Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

When I put my mind to thinking of Canadian feminists whose books I wanted to explore in 2010, Margaret Atwood’s name came to mind immediately.

I was a teenager when I first read The Edible Woman and Life Before Man and Cat’s Eye, a young woman heading to university with The Handmaid’s Tale.

I wouldn’t have used the word ‘feminist’ then, but that’s the spirit of the novels which so struck me, even though I didn’t have the words for it at the time.

But when it came to choosing books for the Women Unbound Reading Challenge, I felt kind of like it would be cheating to include her because I’ve read all of her novels and most of her stories.

But there are gaps in my reading of her non-fiction and poetry and this challenge, with its requirement that at least three of the books be non-fiction is the perfect reason for me to mend one of those gaps.

I’d been wanting to re-read Negotiating with the Dead for some time anyway, and did so this time with the particular intent of examining what Atwood had to say not only about being a writer but about being a female writer.

Even her attempt to summarize the book indicates her awareness that female writers will have a different experience of the writing life than male writers:

“Let’s say it’s about the position the writer finds himself in; or herself, which is always a little different. It’s the sort of book a person who’s been laboring in the wordmines for, say, forty years — by coincidence, roughly the time I myself have been doing this — the book such a person might think of beginning, the day after he or she wakes up in the middle of the night and wonders what she’s been up to all this time.” (xvii)

I found myself sticking little plastic flags throughout the book, endlessly pleased with this as my first Women Unbound read and renewedly excited about reading Margaret Atwood, her passion for books and reading and writing infiltrating every page. And who doesn’t enjoy a chuckle here and there even when the most serious of subjects are being considered. For instance, when she’s discussing having learned about the seedier side of life from books, she mentions Grace Metallious’s heroine of Peyton Place: she “wanted to be a writer, but what she had to go through to become one was nauseating in the extreme. Never mind– she certainly had lots of material to write about. Incest, venereal disease, rape, varicose veins — it was all in there.” (13)

It was, Atwood says, definitely harder for a woman to make the choice to write, even for her in the late 1950s when “smoothly run domesticity was the approved trend” (10) and the image of the “doomed female artist” abounded from the late-18th-century through the mid-twentieth century, with all her overwhelming expectations and anxieties. “You couldn’t be a wife and mother and also an artist, because each one of these things required total dedication.” (85)

As she said in the introduction of another of her collections of lectures given, Atwood straddles the line between academic and accessible style in Negotiating with the Dead.

“This series is designed as a kind of half-way house between the non-specialist public and the ivory tower — between those who gobble up the literary comestibles, in other words, and those who inform them about the structure and nutritional content.” (from Strange Things)

So it might not be the kind of book you pick up to read casually. There are a lot of quotes and references to other works and she assumes that you have a vested interest in the topic and if in fact you do, I would highly recommend this book, in general, but particularly for the Women Unbound reading challenge. For lots of reasons…

“For instance, there’s the F-word. If you’re a woman and a writer, does the combination of gender and vocation automatically make you a feminist, and what does that mean, exactly? That you shouldn’t put a good man into / your books, even though in real life you may have managed to dig up a specimen or two? And if you do courageously admit to being one of those F-word females, how should this self-categorization influence your wardrobe choices? I know that’s a frivolous comment, but if the wardrobe matter is all that frivolous, then why have so many earnest commentators made such ideological heavy work of it? And even if you aren’t an F-word feminist in any strict ideological sense, will nervous critics wallop you over the head for being one, simply because you exemplify that suspicious character, A Woman Who Writes? If, that is, you put any female characters into your books who aren’t happy, and any men who aren’t good. Well, probably they will. It’s happened before.” (106-7)

I like a book that asks me questions. I like a book that makes me think of more questions. I like a book that gets me even more excited about reading the next book (which will be, in this case, Second Words, one of Atwood’s collections of essays).

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