerned about whether one is effective in dealing with social problems or whether one is effective in dealing with the business of making money.”

Atwood’s work is grounded in classic literature. She is the author of 10 novels, including The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin, both of which were made into modern television shows. Her writing has been translated into several languages. In 2010, she founded the Atwood Prize for Canadian Writers—an annual award for best written Canadian novel, an idea she says was inspired by the Doris Duke Literary Endowment.

In 1977, Atwood published Oryx and Crake, a novel about a biologist’s investigation into a company that is dumping ionized water into the Katmai National Park in Alaska. For its crimes, the company’s CEO was murdered. The novel helped inspire the fictional “Environmental Terrorism Act,” which Atwood refers to as “a copycat version of Harry Potter.”

She is the author of 10 novels, including The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin, both of which were made into modern television shows.

Five years ago, she published Migrations, a story collection about migration—his and hers—from the perspective of six characters.

Atwood says she considers herself neither a “political” writer nor an “art” writer. “They aren’t two broad categories,” she said. “I see myself as a committed environmentalist, but I also know my subject matter is so intensely personal that it’s difficult to apply my words with universal clarity, especially when I write about the environment or anything close to it.”

But Atwood is not so modest as to dismiss the importance of her writing. “I’m an early adopter and an early practitioner of information technology,” she said. “And what is surprising to me is how much a technology company has become a major player in both the art and the business of publishing.”

Atwood’s most recent works are the “epic, underground romances” she calls “feminist pulp novels”—full of sexual innuendo and hard-boiled language, but involving themes of morality and justice. In a letter to a journalist, Atwood explained, “Writers of love stories have always had to be political or be dead, or go quietly. I don’t really want to die.”

Atwood is now at the crossroads of old and new. She is in the third of a four-part series about various Canadian literary figures. Her fourth is about poet Sylvia Plath. This month, she published the novel The Judas Switch. This spring, she will publish the cyberpunk fantasy The Round House. In the decades since Oryx and Crake, Atwood has married, founded her own bookstore, and created her own publishing house.

She continues to engage in the kind of political activism that people may expect from novelists but that “probably shouldn’t be done at literary festivals in bookstores,” she said. “On the other hand, writing is literature, so it’s up to me to say whatever is necessary.”

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