From future dystopias to retelling ancient myths, Atwood’s sharp, political and undeniably feminist writing reflects the preoccupations of our age, says Rowan Whiteside.
Margaret Atwood is one of those writers who everybody should read. Luckily, the breadth of her work is wide enough to guarantee something for almost every type of reader: speculative fiction, poetry, short stories, literary fiction, graphic novels, non-fiction. No matter what your poison, Atwood serves it up in a hand-blown glass with a slice of lemon.
Arguably best known for The Handmaid’s Tale – a scorching dystopian story of patriarchal control – Atwood’s writing is always sharp, often political, undeniably feminist, and reflects the preoccupations of our age.
A fierce environmentalist, much of her contemporary work captures a world we seem to be on the brink of: controlled by malevolent corporations, utterly exploitative, and blazing on the edge of burn-out. (The MaddAddam trilogy would be an excellent introduction to her work, with each terrible scenario based on meticulous research.)
She pulls no punches, makes no apologies, just creates these worlds that you sink into with a shiver. By the time you realise that the water is running too fast, you’re out in the middle of the current, and actually, being out of depth just means you feel more. Her writing swallows you up, spits you out soaked through, saying what, how, filled with a sense of exhilaration and narrow escape.
Atwood is a constant innovator. She resists definition, embraces experimentation. She has worked with digital platforms such as Wattpad, is on Twitter, and participated in the Future Book Project; placing her novel Scribbler Moon, unread, into a time capsule from whence it will emerge in a hundred years. She refuses to be catalogued and dismissed, rather she insistently presses against boundaries.
She’s undeniably cool. She writes what the hell she wants, has the prizes to prove her skill, and always, always has her finger on the pulse. (Actually, much of the time, she seems to be skipping three or four beats ahead, anticipating the peaks and troughs of the global heart monitor.)
“To read Atwood is to release imagination. This means letting the ghosts and goblins out of the bedroom cupboard, but actually, isn’t the price for magic worth a few creeping monsters?”
I’ve been lucky enough to see Margaret Atwood talk on several occasions and once, sing. Every time, she’s been brilliantly intelligent, and taken precisely no shit. If a stupid question was asked, she’d reply with a sharp monosyllable. (Which is brilliant to watch, but also makes you feel exceptionally grateful to not be the interviewer.)
And then, after these events, there’d be the queue of people waiting to get their books signed, clutching much thumbed copies to chests, then presenting them with anxious faces. Not just one type of person, but the global population in miniature, all hoping to have a word with the creator, this maker of magic.
To read Atwood is to release imagination. This means letting the ghosts and goblins out of the bedroom cupboard, but actually, isn’t the price for magic worth a few creeping monsters? The readers who love her will tell you it is, absolutely, undeniably.
Atwood’s work is brutal but balanced, her characters convincing, her language ice-tight and clear. The Atwood you will discover depends on which book you read first: my personal favourite is The Penelopiad, but Alias Grace is stunning too. There’s really no wrong place to start.
My favourite Atwood quote is “A word after a word after a word is power.” If anybody could change the world with writing, it would be her.
Margaret Atwood’s new novel Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold is published on 11 October as part of the VINTAGE Hogarth Shakespeare series.
She’s appearing at the South Bank Centre tonight.
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Rowan Whiteside is a writer, reader, and consummate gin-drinker. She is never without a book and sheds to-do-lists wherever she goes. Like everyone else, she is currently working on her first novel.