In the Critics this week

Autumn books with A M Homes, Jonathan Powell, John Banville and others.

It’s the Autumn Books special in the Critics section of this week's New Statesman. Our lead book reviewer is Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s chief of staff from 1995 to 2007. Powell reviews Kofi Annan’s memoir Interventions. “I don’t think Annan has anything to apologise for,” Powell writes. “The problem is not with the man but with the international community.” Former Conservative foreign secretary Douglas Hurd also considers the future of the international community in his review of Governing the World by Mark Mazower. “The UN has endorsed the notion of ‘the responsibility to protect’”, Hurd notes. “As on many similar occasions, the baptismal name is misleading. The responsibility to protect is not so much about protection as about intervention.”

In the Books interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to D T Max about his biography of the late David Foster Wallace. Max considers the charge that Wallace fabricated details in his non-fiction. “David’s stuff is taught in journalism classes and I do feel a bit uneasy about that,” he confesses. “Of all David’s pieces, the falsifications that bother me most are in his long essay on John McCain”.

In her “Personal Story”, the American novelist A M Homes explains how growing up amid the tumult of Nixon-era Washington DC shaped her fiction. “It was a strange time and place to be a child,” she writes. “A multi-layered existence with shifting standards, exceptions, and different rules for different people.”

Also in Autumn Books: the Business Editor of ITV News, Laura Kuenssberg, reviews John Gapper’s Wall Street thriller A Fatal Debt; former controller of Radio 4 Mark Damazer reviews How Do We Fix This Mess? by Robert Peston; historian Richard J Evans on History in the Making by J H Elliott; the NS’s pop critic Kate Mossman reviews Philip Norman’s biography of Mick Jagger; poet Christopher Reid on The Collected Poems of Samuel Beckett; Linda Grant reviews Colm Toibin’s retelling of the story of Mary, mother of Jesus; and John  Banville pays truibute to Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night, “the finest novel ever written by a far-right sympathiser”.

Elsewhere in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey is impressed by Walter Salles’s adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road; Rachel Cooke reviews the BBC2 documentary I Was Once a Beauty Queen; and Antonia Quirke is entranced by a Radio 4 programme about the Irishness of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Jonathan Powell, left, with his former boss Tony Blair (Photograph: Getty Images)
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Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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