The Sunday Salon: Margaret Atwood

Theater, thou heartless mistress. When I heard Margaret Atwood was coming to Atlanta to discuss speculative fiction, I was overjoyed–only to discover that her reading and signing conflicted with rehearsal. But she was also scheduled for three lectures at Emory, a stone’s throw away from my own campus. Without a ticket (because I live on the edge), I went to the only lecture I could make it to–last Sunday’s lecture.

Before I get into the lecture, I need to give y’all a little background on the Richard Ellman Lectures in Modern Literature. They’re a series of lectures that invite modern literature authors to hold forth on topics of their choice, from the craft of writing to their own juvenilia. The Ellman Lectures were established to honor the memory Richard Ellmann, an English professor at Emory whose large body of work included engaging and appealing lectures. Since 1988, the year after Ellmann’s death, an author is invited to come lecture at Emory every two years, making Atwood’s visit the tenth series of the Richard Ellman Lectures. It’s also grown in prestige since then; Ellman Lecturers include Salman Rushdie and Umberto Eco. (Anthony Burgess was invited, but declined, creating a gap in the lectures’ history.) There are usually three lectures presented, the last followed by a reading and signing. Margaret Atwood’s chosen topic was “In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination”.

When I arrived at Emory, there was already a good amount of people, although certainly not an overwhelming amount. (To be honest, I was more overwhelmed by Emory and the parking lot–I go to a very small school.) There was a standby line for people who had arrived without tickets, which I immediately jumped in. A few people offered their extra tickets, but after a while, one of the people working the event offered some tickets to those of us in the standby line. So, thank you, Diane Bennett–your absence allowed me to walk right into Atwood’s lecture. Atwood’s topic, “In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination”, was explored in three lectures–“Flying Rabbits”, “Burning Bushes”, and “Dire Cartographies” (what a fantastic name for a lecture!). “Flying Rabbits” was an introduction to Atwood’s thoughts on “sf”, a nebulous classification that matches my personal definition of speculative fiction, and what attracted her to that genre when she was young, growing up in the wilds of Canada without a library. (I haven’t any pictures of Atwood herself, as cameras were forbidden during the actual lecture, but she is a lovely and impish woman.)

To Atwood, a writer that classifies herself as the “Willy Wonka of the literary arts”, “sf” can mean speculative fiction, science fiction, and even sword and sorcery fantasy. From what I heard, it sounds like her “sf” is similar to my “speculative fiction”–for me, it’s a genre that encompasses science fiction, fantasy, and supernatural fiction. (This sort of literary taxonomy, as Atwood wonderfully put it, will be the subject of another Sunday Salon.) She’s been thinking more on the topic of what constitutes this genre since Ursula K. Le Guin reviewed The Year of the Flood and lamented Atwood’s decision to not call any of her books science fiction–in her eyes, such a decision privileged “literary” fiction (oh, how that term burns!) over science fiction. The two authors have met since the writing of the article and discovered that their definitions of science fiction didn’t mesh at all, hence the conflict. With “sf” firmly in mind, Atwood began to look over her body of work, starting with her juvenilia.

Her juvenilia is mostly composed of science fiction and especially superheroes–particularly a pair of bunnies, Blue Bunny and White Bunny, who hail from a mysterious planet called “Mischiefland” (which, Atwood thinks, ties into the trickster archetype). Her brother, who grew up to be a biologist, worked with her, although his work turned into fantastical natural history pretty much immediately.The Atwood children ended up telling stories to each other because of the dearth of entertainment in their home. In her lecture, Atwood explored her attraction to Greek mythology and how it relates to the modern superhero, discussing the desire for flight. She showed us slides from her juvenilia, mixed in with photos of her life in rural Canada, which was quite sweet–one photo showed her helping her younger sister work on a story. While I feel the connection between Greek mythology and modern superheroes is pretty basic, it was interesting to hear Atwood talk about it in-depth–the costumes that evoke circus attire and knightly capes, the masks from commedia dell’arte, the ceremonial regalia, and the double identities that appeal to children, who have little control over their own lives. She also broke down Batman in a Jungian fashion, which I found quite interesting. The lecture was only about an hour long, but there’s no way I can cover it as deeply as I would have liked. Luckily, I don’t have to–the Ellman Lectures are available on iTunes. Atwood’s lectures aren’t available yet (you’ll just have to satisfy yourself with Umberto Eco), but they were filming at the lecture I attended.

In other news, I’ve had a busy and painful week. On Thursday, I was hit (slammed, I think, is a better word) by an apple square in the forehead while stage handing, and on Friday, I almost got into a car accident and messed up my back by both hauling a tree around and dancing my brains out at the Wizard’s Ball. Friday’s events have me wondering if my new cardboard cutout of the Tenth Doctor is cursed. (He’s certainly brooding enough.) Ophelia was an equally painful experience, but, luckily, it’s over. I also finished Mr. Toppit, which I quite enjoyed, and I got to start on Banewreaker, which, a few pages in, is simply delicious. It’s hitting my love of deconstruction and my love of epic fantasy hard.

Bookaways! is giving away a copy of the ever-elusive Clementine until tonight, so hustle! You’ll need to make a free account with the website to enter. Penguin Classics is giving away gift bags–you must complete a small survey and agree to be e-mailed by them to enter, all by Tuesday. The Ranting Dragon is giving away a copy of The Warded Man until Tuesday. Swapna at S. Krishna’s Books is giving away a copy of The Little Stranger until November 10th. TJ at Dreams and Speculation is giving away an audiobook bundle composed of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, and Blackout until November 19th. Tor/Forge’s Blog is giving away the works of Brandon Sanderson until November 22nd. They’re also giving away a ridiculous bundle of 25 books until December 6th–you must register to receive their newsletter to enter both of these US only giveaways. HarperCollins is giving away a copy of the 60th Anniversary Edition of The Chronicles of Narnia until January 1st. You can currently view the first episode of the BBC series Sherlock, “A Study in Pink”, online at PBS for free (US only, I believe). Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird and Grey as free downloads at the moment. Vertigo Comics is offering free downloads of the first issue of several series, including Fables, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. (And you will go download The Unwritten.) If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!

How do you define “sf”?

Oh, and Happy Halloween, everyone!

14 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: Margaret Atwood

  1. I adore Atwood as a writer, but I must say that if I had heard of a lecture like this in my area, I might have been too scared of being disappointed if I went – this because my understanding was that her position on genre literature was of the “I don’t write sci-fi because sci-fi is about squids in outer space; not real people or meaningful issues” variety. I’m not sure if she ever said anything of the sort and just got misreported, or of her understanding of the genre has evolved since then. Either way, it sounds like I’d have very much enjoyed the lecture – and I look forward to your next SS post about the taxonomy of it all!

    • It was initially, to be fair, but I like that she’s exploring it and what it means to her as a writer rather than just dismissing speculative fiction.

      I hope you will, if you ever have a chance to download the lectures!

  2. Richard Ellmann! Hearts! I love him in the face, even though he was totally wrong about Oscar Wilde having syphilis. I didn’t know he used to be at Emory.

    This sounds like an amazing event. Like Ana, I would have been nervous of going, because Atwood’s past remarks on sf have really annoyed me. However, it sounds like she was giving it more serious consideration this time. :)

  3. Atwood’s opinion is probably colored by the fact that a few years ago she got really busted for saying something to the (summarized) effect of: “I don’t write SF, I write literature. SF has rockets and spaceships and space.” (As Nymeth mentioned.) Of course, SF isn’t just about space and clearly usually contains dysopia, so I suspect she’s had to broaden her horizons since then. If they were broadened a little far…well, I’d be a lot happier to see that than the other view.

    SF, to me, doesn’t have to fit the strict definition of “does it have science? does it speculate?” anymore. Otherwise we’d have to shove most space operas in with fantasy–and that would just be strange and awkward. ;)

    • Oh, yes, she discussed that. I really hate the privileging of literature over SF. It’s just silly.

      I’m writing an article on literary taxonomy at the moment that’ll deal with that. Science fiction, to me, just means any novel that takes place in our world with events that are not possible at the time of writing, whether they will be or not in the future.

      • “Genre fiction” has always taken a hit. Hence why Orwell’s 1984 is shelved in the fiction shelves (it’s literary!) rather than SF (which it totally is). I’ve talked this over with professors and it makes me angry. Genre fiction can be literary too. :(

      • The term “literary fiction” drives me into a Cú Chulainn-esque war frenzy; part of my article on Sunday talks about why I don’t like the term and think it’s not a proper genre. (As John Updike put it, all books are technically literary since they’re written in words.)

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  6. The gap between literary fiction and sf (whatever the definition you prefer) really gets to me. I get that some books are written for entertainment (well really all of them are, despite what some authors think) and others are written for meaning. But I don’t believe you can isolate literary genius to just one area of literature. I mean who gets to decide such a thing?

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