Biographies We Need: The Enchanting Life and Work of Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood signing The Handmaid's Tale © Bart Teeuwisse

In our Biographies We Need series, Signature writers look at the lives of some extraordinary individuals and ask the nagging question: Where's their definitive biography? 

In her 2003 novel, Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood sends a character to the "Martha Graham Academy," named after "some gory old dance goddess of the twentieth century who’d apparently mowed quite a swath in her day." It is a fair bet to say that in 2114, when we will be able to read a story Atwood has contributed to the Future Library, the writer will be described as having mowed a considerable swath of her own. Atwood, who turns seventy-five this week, is a writer hyphenate: poet-novelist-essayist-provocateur who also happens to be an inventor, environmental activist, and wearer of hats par excellence. (A quick image search of the alabaster-skinned writer should clarify that this last descriptor is not meant metaphorically.) The only thing missing from Atwood’s resume is subject of literary biography, an oversight that is in need of correction.

When Atwood published her first novel, 1969’s The Edible Woman, second-wave feminism was not in full flower, and she has since rejected classifications of the book as feminist, claiming that the novel pre-dated the movement (if anything it is proto-feminist). In the forty-plus years that have followed, critics and scholars have continued to try to label her as a writer: if she’s not a feminist, she’s a science fiction-ist (she prefers the term “speculative fiction”), or an anti-American (her novel The Handmaid’s Tale has been interpreted as a fable about Canada’s persecution by its neighbor to the south), or an environmentalist, or a historical novelist (Alias Grace is set in the 19th century), a crime writer or detective novelist; a crafter of metafictional critiques of genre fiction. In truth, Atwood is simply a writer of stunning breadth, who, no matter the style or form, writes in a voice at once engrossing and thought-provoking.

Atwood has said she’s been writing since the age of six and knew she wanted to do it as a profession since she was a teenager. Born in Ottawa and raised in remote regions of northern Quebec, she was not formally educated for the early part of her childhood, but made up for lost time and eventually attended Radcliffe, where she earned two masters degrees, as well as Harvard. Beginning with The Edible Woman, she’s written fourteen novels, plus several collections of short fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and in her spare time (or perhaps to afford herself more spare time) invented an auto-signing pen, called the LongPen, which allows her to sign books remotely. Her novels have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize five times, and won once, in 2000, for The Blind Assassin.

While Atwood’s oeuvre resists classification, themes do emerge across her work. A keen interest in the politics of power and the rights of the individual in totalitarian societies is often underscored with a bellwether concern for the environment. The future of her "speculative fiction" books is often a frightening dystopia. With the passage of the years, however, some works are looking spookily prophetic. (Consider, for example, the enforced surrogacy of the less fortunate classes in The Handmaid’s Tale.) Her language is sprightly, vivid, and provocative; indelible characters animate ideas that challenge conventional wisdom about nature and religion. And, throughout, her humor is as dry as a vodka martini strained through velvet. (When asked where her ideas come from, she once suggested aspiring writers "put your left hand on the table. Put your right hand in the air. If you stay that way long enough, you’ll get a plot." When asked if she uses the technique herself, she said, "I don’t have to.")

As with all enduring writers, Atwood has a distinct approach to her writing that makes her work immediately identifiable, unlike anyone else, and yet difficult to pin down. You sense that she doesn’t suffer fools gladly, either the fictional ones that live in her pages or the ones she meets in real life, but at the same time has an enduring concern for her fellow humankind that informs and inspires her work. If the human race perseveres another hundred years, and we still know how to read by then, there’s no doubt we’ll be reading the work of this elegant modern dancer of the page.