Margaret Atwood On The Novel, Time, Upheaval & Utopia

“Novels are about other people and poems are about yourself.”
  • Novels are about people. Novels happen in a particular time and place with certain conditions. If it’s a place in crisis the individuals cannot isolate themselves from the crisis
  • Time is always involved in a novel, maybe not a lyric poem or prayer but always a novel. “If it’s a novel theres a clock in it” (Henry James biographer)
  • Novels are concerned with “the human condition”: people in a particular situation dealing with issues of power and control.
  • Plato on poets: they should be expelled because they lie about the gods. Logical positivism did not interest me, ethics and aesthetics did (so I switched to english). But novels have to tell the truth in some way.
  • Writers don’t create conditions, they have no power (the pen is not mightier than the sword, the opposite).
  • “I was a Victorianist”: the Victorian era created so many utopias that it was parodied, utopias put into action “went pear shaped”.

Counterpoint: J.G. Ballard

“The bourgeois novel is the greatest enemy of truth and honesty that was ever invented. It’s a vast, sentimentalizing structure that reassures the reader, and at every point, offers the comfort of secure moral frameworks and recognizable characters. This whole notion was advanced by Mary McCarthy and many others years ago, that the main function of the novel was to carry out a kind of moral criticism of life. But the writer has no business making moral judgments or trying to set himself up as a one-man or one-woman magistrate’s court. I think it’s far better, as Burroughs did and I’ve tried to do in my small way, to tell the truth.”