Negotiating With The Dead is a tidied-up transcript of the Empson Lectures that Margaret Atwood delivered two years ago at Cambridge. ‘Negotiating with the Dead’ actually refers to the last lecture only; ‘A Writer on Writing’ is what the whole sequence is actually about. In these six substantial pieces, Atwood roams over all the things that worry authors most: money, critics, and how to cope when the only thing your readers seem interested in is where you get your hair done.
The major starting point of all Atwood’s thinking is an assumption of every writer’s ‘doubleness’. By this she means that there is a self who writes, and a self who does all the other things that non-writers do: walks the dog, makes cookies (Atwood is a dab hand at these) and eats bran as a sensible precaution. This split, she suggests, allows the writer to get away with murder: sometimes literally, when she litters her pages with corpses; mostly, though, by letting her slip off the leash and go to places and states of mind that she would not dream of exploring in her neat and rather samey life (there is nothing more deadly than a writer’s daily schedule).
Atwood’s thesis comes most alive when she roots it in her own early life and career. Thus she tells a good tale of being raised, drab and colonial, in postwar Canada, constantly imagining a spinning centre somewhere else: London, New York or Paris. She is wryly funny, too, about her own youthful pretensions, her seriousness as a bad poet, and the odd fact that she started out writing under her nickname until someone told her that it made her sound silly. (Using your initials was also out, apparently, because T S Eliot had got there first.)
Particularly good is Atwood’s extended meditation on the difference – that doubleness again –between storytelling and story-writing. She points out slyly that, these days, if you want to give a novelist a compliment without seeming schmoozy, you call them ‘a great storyteller’. Thus you celebrate their ability to put together a plot, while keeping a tactful silence on their failure to create believable characters or to manage either tone or pace. The real writer, the one who strains to create a text that is self-consciously designed for the page rather than the campfire, is not allowed any of the ebullient messiness of the storyteller. Instead, he or she must labour to produce something disciplined, something which at least appears to be fixed and final. Only at this point can the process of unravelling and re-creation commence, as the reader – or, better still, thousands of readers – begins the process of making the story anew.
While all this is well and lightly written, none of it is particularly original. The blurb on the Empson Lectures describes them as ‘a unique forum for distinguished writers and scholars of international reputation to explore wide-ranging literary-cultural themes in an accessible manner’. Atwood is certainly accessible, and when she applies her theoretical concerns about slippery doubles, word-spinning magicians and Apollo vs Mammon to her own life she is fascinating and fresh. She is canny, too, about not giving too much of herself away: throughout the pieces she remains steadfastly in the persona of the writer who writes rather than that of the writer who bakes cookies, walks the dog, etc, etc. The problem comes when she slips off into extended discussions about critical and literary issues which have long been done and dusted (reader reception theory, the Romantics, the reinvention of folk traditions, the feverish practice of narrative-making as a defence against death). Her references, while wide-ranging, do not build upon one another. Instead, her main thrust seems to be towards proliferation – of identities, secondary texts, parallel worlds.
By all accounts, when Atwood delivered the Empson Lectures back in 2000, she was a revelation. Her voice – and ‘voice’, in the sense of a writer’s rhetorical strategy, is something that interests her a lot – was sardonic, amused, daring you not to take her too seriously. Unfortunately, translated onto the page this ‘voice’ has lost its edge: not quite clever enough to make you see the world anew; not quite intimate enough to make you hear Margaret Atwood afresh.