Saturday, March 2, 2019

The Handmaid's Tale: Three Literary Perspectives

This week I got to attend another excellent talk hosted by One Book One Northwestern: a panel discussion on the history and ongoing importance of Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. The panelists:
  • Linda Bubon: co-founder of Women & Children First, the fantastic feminism-forward bookshop in Andersonville
  • Juan Martinez: fiction writer, literature & writing professor at Northwestern
  • Kasey Evans: critic, English professor at Northwestern
A very nice, insightful talk. Brief notes below:

Linda Bubon: gives some bookseller insight to the success and history of Handmaid's Tale.
  • 35 years in print, translated into 40+ languages. Has been adapted into a movie, stage versions, opera, and the Hulu series, the last of which has re-launched the most recent wave of interest. There's also a graphic novel adaptation forthcoming.
  • Shares some Handmaid sales history from WCF, how sales have continued for 3 decades, with spikes due to university classes using the novel, jumping through the roof with the recent series.
  • Talks about meeting and working with Atwood for events, notes that she's an "exacting" person, and with a highly developed sense of humor.
  • Intriguing discussion about how the '70s & '80s SF (and nonfiction) that was tackling the patriarchy was kind of brushed under the rug by strains of "catch up feminism" that were more focused on increasing opportunities, tended to shift the conversation towards empowerment/personal responsibility, not structural bias. Nobody wanted to talk about male privilege.
  • Mention's Mary Daly's Gyn/Ecology (1978), Andrea Dworkin's Women Hating (1974), and Gerda Lerner's The Creation of Patriarchy (1984) as books that laid the groundwork for a lot of discussions we're having today, but weren't focused on at the time.
  • This came out of the Reagan era, and then in the '90s, with the Clinton administration and popular works like Buffy the Vampire Slayer & Xena: Warrior Princess, it looked like this whole empowerment thing was really working for us. And then there was this backlash: still fighting for reproductive rights, Roe v. Wade could be overturned within a year.
  • Now sees young women wearing buttons that say things like "fuck the patriarchy", more awareness of the intersection of systemic racism, feminism, classism.
  • Because The Handmaid's Tale is set in a fantasy world, we can see the system.
Kasey Evans: mentions the recent NYT article on Dworkin's re-emergence as an important figure. Then talks about 3 different moments in popular and critical reception around Handmaid:
  • In 1985 with the novel's publication, largely very positive. NYT editor's pick, etc. Notes some mixed reviews, and a particularly negative review from author Mary McArthur. McArthur's dismissiveness and failure to recognize Gilead's satirical/warning exaggeration of Reagan or the "Moral Majority" is a particularly blatant blindspot.
  • There was a second wave of interest along with the 1990 film adaptation, written by Harold Pinter and starring Natasha Richardson. Evans notes that Sigourney Weaver was originally supposed to play Offred but couldn't due to her pregnancy. The film got very negative reviews, a lot perhaps due to director Volker Schlondorff's decision to cut the voice-over narration that was part of the original script and shooting process. Richardson played the role very "opaque", on the reasoning that, in Gilead, women would learn to keep it all inside, but that the voice-over would reveal what was really going on inside the character. Evans reads from Roger Eberts' panning review.
  • The most recent and ongoing wave of interest in Handmaid comes from both the Hulu series and the way that activists have rallied around it in an era of increased attacks on women's reproductive freedoms as part of the global lurch to the right. Handmaid costumes have been part of protests defending the ACA, Planned Parenthood, the "Time's Up" and #MeToo movements, and protests against Mike Pence's fundraisers and Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation hearings.
  • Finishes with part of Atwood's essay that now appears as an introduction to the new edition of the book, which addresses the increasing relevance of the book's concerns.
Juan Martinez approaches Handmaid from how Atwood works as a writer, how it works for a reader:
  • Was way too young when he first read it. Had already burned through the other big dystopias like 1984, Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange.
  • Talked about being new to the US and libraries, whereas in Colombia when he'd wanted to read in English, it was just whatever was available (including Nancy Drew). Right before reading Handmaid, had read a 700-page Cuban Soviet utopia. Also reading a lot of Golden Age SF like Asimov.
  • My 13-year old self was not interested in ideological consistency. I was in it for the robots.
