Margaret Atwood is often described as a difficult interviewee; an intimidating writer of great intellect who can be openly disdainful of a luckless interviewer. She doesn’t play the game, the game that most play when invited onto chat shows or whatever when they have something to promote. I can only think she likes Alan Yentob. He evidently likes her. The result was a fabulous interview broadcast on Monday night but only watched by me this evening.
I’m not sure how I came across Atwood. I know it was in the 80s, and it wasn’t because of The Handmaid’s Tale, though I read that later. I think it was probably that she was published by Virago. Feminism and feminist literature were (and still are) very important to me for a mixture of reasons, one of which being a relationship that fortunately ended with a man with whom I am now mystified why I spent more than five minutes. Make that seconds. Or nano-seconds. So authors published by Virago, or the Woman’s Press – motto: Steaming ahead! complete with a sketch of a steam iron – had a particular attraction.
Another reason was Lawrence Durrell. It seems mean to name him as there are plenty of other writers who commit the same sin, but it was one of his novels, I don’t remember which, that made me tense with frustration at reading descriptions of flat, barely one dimensional women; projections by a man who could write well about much, but who could not write about a woman without descending into cliché. I am sure that many of the women writers I admire could have the same accusation levelled at them about the men they have in their novels. But I am a woman, and it is important to me, to my sense of self, I’d go so far to say my sanity, that in fiction I can also recognise real women, recognise myself. Because fiction, although made up, let me amend that to good fiction, is truthful.
My friend Sue in Houston, from whom I have not heard for a few days so I am hoping and praying this is just a lack of Internet connectivity and not something so much worse I don’t even want to think about it, had been through an equally bruising relationship as I had about the same time. Through a series of chances I don’t recall we got back in touch. We were both in London, living a few miles apart, both reading voraciously, and both reading mainly books by women. We read and we swapped books. It was only several years later when we discussed this period of our lives that we realised we had to some extent been using literature as a conversation we found too difficult to have, and that literature was expressing things we were unable to say ourselves but which we yet recognised, found resonated with us, healed us.
Margaret Atwood with her incisive mind, her clear pen, is a writer who pulls the reader up, makes the reader re-evaluate sloppy ideas, demands that her readers read with intelligence. Good literature is a two way partnership, a conversation, a debate. Like all good art it makes our lives richer. It increases our understanding. When libraries close, when we are told that the arts are a luxury, it is a lie. The arts are vital. They articulate complex and difficult issues, throw light on matter we hardly know how to name, open debate and enlarge vision.