“Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing” by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing was recommended in Valerie Martin’s Introduction to Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which I recently re-read. This is not Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird, a friendly, funny self-deprecating book for writers. This is an erudite, dry-humored, cerebral book on writing. It was challenging (in a good way) but not necessarily enjoyable, if you know what I mean. The six chapters are taken from a series of lectures Atwood did at the University of Cambridge. They concern (but are hardly limited to) questions of who is a writer, the difference (if there is one) between a writer and her work, the difference between writing for art or money, whether writers “should” write morally improving tales, who is the audience, and finally, what is the relation between writing and the fear of mortality.

The two chapters Martin recommends are the one on duplicity:

(after a gruesome question that ends the previous paragraph.) Now, what disembodied hand or invisible monster just wrote that cold-blooded comment? Surely it wasn’t me; I am a nice, cosy sort of person, a bit absent-minded, a dab hand at cookies, beloved by domestic animals, and a knitter of sweaters with arms that are too long. (35)

And the final one on negotiating with the dead:

But dead people persist in the minds of the living. There have been very few human societies in which the dead are thought to vanish completely once they are dead. (159)

Martin doesn’t spell out why she thinks these chapters are particularly relevant to The Handmaid’s Tale. I’d speculate that the chapter on duplicity grew out of the reaction to Handmaid’s Tale, and how much speculation there must have been as to Atwood’s own politics and feminist sensibilities and biases. And the final chapter, about negotiating with the dead, is relevant to the analysis of the final chapter of Handmaid’s Tale, SPOILER

in which future academics analyze the past narrative artifact the reader just read.

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