Margaret Atwood was recently featured in a Guardian interview as “arguably the most famous living literary novelist in the world”, and she is undoubtedly the most venerable. In the introduction to burning questions, her third collection of essays and non-fiction articles, covering the years 2004 to 2021, she laments, with her typically ironic style, her vaunted productivity: reviews, I notice that one of the leitmotifs is a moan constant about taking too much. “This has to stop,” I tell myself. »
And yet – thankfully – she didn’t. One of the most remarkable aspects of this collection is how engaged Atwood, now 82, has remained with the pressing issues of the day and how vigorously she continues to pursue the public life of a writer; many of these plays first took the form of speeches. When his longtime partner Graeme Gibson died during his 2019 tour for The Willsshe continued her international speaking engagements – a decision she writes of, “given the choice between hotel rooms and events and people on the one hand, and an empty house and a vacant chair on the other, what would you have chosen, Dear reader?” In homage to Gibson, the last part of burning questions includes the introductions she wrote to reissues of two of her novels, as well as the foreword to her The bedside book of birds.
The majority of the pieces here deal with themes that have preoccupied her all her life as a writer: “subjects that still occupy my shrinking brain: ‘the question of women’, writing and writers, human rights ‘man.” More recent essays add to this list the environment, freedom of expression and the state of Western democracy. Atwood has always been a political novelist in the broadest sense (although she would probably reject that description, given her aversion to literary labels), and the enduring popularity and relevance of her fiction has given her iconic status, which which means tapes of readers now expect her to make definitive statements on hot topics, especially concerning feminist controversies, and be ready to attack if her stance doesn’t sit well with them.
One such controversy is addressed in the 2018 piece “Am I a Bad Feminist?”, which is not so much a rebuttal as a careful examination of the titular accusation. This was occasioned by Atwood’s decision to sign a open letter at the University of British Columbia to protest the treatment of an academic, Steven Galloway, accused of sexual misconduct. “The public – myself included – felt that this man was a violent serial rapist, and everyone was free to publicly attack him,” she wrote. Galloway was later cleared of sexual assault by a judge but lost his job anyway; Signatories to the letter had worried about a lack of due process and transparency, but Atwood’s “good feminist accusers” called her out for apparently siding with an alleged abuser. “And now, it seems, I’m waging a war on women, like the bad, misogynistic, rape-prone feminist that I am,” she notes dryly. But, like any reader of The Handmaid’s Tale As Atwood knows, she distrusts mob justice, especially when fueled by complacency, and she uses the Galloway incident as a starting point to reflect on the nature of witch trials, “in which a person was guilty because she was accused”.
It was a cutting position to take in the heat of the #MeToo movement, when the accuser was an article of faith for many feminists, but Atwood is clearly not intimidated by opprobrium, instead calling for fairness and responsibility. “In times of extremes, the extremists win,” she writes, “…and the middle moderates are wiped out.” Given her willingness to jump into the fray on social media, it would have been interesting to hear her thoughts on other current debates around free speech and feminism. But then, as she observes in “The Writing of The Willsof 2020: “I have always been wary of the expression the wrong side of the story… History is simply human beings doing things.
It’s fascinating to read Atwood’s reflections on her own novels and their continued relevance, sometimes three or four decades after the fact, but equally striking to see how many pieces she generously included here celebrating other writers. There are tributes to Doris Lessing, Ursula K Le Guin and Simone de Beauvoir, as well as environmentalists Barry Lopez and Rachel Carson, and an essay on his undying love for Shakespeare. Through all these pieces, she communicates the central message of her wonderful 2014 book On writers and writingthat a writer must also be a reader.
One of the last pieces collected here is a tribute not to a book but to an album, that of Laurie Anderson big sciencebut the exhortation with which Atwood ends it could serve as a slogan for the whole of burning questions“Good listening. Face the urgent questions. Feel the cold.