Second Words: Selected Critical Prose is the first of Margaret Atwood’s collections of critical prose pieces.  The pieces in this collection are miscellaneous and range from the simple book reviews to book introductions to essays on topics as varied as Canadian humour, Canadianism or being a woman writer.  If you like Atwood, it will give you a good insight into where she is coming from.

I read it from cover to cover (for study purposes) and this might not be the best way to do it, although, as the pieces are organised into three chronological periods, it gives you a good idea about where Atwood stood in each period.  The collection spans the years from 1960, when Atwood was at Victoria University, to 1980, when she had already become an established writer.  She herself explains that the logic behind her organisation:

“The first, or Rooming House, runs from 1960 to 1971, during which I moved about fifteen times, always to places with a lot of stairs to climb and inadequate heat.  It was during this time that I was developing some of the ideas set forth in Survival.  The second, or Dugout, period runs from 1972 (or publication of Survival) to 1976, and covers a time when I was being attacked a lot; much of what I wrote then was in response to some of these attacks, the more intellectually serious ones, I think . . . It also corresponds to the peak of cultural nationalism and the popularization of feminism.

The third period, which has no name yet, runs from 1976, in which I published Lady Oracle and had a baby, thus becoming instantly warm and maternal and temporarily less attacked, to the present [1982].  It covers my growing involvement with human right issues, which for me are not separate from writing.  When you begin to write, you deal with your immediate surroundings; as you grow, your immediate surroundings become larger.  There’s no contradiction.”

The reviews can become a little tedious when read one after another.  It is the same as when reading book blogs: you rarely read all the reviews you come across.  I read them all because I did not want to miss a thing.  Since Atwood’s writing is good, and funny at times (although she is more serious in her reviews than in her essays), they are enjoyable – albeit, if you space them a little.  Her reviews are actually enlightening in considerations of her own writing and they also give a good sense of the context in which the books were written and thus of Atwood’s own context (for contemporaneous books).  For instance, her reviews of Adrienne Rich’s work provide a glimpse at Atwood’s position regarding feminism.  They are also an excellent way to discover the work of authors unknown to you and to, perhaps, raise your interest to works you would not have considered reading before, as is the case with any review.  As they feature some Canadian authors, such as Gwendolyn MacEwen, Audrey Thomas and Timothy Findley, but also Canadian magazines, they are also a kind of commentary on the state of Canadian literature at the time.

The essays are typical Atwood; they are witty and thoughtful.  Some of them are autobiographical, while other consider contemporaneous issues.  For instance, a piece like “Travels Back” recounts Atwood’s early book tours in some remote town (a topic also evoked in her short story “Lives of the Poets”, but also considers what writing means to her.  In fact, many of these essays examine various aspects of writing: “On Being a Woman Writer: Paradoxes and Dilemmas” and “Writing the Male Character”, for instance.  Others examine Canadianness, and Canadian literature in particular, as well as the relations between the US and Canada.   

I might look at these essays more closely in the future, as I really enjoyed reading them, but for now, I will share a few quotations with you.

“‘They’ had been taught that they were the centre of the universe, a huge, healthy apple pie, with other countries and cultures sprinkled round the outside, like raisins.  ‘We’ on the other hand had been taught that we were one of the raisins, in fact, the raisin, and that the other parts of the universe were invariably larger and more interesting than we were.” (“Nationalism, Limbo and the Canadian Club”)

“If I create a female character, I would like to be able to show her having the emotions all human beings have – hate, envy, spite, lust, anger and fear, as well as love, compassion, tolerance and joy – without having her pronounced a monster, a slur, or a bad example.”  (“The Curse of Eve – Or, What I Learned in School”)

“How much better if children could be chosen, and loved for what they are, not viewed as an inadequate substitute for a ‘career’ or some kind of parasitic burden?”  (“Adrienne Rich: Of Woman Born”)

“Occasionally our critics get a little heavy and start talking about the human condition, but on the whole the audience prefers art not to be a mirror held up to life but a Disneyland of the soul, containing Romanceland, Spyland, Pornoland and all the other Escapelands which are so much more agreeable than the complex truth.”  (“Amnesty International: An Address”)

“If a man depicts a male character unfavourably, it’s The Human Condition; if a woman does it, she’s being mean to men.”  (“Writing the Male Character”)