Margaret Atwood is one of the most famous narrative craftswomen alive. Her stories have been lauded as prophetic. The Handmaid’s Tale eerily pre-empted the structural misogyny of the Trump regime. Payback, Atwood’s book on debt, was published just in time for the largest global recession since the Great Depression.
Throughout Burning Questions, Atwood’s third collection of essays and occasional pieces, she repeatedly refers to the question most asked of her: “How did you know?” Or, as one Twitter user wondered, “Where does Margaret Atwood come up with this weird shit?” Atwood responds: “But it is not I who come up with this weird shit. It is human beings.” Fiction, believes Atwood, should finesse the horror of the truth into a tale that offers readers at least the possibility of alternatives. Fiction should show that just because something is, doesn’t mean that it must always be.
Burning Questions consists of 62 separate works of literary miscellany, spanning keynote speeches, book introductions, book reviews and op-eds written between 2004 and 2021. Disparate writings on climate crisis, on the “task” of fiction, on women’s rights, on other writers, are united by an unyielding optimism that urges readers to “find the light outside the wolf”.
Vast collections such as this give us the opportunity to stickybeak into a writer’s preoccupations. We see the jokes they retell, the metaphors they reuse, the writers they adulate. For Atwood, the jokes are, charmingly, usually at her own expense – highlighting her supposed Canadian parochialism and her “old lady” quirks. The beloved writers include Alice Munro, Simone de Beauvoir, Shakespeare, and, most prominently, the science writer Rachel Carson.
There is humour and grit in these pages. Atwood fans will find much to relish. The sheer volume of pieces, however, means that many of them are extremely short – over almost as soon as they’ve begun. These pieces accrete, but they do not necessarily build.
Atwood surely knows the value of moderation. In “Trees of Life, Trees of Death,” a speech about deforestation, Atwood quotes Treebeard the Ent from The Lord of the Rings. Treebeard explains to Merry and Pippin that in Old Entish “it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to”. Treebeard is advising that each word should carry weight.
In her book’s introduction, Atwood tells us, “I’ve been averaging 40 [pieces] a year for the past couple of decades. There’s a limit. This has to stop.” Atwood is 82 years old and her mind is as sharp as ever. I hope she doesn’t stop writing. I do, however, feel that she should take up Treebeard’s advice: less is more.
Chatto & Windus, 528pp, $42.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 12, 2022 as "Burning Questions, Margaret Atwood".
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