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Negotiating With the Dead by Margaret Atwood

October 17, 2012


I am not a writer, in the book-ish sense. I have always been perfectly happy to perfect my role as a reader, and leave the manuscripts and publishing and so forth to others. I am also not terribly interested in authors as people; I’ve never been to a reading or book signing, I’ve watched maybe three author talks via the internet, and I don’t really read their interviews or guest posts. I will occasionally read an author biography, but only when it’s by one of my favourite biographers and they don’t have a non-author selection. I suspect I’m in the minority amongst book bloggers, but I prefer to keep my knowledge centered around the works of authors, rather than their persons.

All of which is to say that I was a little hesitant to pick up Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating With the Dead, which is subtitled A Writer on Writing. Fortunately, I ended up falling in love with this slim book, which is a collection of lectures Atwood gave at the University of Cambridge in 2000. The essays include more biographical bites, from Atwood’s childhood to her experiences as a colonial author, when Canada was seen as occupying the fringe of civilisation, but they’re primarily made up of erudite, sharp-witted analyses of various aspects of literature. Atwood calls upon a fascinatingly broad range of sources, and I found each essay, even the ones of author-ly dilemmas I’ll never face, page-turning.

My favourite two happened to be the final ones, titled “Communion: Nobody to Nobody” and “Descent: Negotiating With the Dead.” “Communion” explores the relationship between authors, books, and readers, or as Atwood’s subtitle puts it: “the eternal triangle: the writer, the reader, and the book as go-between.” This was quite a thought-provoking piece, and I very much enjoyed the way she teased out the subtleties involved. Of course, nowadays one could explore the effects of social media on that triangle, but as an old-fashioned woman in that respect, I found the essay’s pre-blogging/Twitter/etc. existence refreshing. That being said, I suspect many bloggers would enjoy the piece. ;) “Descent” is a wonderful look at how writing and literature entwine with myth (the Western Civ variety), with various comparisons between writers and journeys into the Underworld. It was quite a perfect essay, and just writing about it makes me wish to revisit it.

All in all, this is has confirmed Atwood as one of my go-to authors, and I highly recommend Negotiating With the Dead for anyone who loves books about books or wishes they could be a perpetual student (after all, these were originally lectures) or just wants to see their reading life with new eyes.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. October 17, 2012 3:56 pm

    I’m kind of with you on the not-meeting-authors thing because I like to let the books speak for themselves (and also I’m a SPAZ around people!) but I did recently go to a book signing by Caitlin Moran that was amazing and also… because she writes non-fiction, it was kind of like an extension of her books, if you know what I mean? So that was fun.

    I love Atwood though, and this sounds really interesting!

  2. October 17, 2012 4:43 pm

    Atwood’s triangle is taken right out of the tradition of rhetoric; this sounds like a collection in which she attempts to popularize some of her thoughts about what it means to be a writer. I must get my hands on a copy of this one!

  3. October 17, 2012 5:56 pm

    I do enjoy hearing authors speak when I’m a big fan, but mostly only when I’m a big fan. Or sometimes if they’re talking about a nonfiction book on a topic I’m interested in, even if I don’t want to read the book. And I do like to read author biographies if the author was known to have an interesting life or if the book is by a particularly good biographer–and I’m much more likely to want to for classic authors. However, one of my favorite things is to read authors writing about writing–so books just like this! I’ll have to look for this.

  4. October 17, 2012 8:29 pm

    I wasn’t aware of this one! Most of the time I like to leave my authors’ biographies out of the picture, but this does sound fascinating! And I kinda love the title/cover, too!

  5. October 17, 2012 10:10 pm

    OMG! Must have! You’ve been Eva so helpful!

  6. October 18, 2012 12:09 pm

    That sounds like a book for my wishlist. I love books about books. Thanks for reviewing!

  7. October 18, 2012 1:34 pm

    just found your blog and wanted to say hello, from a fellow book lover and book blogger :) can’t wait to read more. <3

  8. October 18, 2012 5:45 pm

    The title of this book reminds me of this article about Hilary Mantel. …I thought that I would share.

  9. October 20, 2012 7:44 am

    I read interviews, which are sometimes interesting sometimes not, and I go to author events if the author is being interviewed by someone I also find interesting. But yeah, I mostly have no interest in meeting authors I love. I wouldn’t know what to say, and I would just end up babbling idiotically, most likely.

    Margaret Atwood has sometimes annoyed me by saying snotty things about science fiction and genre fiction generally. Does she do any of that here? Because if not it sounds interesting!

  10. October 20, 2012 10:07 pm

    Man, I totally could have wrote your first paragraph. :) *waves* I can’t remember the last time I talked to you. I hope all is well!

  11. October 21, 2012 9:30 am

    I read this one a few years ago and enjoyed it overall, but I definitely found that a few of the essays teetered on the edge of boring for me… Glad you liked it! I think I most enjoyed the parts about her time as a young poet.

  12. November 3, 2012 12:03 am

    I do like your opening sentence. Like you I define myself as a reader rather than a writer. I’ve only ever seen Anne Tyler speak which I did enjoy but I prefer to admire from afar!

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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