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No Country for Young Women

October 3, 2009

(Apropos of nothing, as a person I used to know and no longer like but still occasionally feel obliged to quote due to his endearingly idiosyncratic way of speaking used to say, I’m drinking Strongbow and listening to Jay-Z’s Blueprint, so you know it’s going to be a classy evening.)

While straightening the shelves at work today I noticed that nearly every Margaret Atwood novel is being used in an English class this semester. I have mixed feelings about Margaret Atwood. She was the first writer I “discovered.” Contrary to popular belief, I didn’t read as a teenager. I didn’t write, either. I didn’t do anything. I had a rather long-lived case of what is known as crippling depression, which you’re welcome to laugh at because I intentionally worded that part of the sentence in a ridiculous way, plus it was forever ago and I’m totally fine now. I’m delightful, in fact. For ten years, psychiatrists, therapists, psycherapists, therachiatrists, triceratops, etc. have been saying how pleasant and well-adjusted I am. But even after I got the eff out of my hometown and into university I didn’t read for pleasure; I just worked. It wasn’t until my aunt sent me the first novel in a Robertson Davies trilogy during exam week of my third post-secondary year that I was suddenly bitch-slapped by the realization that I should have spent the past ten years reading modern fiction instead of, or at the very least in addition to, fucking around with Homer all the time. In grad school they teach you that Homer’s not even a real guy; that’s just a name we slap onto centuries’ worth of anonymous illiterate oral poets. I sometimes think history consists mostly of mythology and vice versa. But then I think, No, Kate, you’re overgeneralizing and dichotomizing as usual because it’s a convenient way to end a paragraph.

Once I’d finished the Davies novel I had to go to the university bookstore to look for the other two books in the trilogy. And while I was there, I picked up Atwood’s The Edible Woman on a whim. I don’t have a fucking clue where I got $50 to spend on novels. Probably I didn’t have the money and just didn’t give a shit and bought the books anyway. That’s how it usually goes for me at bookstores. Irregardless, I brought my purchases home and ravished them passionately in lieu of studying for my remaining two finals. Irregardless, I got As in the classes. Irregardless, I subsequently dropped out of graduate school to write. Nobody cares, but that was an ascending tricolon of irregardlessness.

I became an insatiable Atwood fan and began spending large chunks of my summer job paycheques on her other works. By the time I returned to school I had a box of novels, mostly Peg’s, and was pretty proud of my flourishing feminine literary self. (Ten years later, I have about fifteen boxes of novels and every time I move I curse each author individually.)  Between Atwood and Davies I had inadvertently become a CanLit devotee. Margaret Laurence and Alice Munro followed, then Carol Shields, and so forth. It was pleasant enough reading, and the thrill of having discovered fiction was still messing agreeably with my brain chemistry, but eventually I realized something didn’t feel quite right. I went back to the university bookstore. I found Michael Ondaatje. We had a brief and tempestuous affair and then I became restless again. I brought home Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie and found satisfaction between the covers. A few months later I went back to the store and introduced myself to John Updike and John Kennedy Toole. Then, some time later, Murakami and Saramago. I was getting further and further away from something and getting proportionately closer to something else until a few years ago the momentous day came when I brought home Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace at the same time.

Mother of god. I only bought The Corrections because there were like 80 copies of it and I had to pick it up to see what it was that was taking up all that space. And I only bought Brief Interviews with Hideous Men because I liked the title. And by the end of the day I had a whole new perspective on everything. I realized that the only female author I’d read recently was A.S. Byatt. I realized I was reading authors from everywhere except my own country. I saw that there were people doing the kind of shit to language that I wanted to do with language, and it was working out really well for them both review-wise and bank-account-wise. I started asking myself weird questions like What is it about Canadians and women and Canadian writers and women writers and Canadian women writers that makes it impossible for me to imagine any of them writing anything as structurally and syntactically innovative as The Corrections or Brief Interviews? Is there some genetic or regional impediment to my making a memorable contribution to modern literature?

Like women, Canada has a reputation for niceness, meekness, this fucking irritating humility that makes us do stupid shit like apologize when the fat drunk bastard in front of us at 7-11 steps on our toes. I catch myself issuing needless apologies all the time (“Oh I’m sorry”) and it makes me want to kick my own ass, but it’s ingrained, damn it! And our writing seems to be an extension of our national character. It’s like Canada has some unconscious desire for its fiction to be small and pleasant and peaceful and local and minor. I’m not saying there’s no talent in this country. Canada’s full of literary geniuses, male and female, past and present. But it’s like no one’s willing to take any risks around here anymore. What Laurence and Munro and Atwood were doing 40 years ago was pretty fucking original and empowering, but now it’s all these decades later and their successors are writing the exact same stuff in the exact same way. Margaret Atwood herself hasn’t done anything truly awesome in years. A self-aggrandizing butchery of the Odyssey and some more of the same sparse prose the reviewers have been praising with the same phrases since 1970. I would way rather reread The Edible Woman than anything she’s written in the past decade. None of the recent stuff is compelling to me as a woman or a writer or a human being. The honeymoon is over. Sad.

Who am I to be saying any of this? Margaret Atwood is Margaret Atwood, and I don’t have a fucking clue whether I’ll ever even be published. It’s entirely possible that I’ll spend the rest of my life working menial jobs and entertaining the 12 people who read this blog. It’s every shade of terrifying, and I’m way too anxiety-ridden to appreciate uncertainty in any of its forms. I don’t think there’s anything romantic about poverty or failure. Every effing day I think about going back to school, doing a degree in something more careery than classics or else finishing my g.d. PhD. In real life I’m as meek as they come and twice as unconfident. But damn it, there’s a voice in me that hasn’t shut the fuck up once in 25 years, and all along it’s been saying that there’s an empty spot on the shelf and, if I take the hokey pokey up on its suggestion that I put my whole self in, some day I’ll be good enough to claim it.

I may never be an author, but I’ll always be a reader. If the voice in my head turns out to be a symptom of madness or simply has its facts wrong, that’s fine, as long as the space is filled by someone – preferably female, as far as I’m concerned, but I’m heavily biased – who will, without apology, whip the shit out of CanLit as we know it with such fearless intensity that the whole world hears the reverberations.

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