terça-feira, novembro 14, 2017

Intellectually Arid Work: "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood


This is the second time I'm reading Atwood's book, and one of the things that stood out was the fact that an important feature of "The Handmaid's Tale" was that the women in the book are as responsible as the men for the gender roles being enforced. The older women at the place where the protagonist was first held captive were important reinforcers of this. It's like a nunnery or girls school where the older women subjugate the younger. Just take a look at countries where female circumcision takes place for a real world example of how older women act to control the lives, and bodies, of the younger. Also in the book, the rich woman - the military man's wife - who the protagonist acts as a surrogate for, is as much part of the system of enforcing the handmaiden's role as anything.

One of things I find disturbing about people labeling "The Handmaid's Tale" as "feminist" is how easy it makes it to overlook this part of the book. The female characters are an integral part of the system of societal control which brings about handmaidens. It's not a question of "men versus women"; it's a question of two different ideas about how society should function.

This to me is feminism's Achille's Heel - you're never going to get wholesale buy in from wide sectors of society when there's this undercurrent of 'blame the men' - particularly, as young pips like me will just be left feeling alienated by being blamed for something which predates our existence. Atwood was trying to highlight how roles are reinforced by both genders - and in the case of "The Handmaiden" show how within a generation a change could happen for the worse. The corollary would be that change within a generation for the better should be possible too, but it will need buy in from a majority for it to happen.

Unfortunately Atwood’s book doesn't really engage with ideas behind society, gender etc. One could contrast with works like Suzette Haden Elgin's "Native Tongue", Suzy McKee Charnas' "Holdfast Chronicles" or Josephine Saxton's wonderful "Jane Saint" books which offer exploration and analysis through their portrayal of dystopian cultures rather than Atwood's emotionally riveting but intellectually arid work.

Categories don´t really exist - they are a psychological device to carve up the chaos of existence in ways that suit some temporary purpose. The purpose of genre is marketing, part of the capitalist systems endless quest for maximum efficiency. This is all a dispute about the internal organisation of shelf-space in bookshops. So unless you work in Waterstone´s, who cares?

However, some folk identify with a certain genre to the extent they actually feel insulted by an author who sees these things differently, especially when they are only going on what that author has said second (or third or fourth) hand in some highly edited interview. This kind of BS brings together two negative aspects of modern society - people getting worked up over the internet over what strangers say (when in reality they have no idea what those people really think) based on a few random utterances taken out of context and the corporate machines tendency to prepackage everything for easy consumption and consumers tendency to define themselves through branding.

If Margaret Atwood had said that everyone who reads science fiction is an imbecile, maybe they´d have a point. All she said is that her arbitrary definitions of genre are slightly different from the arbitrary definitions of the outraged parties. It´s like that entirely manufactured controversy over one of Kazuo Ishiguro's novels.

Those who do over-identify with their own marketing categories, sorry, genres, seem to have problems with anyone who reads anything else - people who over-identify with Mundane Fiction sneer at sci-fan fans; SF types call Mundane Fiction fans and authors snobs and project their own insecurities onto the void by seeing snobbery everywhere. Two sides of one very boring coin.

Personally I just read books, the last few have included everyone from Ursula Le Guin (re-reading the Earthsea series), to yes, Margaret Atwood´s Oryx and Crake trilogy to the last James Kelman. I couldn´t care less what you call them. Bad books are just an original mash together of worn out tropes, generic in the extreme, good books transcend genre. There are examples of "Literary Fiction" of the sort that clogs up the Booker prize shortlists every year that are just as generic as any SF potboiler with space squid and spaceships.



SF = Speculative Fiction.

5 comentários:

Book Stooge disse...

Ok, I was doing ok with your snobbish attitude, you literary snob, until you attacked the space squid. That seriously crossed a line. It just goes to show how out of touch you are with the general readership on a worldwide level. People, REAL people, not made up people in your head, CARE about space squids. Because space squids are everywhere! I love them and all, but I don't go down certain streets late at night.


Wow, I don't think I've ever written "space squids" so many times, in my whole life. Not sure if I should be happy or sad about that :-)

Hey, when do we get some beach pictures? I was cold today and could use some sunny encouragement...

Manuel Antão disse...

Snob, you say? Then I have to put in a word for the wonderful "Mrs Glegg in The Mill on the Floss"...

"I'll thank you for my cup o' tea, now, Mrs. G.," said Mr. Glegg, seeing that she did not proceed to give it him as usual, when he had finished his porridge. She lifted the teapot with a slight toss of the head, and said,–

"I'm glad to hear you'll thank me, Mr. Glegg. It's little thanks I get for what I do for folks i' this world. Though there's never a woman o'your side o' the family, Mr. Glegg, as is fit to stand up with me, and I'd say it if I was on my dying bed. Not but what I've allays conducted myself civil to your kin, and there isn't one of 'em can say the contrary, though my equils they aren't, and nobody shall make me say it."


Almost noon here and I'm still swamped in crap at work. So swamped that I needed to come here and see what was "cooking"...Glad I run into your comment. I'm going out to grab something to eat because the going is getting tougher by the minute...the world is full of tossers!

Next weekend I'll send you the beach photos.

Book Stooge disse...

Excellent. About the pictures, not the tossers.

Unknown disse...

Interesting review. I read this one a loooong time ago and have not re-read it since it shot to recent fame and notoriety (Netflix was it?). From my memories of the book I was really quite amazed that it was hailed by so many feminists.

Plus I missed on the space squid. If I believed for a second there was a space squid, I would probably re-read it.

Manuel Antão disse...

@Unknown, there's much to be said about the existence of space squids...