Over the last few weeks Kit Whitfield has published a series of, deconstructions and analyses of famous novels using the first sentences as each as hir point of departure. I recommend these posts to anyone who wants to read excellent and jargon free literary analyses.
As a fan of Kit Whitfield both as a writer and as a literary critic I began scanning my own shelves for books I would love to see hir analyze. Margaret Atwood\’s The Handmaid\’s Tale immediately caught my eye. I had been a science fiction fan from the time I was in grade school and so when I learned that Atwood had written a book set in a patriarchal dystopic near future I looked forward to reading it with some excitement. By the time I finished my excitement had morphed into annoyance which was shared with many other fans of science fiction. Much of that annoyance could be organized under three headings: genre blinkers, genre blindfolds and genre insecurity.
- Genre blinkers
- Genre blindfolds
- Genre insecurity
I (and many other science fiction fans) complained that Atwood had made critical errors in her world building — errors that she would not have made if only she had first read some number of \”classics\” in the field.. Some of our complaints boiled down to \”if the group X is going to overthrow the duly elected government of the United States, that will not be the way they go about it.\” Which translated to \”since that is not the method used in the classics then it is wrong.\” An interesting claim since it amounted to a prescriptive narrowing of imagination.
Many of those \”that isn\’t the way it would happen\” complaints have been answered by recent \”real world\” developments. A number of Atwood\’s critics said that if anything like the events in the back story of the book happened in the United States people would immediately fill the streets and that there would be open rebellion against those attempting to overthrown the Constitution. Given the laws passed and regulations enacted in the United States since the terrorist attacks in 2001, the increasing paramilitarization of the police, the encroachments on the first, fourth, fifth and eighth Amendments to the Constitution, the increasing requirements to carry and produce government issued identification cards, and the frank and open way that legislators are working to restrict voting–the claim that Americans would not be willing to stand passively by as their democratic rights are stripped away carries far less weight than it once did.
Atwood was also criticized as being \”unrealistic\” because of the ease with which the powers that be in her book were able to strip away women\’s rights. Not only would the women be in the streets protesting any such attempts, so her critics argued, most men would be out in the streets with them. That is another argument that falls flat given events in the United States in the last two decades. Not only is it harder to get access to abortion (or even birth control) in much of the United States now than it was when The Handmaid\’s Tale was first published in recent years laws have been proposed that would make the rights of any woman secondary to rights of anything alive (or for that matter dead) in her uterus.
As I wrote in my August 1 2011 post I owe Margaret Atwood two apologies
Now, as I read my morning papers, I see bill after bill being passed into law in various American states that could have been included in the backstory Atwood provided for the dystopian America. Now, as I read my morning paper, I read about legal efforts to claw back from women the rights they have recently won. Now, as I read my morning paper, I read about official efforts to disenfranchise portions of the American population. Now, as I read my morning papers, I read about legal efforts to further entrench Christianity (and only certain flavours of Christianity at that) into American law.
In short, every day as I read my morning papers I realize that I should not read The Handmaid\’s Tale as a non-science fiction writer\’s attempt to write within an established genre but as chilling and insightful examination of the American political/social psyche.
Among some readers a new idea badly presented has far more worth than an old idea presented brilliantly. However many of these same readers only recognize as \”new\” something that happens to / is felt by a \”classic\” science fiction character. If every book ever written about life on Mars had a white, male narrative voice reflecting white male experiences then for the some readers writing a book about life on Mars with a female or black narrative voice would not constitute writing something \”new.\” Just because a \”thing\” is new doesn\’t mean that its introduction will in any way change society or the ways in which human beings interact. Setting Romeo and Juliet on Mars instead of in Verona doesn\’t make the story any newer.
Atwood is one of those writers who has written books that those who love both literature and science fiction quite happily categorize as both yet who dislikes having her work described as science fiction, arguing that her dystopian novels…are not science fiction but speculations about the future. (The New York Times Sept. 21 2009). This, not surprisingly makes science fiction fans feel insecure for it sounds as if she is belittling the entire genre as having little worth. However I think if you read her statement carefully what she is saying is not \”see those books in the science fiction section of the library–none of them is great and none of them is a piece of literature.\” Perhaps what she is really saying is \”see all the absolutely marvelous, well-written, thoughtful books? Don\’t put them in the science fiction section where they will be lost to most readers. Liberate them. Place them out on literature shelves next to the works of Austen, Eliot and James.\”
Atwood seems to me, to be saying that to put her book in the science fiction section is like putting Crime and Punishment into the same section of the bookstore as The League of Frightened Men. Depending on one\’s mood one might prefer to read the latter than the former but it helps direct the reader to find the right book and give some intimations as to how to read each book if they are shelved in different sections.
Writers as well as readers suffer from genre insecurity. Readers who love \”classic\” science fiction fear that if good writers refuse to have their works categorized as science fiction then few good writers will attempt to write in the field. Good writers fear that some readers will not even pick up a book if it is labeled science fiction. They also fear that if people pick up their books thinking \”this is a piece of science fiction\” then the reader will not apply the same careful analytical skills that they use when reading other books.
If Atwood feared that some of her readers would make a category error when reading The Handmaid\’s Tale if they considered the book primarily as a piece of science fiction then I must confess that in my case her fear was accurate. I read the book years ago very consciously as a piece of science fiction. Yesterday I picked it up again, looked at the opening sentence and wondered what Kit Whitfield would make of it. Then I read the second sentence. And then the third. What a strange experience it was for me. This was a book I knew well and yet reading it now was a new experience. I set aside everything I (thought I) knew about how patriarchies should work, I set aside everything I knew about how dystopias should could into being. I finally read the book that Atwood wrote and it was a thing of wonder.
Rating: 5 stars
 Of course, there was something less than unanimity as to exactly which books and short stories those classics were.↩
 In science fiction the charge \”unrealistic\” can mean \’this isn\’t the way in which the physical universe actually works\’ or \’actual sentient beings do not respond in these ways to these circumstances.\’ However if a particular exception to scientific realism/truth/accuracy has deep roots in genre writing then it gets a pass. And since science fiction writers generally wrote from a narrow range of real world experiences readers had long since learn to accept as \”realistic\” behaviour and attitudes that would be considered highly unrealistic/believable in other cultures, classes or social groups. Readers who were women, African-Americans and members of the working class had simply come to learn that however people acted in the real world this is how they functioned in the world of science fiction. Which may explain why so many readers who belonged to those groups disliked science fiction as genre and read little of it. ↩