In Margaret Atwood’s Essays and Speeches, Some Hazards of the Trade

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Feb. 25, 2022, Editors’ Note: After publication of this review, the publisher of “Burning Questions” alerted The Times that the text it had provided to the paper for reviewing and again later for fact-checking went through substantial revisions before the final version of the book was published. The review has been revised to reflect these changes.


BURNING QUESTIONS
Essays and Occasional Pieces, 2004-2021
By Margaret Atwood
496 pages. Doubleday. $30.

Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to collect their PEN International speeches between hard covers.

PEN International, and its regional satellites, do God’s work. They assert the right to freedom of expression; they fight for writers who have been harassed or jailed. Donate immediately.

The PEN conference speech, that’s a different thing. Out come the resonant and ego-buffing generalities, from boldface names, about art and politics and storytelling.

The amount these speeches have added to the sum of human dullness is incalculable. As after-dinner speeches, they sneak under the line. Reprinted, they’ve been chloroforming novelists’ essay collections for generations.

The speakers talk on and on, as if they’ve finally been handed the conch shell in “Lord of the Flies.”

Evelyn Waugh, writing in 1962, tried to diagnose the problem. Waugh divided the literary world into “those who can write but cannot think, those who think but cannot write, and those who can neither think nor write but employ themselves at international congresses lecturing on the predicament of the writer in modern society.”

That’s so cynical it almost hurt my fingertips to type. But I’m with him most of the way. And this applies even to those who can clearly write and think, like Margaret Atwood.

In Atwood’s new book, “Burning Questions: Essays and Occasional Pieces, 2004-2021,” there are so many such speeches, including a PEN talk, that they quickly capsize the boat, threatening to drown even the good material.

The heart-sinking opening sentences start early, and they never entirely stop.

I’m very honored to have been asked to give the Kesterton Lecture here at Carleton’s School of Journalism and Communication.

It’s a real pleasure to be here with you here this evening, at the Charles Sauriol Environmental Dinner.

Greetings! It is a great honor to have been asked to deliver this year’s Belle van Zuylen Lecture. I am so sorry I could not be there in person …

I kept reading. Hope springs eternal across a crowded table of contents. And there is some smart material and pawky wit in “Burning Questions,” even if they huddle, trembling, like ferns behind a waterfall.

In some of the essays here, Atwood recalls the gestation and reception of her best-known novels, including “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Alias Grace” and “Oryx and Crake.” She reminds us that Mary McCarthy hammered “The Handmaid’s Tale” in The New York Times Book Review, right off the bat, almost ending its chances.

Atwood has had the last laugh. “The Handmaid’s Tale” has been on and off best-seller lists for 35 years, and has rarely seemed more prescient.

Her publisher didn’t like the title “Oryx and Crake.” She had to fight to keep it. She notes that the title sounds like happy frogs in a pond. She writes: “Try pronouncing it three times, thus: Oryx oryx oryx. Crake crake crake. You see?”

Three of the best pieces are a remembrance of the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, whom she knew; a reappraisal of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novel “Anne of Green Gables”; and an appreciation of a fellow Canadian writer, Alice Munro.

Credit…Luis Mora

The “Green Gables” piece shows off Atwood’s anarchic spirit. She imagines a sequel, “Anne Goes on the Town,” in which Anne gets “an incurable S.T.D.” The Munro piece shows off her gift for close reading. A rumpled bed in Munro’s fiction, she notices, is sexier than most graphic sex scenes by other writers.

She wades into the culture wars, defending a professor who was accused of sexual misconduct and fired, though an inquiry exonerated him. She asks, “Why have accountability and transparency been framed as antithetical to women’s rights?”

There’s also a speech about teaching writing with the help of Tarot cards.

Some of the most memorable things in “Burning Questions” are simply stray comments that noodle their way into your mind. She writes, “When I first saw the term child molester in a newspaper, I though it said child mole-ster, a job available to children, in which they would be paid for collecting moles.”

Christopher Hitchens wrote that he needed a rectal thermometer to detect how quickly he was becoming an old fart. Atwood, at 82, hardly seems ossified. She’s radiant on this book’s cover, and the best pieces here cast a certain glow as well.

As for the speeches, I suppose during those you can, as at any conference, sneak out to the sidewalk for an illicit vape.

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