A lot of people want to know what Margaret Atwood thinks. Now 82, the Canadian novelist, poet and prolific essayist, who has more than 50 books to her name, has for some time, as she herself observes, been treated as an “icon”, having made the leap from literary star to a highly sought-after and versatile cultural commentator.
Atwood has played a large part in cultivating that reputation, of course – international speaking tours, frequent appearances on high-profile open letters – but the nature of her fiction may have also primed the public for the transition. Her opinions carry special weight due to her regularly being cast as a kind of prophet. Her best-known work, the 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, imagined a not-too-distant future in which a theocratic regime seized control of the US, along with the reproductive rights of women. During the presidency of Donald Trump, and the subsequent acceleration of attacks on abortion rights by right-wing politicians, the novel was pointedly adapted into a gruelling television series, cementing the notion that Atwood was in possession of, as she puts it, “a crystal ball”. Atwood’s 2003 novel Oryx and Crake, the first in a trilogy, depicted a lethal future pandemic that remakes the world.
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Even her non-fiction has been ascribed an uncanny prescience. Her book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth was written before the global financial crisis and published in October 2008, more or less coinciding with the meltdown of the world’s leading banks, which it seemed to anticipate. (In the introduction to the 2019 reissue of the book, Atwood writes with characteristic wryness that she was often asked by “admiring hedge fund managers” how she knew what was to come.)
The title of her new book, Burning Questions, seems to contain a winking allusion to her reputed oracular powers. Billed as Atwood’s reflections on the “more than urgent” questions we’ve faced this century, it brings together essays, reviews and, incongruously, speeches written between 2004 and 2021. Across more than 60 pieces, divided into five parts – or periods, as the texts are presented chronologically, rather than organised by theme – the book mines the pressing issues facing contemporary Western culture: how do you spot, and stop, a burgeoning totalitarian? Will we cease destroying the planet before it becomes uninhabitable? What are the limitations of #MeToo?
Throughout Burning Questions, Atwood insists that she’s not clairvoyant, but merely observant – although her denials are edged with a certain coyness: “I’d like to make it clear that I don’t go in for prophecy, not as such,” she writes in a piece about tarot cards. “Nobody can predict the future. There are too many variables.” By the fifth or sixth dismissive allusion to her reputation as a prophet, the reader begins to sense she’s quite pleased about it; one section of Burning Questions is titled, “What will happen next?”
Notwithstanding her reputation as a soothsayer and the success of her speculative fiction, Atwood doesn’t spend all that much time in the new collection pondering what lies ahead. Looking back is her métier. Her fascination with history, ancient and recent, as well as mythology and its archetypes, has always found its way into her fiction (all the elements of her dystopian novels, she claims, have historical precedents – Ceausescu’s policies in Romania in the 1960s, for example, inspiring aspects of The Handmaid’s Tale). As many of the essays here attest, Atwood has thought deeply about the way history illuminates modern dynamics, and she moves between epochs with impressive facility. In an expansive essay on Trumpism and its threat to democracy and human rights, for example, Atwood weaves together Hamlet, the rise of wheat production – and subsequent bone deficiencies in women – in the early Bronze Age, the exclusion of women from political activity during the French Revolution, and the demonising of targeted groups, such as the Tutsis in Rwanda.
The strongest pieces in the book, however, are those on other writers (which don’t, with some exceptions, strictly adhere to the collection’s title theme of urgent dilemmas). Whether reviews, book introductions or, in a few instances, obituaries, these are appreciative, often affectionate tributes. Atwood admires a wide range of writers. In addition to two pieces about her friend and fellow Canadian the short-story writer Alice Munro, there are essays on: Doris Lessing; Ray Bradbury; the conservationist Rachel Carson, author of the landmark environmental book Silent Spring (1962); the speculative novelist Ursula K Le Guin; Charles Dickens; Stephen King; Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of the children’s classic Anne of Green Gables; the Polish journalist, novelist and poet Ryszard Kapuściński; and the novelist Graeme Gibson, Atwood’s partner of 46 years, who died in 2019.
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Running to nearly 500 pages and spanning more than 15 years, what’s most striking about Burning Questions is how it showcases Atwood’s remarkable consistency of theme and perspective. Recurring topics include: the natural world and the harm we are doing to it; the difference between the freedom to act and freedom from being acted upon; how people lose power, and how it is taken from them.
More notable than the repeating subject matter, however, is Atwood’s constancy of approach to it. She hasn’t just been thinking about the same things all these years, but thinking about them in the same way. Her method of examining an issue through the long lens of history is edifying and helpfully orienting – we’ve been here before – but at times it seems like a crutch, reflexive rather than inventive, especially when the past examples she invokes are overfamiliar or hackneyed. When writing about censorship, for example, Atwood repeatedly looks back to the brutal dictatorships of the 20th century; when writing about the dangers of baseless accusations, references to the Salem witch trials abound.
Atwood’s habitual recourse to historical analogy or precedent can also mean her arguments fail to meaningfully register genuinely new developments. In recent pieces discussing free speech, written well after the rise of Twitter and Facebook, Atwood makes fleeting references to algorithms and “internet bullying”, but doesn’t engage seriously with the ways in which social media – and the major corporations that control such platforms – are shaping our culture. (Atwood is aware of this issue, as her own robust social media presence attests.) The way she views one of her own burning questions – how to protect free speech – appears to have evolved little over the course of nearly two decades. There are more than 20 references to Stalin in the book, and only two mentions of Twitter. But this impression of stasis is, perhaps – like her reputation for soothsaying – subtly cultivated. It’s implausible that Atwood hasn’t changed her views this century. But it would be hard to maintain her credentials as an oracle if she wasn’t seen, for the most part, to get it right the first time.
Chatto & Windus, 496pp, £20
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This article appears in the 30 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The New Iron Curtain