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     Volume 4 Issue 46 | May 13, 2005 |

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Book Review

Curious Pursuits

Curious Pursuits
Margaret Atwood
Stephanie Merritt

By the time she began contributing to her high-school magazine, Margaret Atwood explains, she had already decided that she wanted to be a writer, 'a very dedicated one, with the resulting lung illnesses, unhappy affairs, alcoholism and early death that would surely follow - but I knew I would have to have a day job in order to afford the squalid flat and the absinthe'.

As for so many would-be novelists, that job turned out to be hack work, and this collection is a selection of Atwood's occasional writings from 1970 to the present.

She divides the book into three chronological sections bookended by historical events; the first concludes with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the second with the non-event of the millennium, while the third is concerned with shifts in the world since 11 September 2001.

For women of my generation, born midway through what Atwood calls 'the decade of rampant feminism', this first part is striking for its relentless and often defensive discourse on gender and serves as a reminder of how much has changed for women in the past three decades and how much we now take for granted.

It is almost unthinkable now that a woman novelist would feel obliged to defend her characters on anything other than an individual or local level. No woman who creates an unpleasant male character is accused of making a statement about all men on behalf of all women, nor are we expected to produce only such women characters as make 'good role models' for the movement.

Reading Atwood as she returns to this debate over and over again, we may feel rather as she claims to have felt on first reading Virginia Woolf as a teenager: 'Lily Briscoe suffers the aggression of an insecure man who keeps telling her that women can't paint and women can't write, but I didn't see why she should be so upset about it: the guy was obviously a drip, so who cared what he thought? Anyway, no one had ever said that sort of thing to me, not yet.'

But any woman who writes fiction now ought to read this section as a history lesson and feel profound gratitude that we no longer have to spend quite so much time arguing our right to write at all.

The most interesting pieces gathered here are the most personal, since they retain a freshness that feels closer to fiction and less dated than the more journalistic commentary. 'The Grunge Look' is a lovely, self-mocking account of visiting Europe for the first time as an earnest graduate; early Sixties London is summoned with the novelist's eye for an image, and her dry humour works best in these kind of narrative pieces.

The book reviews have endured less well. As she points out in the introduction, newspaper reviewing and literary criticism are distinct forms which only rarely coincide; the former, she suggests, derives from village gossip ('loved her, hated him, and did you get a load of the shoes?') rather than academic traditions.

Her own reviews, at least the examples preserved here, are firmly in the former category; added to the admission that she only reviews books she likes, the subjective, chatty tone of these pieces means they lack the kind of critical authority that would make them worth preserving as essays (of Toni Morrison's Beloved, she writes 'in three words or less, it's a hair-raiser').

Her progressive political views have remained constant through the decades, and her voice rings out clear and true in the final section. In these pieces, you will not find arguments of intricate political philosophy; rather, they are heartfelt, passionate and personal pleas for a different way of looking at the world. Some might say such an approach was characteristic of women; better to say it is certainly characteristic of this writer, who has fought proudly for the individual against such generalisations.

Source: The Guardian


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