Although I am often rubbish with challenges, I have managed reasonably so far with November’s, fitting in some non-fiction, a novella and a German book (even though the last two were one and the same…!) So I was determined I would also read something by Margaret Atwood; I love her writing very much, and it’s always a joy to revisit her, but the hardest thing was choosing what to actually pick up. I’ve not been so much in the mood for fiction lately, and had earmarked poetry or essays; in the end, it was the latter I went with, in the form of her collection “On Writers and Writing” (originally published as “Negotiating with the Dead”).

As I mentioned in my post on November challenges, it turns out that I purchased on “On Writers…” not realising it was the same as “Negotiating…”, which I already own. After reading it, I’m still unsure as to whether I’ve read it before! Some of the material seemed familiar, particularly the parts dealing with her early life; but as this has turned up in other non-fiction writings by her which I’ve read, it could simply be that I’m remembering that. Anyway, reading Atwood is always a joy, so in the end it didn’t really matter if this was a new read or a re-read.

“On Writers…” has its roots in a series of essays Atwood presented to the University of Cambridge for their Empson Lectures series, and was first published by Cambridge University Press in 2002. In the essays, Atwood explores the whole ethos of writers and writing: why a writer writes; their role in the world; the way they regard themselves and the reader; and much, much more. Spanning autobiography, thoughts on great writers and their works, the conflict between art and money, and whether it’s essential to sell your soul to the Devil, Atwood ranges far and wide over these and other topics in a way that is always entertaining and thought-provoking.

What to do? Where to turn? How to proceed? Is there a self-identity for the writer that combines responsibility with artistic integrity? If there is, what might it be? Ask the age we live in, and it might reply – the witness. And, if possible, the eyewitness. (On the relationship between the artist and the real world)

Atwood is an excellent and erudite commentator; and she’s also a humorous one, with her dry wit cutting through the chaff to get to her point. Her discussion of the relationship between reader and writer, with the necessary distance they should keep between them, is particularly fascinating; and her understanding of our need to make a mark on the world during our transient existence, to leave some kind of sign saying “I was here!”, is telling. We write for ourselves but we also write for others; and that can be a complex tightrope to walk.

In what ways, if any, does talent set you apart? Does it exempt you from the duties and responsibilities expected of others? Or does it load you up with even more duties and responsibilities, but of a different kind? Are you to be a detached observer, pursuing your art for its own sake, and having arcane kinds of fun – or rather, experiences that will enrich your understanding of Life and the Human Condition…

Although I know a reasonable amount about Atwood’s life from documentaries and her essays, I found the sections which dealt with her life and experiences really interesting. Spending many of her young years in the backwoods of Quebec, becauses of her father’s work, she had a non-traditional upbringing; it was fascinating to read about this, and the effects it had on her attitudes to her life and work. Her drily self-deprecating take on her journey to becoming a poet and then an author of fiction is wonderful, and as I read I couldn’t help but hear her words as if they were being spoken in her very distinctive voice.

Needless to say, I loved reading this book; I’m rarely disappointed with an Atwood, and I’ve come to appreciate her non-fiction work much more in recent years. She’s clear-eyed about her profession, willing to discuss all shades of opinion about writers and writing and reading, witty and erudite. The more I read (and I have read a lot…) the more I admire writers who communicate their ideas well, and do it in prose that’s engrossing and transformative. Atwood is an author who changes the way you look at things, and these essays will certainly make you think more about why writers write, why readers read and what you’re doing with that book you’re holding in your hand! Highly recommended!


So there you have it. Full house! I have managed to read books that fit into each of the categories for November challenges (and it’s entirely possible I shall read more non-fiction this month, the way things are going!) Onward and upward! 😀