Margaret Atwood on Campus
Michael Berube handled the introduction, emphasizing his guest’s rare standing as a giant in both the fiction and non-fiction worlds—”not just an acclaimed and accomplished writer,” said Berube, the literature professor and director of Penn State’s Institute for the Arts and Humanities, “but also a brilliant contemporary critic.” He went on, and one got the impression Berube could’ve talked about Margaret Atwood all afternoon.
Instead, he ceded the stage to one of his literary heroes, a woman whose career seems to justify such a gushing intro. Atwood was in town this week to accept the IAH’s 2014 Medal for Distinguished Achievement. (You can read more about the award, and find a list of past winners, here.) She’s best known as a Booker Prize-winning author, but is much more than “just” a giant of modern literature: poet, children’s book author, environmentalist and, as she showed Wednesday, a dryly hilarious speaker.
Her speech was titled “Genre and Gender,” and it covered the history, evolution, and often complicated intersection of the two in literature both classic and obscure. I think I wasn’t alone in not always following exactly where Atwood was going, but I laughed a lot, and thought about more than a few things I’d never considered—for example, the gender themes in The Wizard of Oz, where all the “whole,” powerful characters are female, and the men are cowardly, unfeeling, brainless, or frauds. Like so much of Atwood’s writing, it was sharp, often funny, and nearly always compelling.
Her newest book, the novel MaddAddam, is the third in a trilogy that she described as “a fictional saga set in the near future, on this planet, and within the realm of possibility.” (The trilogy is set for an HBO adaptation.) Like much of her fiction, it’s described as dystopian, a mix both gloomy and funny of science fiction and science that’s perhaps not so fictional after all. It’s here, in the overlap of observation and speculation, especially about the environment, that Atwood’s work holds so much power. As she said Wednesday, she’s fond of posing (and answering) the question: “Do you really want to go there? If not, change the road.”
Ryan Jones, senior editor