  • I was interested in the ways stories amplified and intensified what felt like a pretty drab/boring life. I was in it for the fun, and I picked up The Handmaid's Tale for the same reason: I was expecting it to be fun.
  • And this is the part that gets a little weird, was!
  • The novel is a lot of things, but when we talk about it we slide immediately into political/culture issues. We know why the novel matter, but we hardly pause to think about how Atwood does the work. The fundamental author's work of getting you reading, keeping you on the page.
  • Atwood delivers on the fundamental contract of speculative fiction.
  • The rules are almost always the same: you have a protagonist in peril, and then a world that is both recognizable and off-kilter.
  • SFF tends to lean on fairly broad exaggerations.
  • But we're in an extreme situation right now, and like the protagonist we notice we're in peril; the familiar has become monstrous.
  • Compares Atwood's work to classic SF like Poe, Verne, Doyle.
  • We're reading because it's fun, for pleasure, for greater understanding of the world.
  • The kind of adolescent side of speculative fiction is good. Teenagers=awesome. They have energy, enthusiasm. We want to dismiss YA stuff like Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner. But they're built with the same sturdy tools that Atwood uses.
  • KE: responding to Martinez's last comments, notes that Atwood chose the "Tale" title partially as a nod to Chaucer; The Canterbury Tales are solely about pleasure (some of them dark/brutal, like the anti-Semitic "Prioress"), even though the setting is supposed to be holy.
  • Audience Q: what were your first interactions with the novel like.
  • LB: first encountered it as a single mother with a conservative family, felt the moral majority breathing down her neck; the novel's control of women resonated.
  • KE: Encountered it at 14 in New Hampshire in an environment that was fairly conservative, at a high school women's literature class, something that people thought made you a lesbian.
  • LB: If only!
  • KE: Handmaid was an ingredient in her early sense of self as a political activist and feminist.
  • Audience Q: Atwood's reaction & interaction with the adaptions and continuing series.
  • KE: Was personally a little too traumatized by the series to keep up with it. But mentions that when Atwood was at Northwestern, talked about changes from book to series, such as the multiracial cast; had the general take that she's not possessive of the series: it's its own medium and own thing.
  • All panelists: Atwood had approval on the 1st season, but letting it go its own way from there. Only rule she kept in for 2nd season is the rule that "nothing can happen that hasn't happened somewhere in real life", so that can't be used as a critique against it. Talks about Atwood's hands-off but encouraging approach to adaptations, such as the Rivendell Theatre Alias Grace.
  • KE: Atwood wrote the later 2 MaddAdam books after Oryx & Crake as a response to readers asking why it only had a male perspective.
  • Audience Q: why do you think young people are connecting so much with it now?
  • Audience answers: Used to feel far-fetched, then prescient, now feels current. Young women today maybe more "in reality" about threats. Coming of age post 9/11.
  • LB: Plus global climate change, ongoing wars, it's a less innocent time. Fully half of popular YA is dystopian, you have a movement in Europe led by teenage girls to tackle climate change.
  • KE: Talks about "the humanities plunge", over the last couple decades humanities majors have declined by half: it takes too much debt to get a university degree now. (Northwestern yearly costs for undergrad start at $73k as of this writing.) There's a lot of value to humanities degrees, but hard to convince terrified parents of that. It's just another element of how this generation expects to do worse than their parents.
  • Audience Q: how do you feel about the sequel? Worries about things like Go Set a Watchman.
  • JM: Main feeling is that Atwood can do whatever she wants. Notes that Go Set a Watchman is a weird case. Sometimes much later sequels are a bad idea, like Heller's Closing Time (Catch-22 sequel). But Atwood's still going strong, many of her recent novels are great.
  • LB: Atwood's got the chops, she's never slowed down, her style and genre have wide range, we can expect a great book from her. It's going to be a deep dive into Gilead.
  • KE: Note on Atwood's style range, and things like the academic satire in the final bit of Handmaid.
  • JM: Atwood can be very funny, and it's great to run into that and have a counter-example to the "feminists aren't funny" trope.
  • Audience Q: how do you think Handmaid compares to Naomi Alderman's The Power?
  • KE: loves how unsentimental Alderman's gynocracy is.
  • LB: PBS's NewsHour/NYT book club has made it their next selection, so she'll be reading it!
  • JM: It's on his list!
And we're out of time. Great panel! Check out One Book One Northwestern for more upcoming events.

No comments:

Post a Comment