The Problems of Atwood

By C. Palmer-Patel

Margaret Atwood is overrated. There. I said it. And I say that as a proud Canadian as well, so I’m sure I’ve just committed some sort of blasphemy. But bear with me here. I have three very important reasons on why The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is merely ‘okay.’ And if you disagree with all three of my reasons, only then may you commence the stoning. [Note that many members of the Editing team are also Devout Atwood Fans and will likely help you lead the charge.]

With the recent announcement that Atwood is releasing a sequel to the novel, my initial impulse is to think that this is part of the Hollywood rebooting era that we seem to be ‘thriving in.’ Don’t get me wrong, some of these sequels have been good. Incredibles 2 (2018) leaps to mind. This is a sequel 14 years in the making and its makers’ care towards the Incredibles family shows. Blade Runner 2049 (2017) is another such film which took loving attention to its source material. Yes, it undermined the beauty of all the possible variations in the multiple released cuts (read more on this in Brian Baker’s editorial in volume 2, issue 1 of Fantastika Journal). But it seemed mindful of its status as an adaptation, demonstrating both continuity with the original and a break away from it, in order to be distinct and stand on its own.

But alongside of this have been plenty of adaptations and sequels that have been huge disappointments; far too many to list and point fingers at. I’m sure the reader can think of maybe just a few that were more money-grabbing nightmares rather than artistic endeavours. And it’s hard not to see Atwood’s sequel going this way as well. The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t need a sequel. Having a sequel to a Dystopia seems to imply that there’s going to be a solution to the problems of society, one that was not planned by the author when they first envisaged their Dystopia. Of course, there have been plenty of Dystopic narratives that are introduced in trilogy structures, where, one presumes that the outcome in the final book will be an eventual collapse of the dystopia. But this narrative progression is usually planned by the author, an idea made obvious by the fact that the trilogy publishes within a few years of the initial novel. In contrast here, adding a solution to The Handmaid’s Tale would undermine the very nature of the Dystopia that Atwood creates. Where The Handmaid’s Tale creates a warning of the possible consequences of society’s current actions, a solution to these problems would challenge that message. The other alternative of course is that society crumbles further. To me, this is a pointless exercise. What’s the point of lighting another fire when the world is already burning?

Which brings me to my first point on why Atwood, and The Handmaid’s Tale in particular, is overhyped. First, Atwood’s depiction of society is generally black and white. There are no shades of grey. There’s not even any colour. (More on that later.) We can see quite clearly that x is bad and y is good in the novel. Repression of women is bad. Of course it is. There’s no way that anyone morally decent would ever consider this idea as a good thing. But Atwood hammers these ideas into us, as a warning of the dangers of what could occur in our own society if we allow the repression of women to continue. And, while this extrapolation makes sense, my problem with it is that it doesn’t allow for the reader to think. Atwood leads you to the answer, like an examiner that will only accept one correct answer on a math exam.

Let’s compare for a moment Atwood’s dystopia to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974). With the subtitle “An Ambiguous Utopia,” we see right in the title two drastically different depictions of Dystopia/Utopia. The first page of the novel starts with the following description:

There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall. Like all walls it was ambiguous, two faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on. (1)

This concept sets up the entire narrative. Le Guin doesn’t tell you which ‘side’ is the side the reader to take. The wall represents two societies of Anarres and Urras, or a communist and a capitalist society respectively. As the narrative continues, the reader realizes that the societies governed on both sides of the wall each demonstrate their own idealistic ideas alongside corruption and decay equally. Some aspects of capitalism are bad, just as some parts of communism are. And some parts may be good. And so, Le Guin doesn’t tell the reader which of these societies to favour. She allows them to think, to contemplate, and to ultimately determine that there is no right or wrong answer. There are shades of grey, with no right path.

Now, I must admit that perhaps in today’s society, we need to see the black and the white clearly outlined. Atwood’s announcement of a sequel is based on the premise that she is updating the original’s ideas to reflect today’s global politics. And, it seems apparent that maybe some people need it hammered into their heads that some ideas are bad. Children routinely dying in school shootings is a bad thing. Tear-gassing people is bad. Locking children up in cages and separating them from their families is bad. And, the fact that certain people would argue against these ideas as ‘bad’ demonstrates just how far we’ve fallen. So, yes, Atwood’s work is completely necessary in a world where we can’t allow people to think for themselves for fear that they’ll rape and pillage those around them if we let them loose. But, I would think that these people wouldn’t be reading much of Fantastika anyway. And so, to the liberal-thinking reader (Atwood’s target audience), what ideas are they walking away with after reading The Handmaid’s Tale except an affirmation of those values that they already hold to be true?

Of course, Atwood would not describe any of her work as Fantastika. Which brings me to my second point. Atwood believes that Science Fiction is fluff. This is quite clear in many of the statements she has made. She defines her work as Speculative Fiction, a distinct term that implies, to Atwood, a literary quality.  “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen” (The Guardian, 2003). And once again, I can let Le Guin speak here, in her review of Atwood’s The Year of the Flood (2009), the second book of her MaddAddam trilogy (2003-2013):

In her recent, brilliant essay collection, Moving Targets, she says that everything that happens in her novels is possible and may even have already happened, so they can’t be science fiction, which is “fiction in which things happen that are not possible today”. This arbitrarily restrictive definition seems designed to protect her novels from being relegated to a genre still shunned by hidebound readers, reviewers and prize-awarders. She doesn’t want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto. (The Guardian, 2009)

Le Guin decides to respect Atwood’s statements of snobbery, as there have been plenty of Science Fiction authors (Le Guin included) who have had to fight for respectability as literary authors. But the capitulation is disquieting. How can we – as academics and readers of Fantastika – fight for the importance and value of Science Fiction and Fantasy if the very authors that produce these genres likewise disparage them? So my second point against Atwood has less to do with The Handmaid’s Tale, and more to do with the disappointment that fans are unable to acknowledge this work as a Fantastika text. Atwood here divorces herself from representing Science Fiction fans. She’s not a Science Fiction author. She writes Speculative Fiction – a term, to her, which has no or little connection to Fantastika genres.

And finally, third, let’s talk about representation itself. It took me awhile to see this one, as I was so indoctrinated in the problem. I am second generation Canadian. I was born in Canada. But my parents hail from India, and thus I am a visible minority citizen. It was in university, in a class dedicated to “Canadian Women Authors” that I first got a sense of something not quite right with the Atwood world. On the very first day, I felt like I stuck out. Now, in a university class of “Canadian Women Authors,” you can expect a fair number of Canadian women. So there was no reason why I should have felt a barrier. I, too, am a Canadian woman. As were the handful of colleagues around me who were taking the class, and the professor teaching it. But, as we started the class with a discussion of feminism – what problems do we face as women? – it quickly became apparent to me that we were speaking from one particular point of view; A group of (presumably) heterosexual and (with the exception of me) white Canadian woman, taking a senior-level university class about Canadian women – and discussing how hard our life was. This is not to dismiss or belittle the very real problems of equality that women in academia face. But it felt privileged to even have a discussion of our problems while looking down at the beautiful university grounds (we were on a top floor windowed classroom, and the metaphor of the ivory ‘tower’ of university was quite physical for me during this discussion.) I tried to point out some real-world problems that other women may face. As my classmates engaged in a discussion of living with their boyfriends (the problems of balancing domestic equality with studies and work), I contemplated how *lucky* there were to be able to live in an open and public relationship. An example of a young girl in India who was forced to marry a much older man sprang to mind as a contrasting experience. I myself, although born in Canada, struggled for years against the assumption that I will eventually get an arranged marriage. I couldn’t help but envy my classmates for their open and upfront acceptance of being able to live with their boyfriends, and, I must confess, the problems they were discussing in connection to this were absolutely alien to me at the time. But, with my undergraduate-level (in)experience, I was unable to communicate or even formulate for myself the distinction between the problems of inequality that were being discussed by my colleagues, and my own experiences and awareness of problems in other communities.

It wasn’t until I attended a lecture on Atwood and Canadian Literature as a PhD student that the problem crystallized so clearly. The professor was discussing Canadian identity in another of Atwood’s novels (Surfacing, 1972). This identity is English. And French. And – with some afterthought – Indigenous peoples. Although, I should say, that I’m not sure if Indigenous culture was included in the depiction of Canadian identity. Instead, the professor very clearly outlined Canadian identity as English/French colonial guilt. Period. “I guess I’m not Canadian then,” I remember muttering to the colleague sitting next to me.

And it was at that moment that I realized that in the Canadian Women Authors class that I took back in my undergraduate years – twenty novels studied over ten to twelve weeks, with fully three or four of these books by Atwood – none of these were written by non-white Canadian women. Or, there may have been one. Possibly. But the remaining nineteen were distinctly written by white women. Canadian women’s identity, then, is white.

And while Atwood obviously didn’t set the reading texts for this course, she perpetuates the system that allows these problems of representations to occur. The professor could not have read Canadian identity as either European or French (period) if the text itself did not allow for this discussion to occur. Moreover, how many visible minority characters can you think of – off the top of your head – in Atwood’s books? Does she have any? If/when they occur, are they major characters? Or are they in the supporting role? Dismissible. Canadian identity is not a beautifully coloured mosaic. To Atwood, it seems to be shades of pink. This is disastrous! An overly emotional response? But if you think about it, Atwood is often deemed representative of ‘Canadian literature.’ If you ask a non-Canadian if they can name a Canadian author, I’m certain that Atwood would be at the top of the list. How unfortunate then, that Atwood fails to speak for so many Canadians.

Now it’s true that this discussion of the representation of minority characters is fairly new. We only became really vocal about these concerns in last the two or three years, really. But this doesn’t mean that it wasn’t important until now! And I can’t help but think, why. Why did Atwood fail to represent a full spectrum of Canadian identity in her novels? Did she not see or consider them at all? Or perhaps this was this another act to protect herself from literary biases? (And which of these explanations is worse?) It’s true that – at the time of publication in 1985 – it may have been considered more appropriate to publish a text focused on normative characters. But again, I’m going to use Le Guin – my Fantastika-idol – as an author who is able to represent various identities without being shunned. (A Wizard of Earthsea, 1968, and The Left Hand of Darkness, 1969 are two obvious examples.) But perhaps she is able to do so as she was publishing despicable Science Fiction, and not the more ‘literary’ Speculative. How bitterly ironic, that representation is more acceptable in the ‘unreal’ genres, as opposed to those that are based on *real life*.

Moreover, Atwood’s novels are frequently identified as feminist literature. Yet Atwood’s discussion of gender-problems does not even begin to address nuances of identity in gender and sexuality. It is difficult to have a discussion of the ‘problems of minority representation’ without acknowledging the full spectrum of identity that this concept covers! Critical discussions of gender and sexuality are often integrated with issues of race. Problems of systematic repression are common to so many areas, after all. And so I fully hope that Atwood fixes some of this damage in her upcoming sequel, and takes the opportunity to represent the full spectrum of human identity. Problems of representation aside, I must admit that Atwood writes beautifully. Every word is well crafted. She not only paints a picture, but allows you to wallow in all five senses, so that you live in the world. She is a master craftsman in that regard. I simply hope that her world this time includes shades of gray and colour.

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