Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Negotiating With the Dead

Margaret Atwood's Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing is a hymn to literature itself. This is not a self-help book, or a how-to book, but a smart introduction to the meditations that absorb every serious writer. And the word "serious" there implies only that the writer must be serious about his or herself because writers are, as Atwood makes very clear, in a complex relationship with the past and with the dead writers who have established the terrain and clarified the game of writing.

She covers everything one might expect, including the important question of who the writer's audience must be. She almost comes close to saying that the dead may be among the writer's audience, but of course she holds back and reflects upon the possibility that the writer may have only an audience of one--in which case there may be some difficulties. The book is after all the messenger that communicates the message. It is not the writer who does so. Once the book is gone from the writer's hand time moves on and the writer is no longer the person who wrote the book.

These are the Empson lectures at Cambridge and they allude indirectly to the ambiguities that are central to Empson's most famous book, Seven Types of Ambiguity. In one fascinating chapter she addresses the ambiguity implied in the multiple identities of the writer writing. One identity is as a person, another as the poet. The poet is most unpoetical as a person, and that alone creates a curious situation for our contemplation.

In general, this book sweeps through literature from Gilgamesh to Yeats, Delillo, and beyond, and while something short of a book of literary criticism, it is a book of literary discussion and literary communion. So many writers, famous and obscure, are addressed and quoted in these pages that one soon realizes there is a sub-text here that cannot be ignored. Writers must be readers. Such a simple observation may seem unnecssary to the "serious" writer, but the facts are very simple. Many people who think they are going to be writers neglect the most important thing of all: a literary education. Even James Patterson reads Joyce (except for Finnegans Wake). What Atwood does here is create a hymn for the love of literature.

No comments: