Margaret Atwood: 'In Tolkien, there are hardly any women at all'

Speaking at Book Riot Live with fantasy author NK Jemisin, Atwood discussed the lack of diversity in fictions and the challenges of writing about ‘now’

Margaret Atwood was seven when she began writing her first novel. It was about an ant. “It taught me a lot about narration because nothing happens to ants for the first three-quarters of their life cycle. I’ve never started a novel the same way since,” she told the packed room of fans and readers at the first annual Book Riot Live convention in New York this weekend.

Partnered with speculative fiction author NK Jemisin, whose debut novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was nominated for the Nebula and Hugo awards, both authors spoke on writing about what they didn’t know, whether it was ants or even women.

“It was not until I was about 17 though that I decided to write a book featuring a woman,” Jemisin said. “I didn’t know how to write women because all of the books I read featured exclusively male protagonists, specifically white male protagonists.

“And it was another few years before I tried writing someone who was a black woman. I didn’t know it because I hadn’t seen it,” she added.

Atwood went on to comment on the lack of women in science fiction and fantasy literature she read as a young woman in the 1950s: “In Tolkien, there are hardly any women at all, only two, but three if you count the spider, which I do.

“With a name like Shelob you really can’t miss it,” she added to the laughter of the audience.

Jemisin said it was the lack of diversity in “golden age” science fiction and fantasy novels that nearly drove her away from them. “I was initially recommended to read the classic golden-age novels which is one of the reasons why I wrote about so many white men. It was very clear the weighty treatments of any topics in science fiction did not include all people as serious and worthy of interesting consideration. I decided to write my own.”

While not openly discussed on the panel, at moments like this, the spectre of the recent Publisher’s Weekly report hovered nearby: 89% of the publishing industry is white.

The writers then turned to the process of writing imaginatively. Jemisin likes the freedom that world building allows, letting her set up unique un-Earthly axioms, as in her latest book The Fifth Season. On the other hand, Atwood was quick to add that she doesn’t make anything up, per se.

“For The Handmaid’s Tale, the rule was that I wouldn’t put anything into it that people had not done at some time in some place. I brought them all together but each of the individual things had already been done by somebody at sometime,” she said. It’s the same with Oryx and Crake. Atwood said that her family of biologists would – lovingly – object to anything that went against established science or, at the very least, was in some developmental stage, such as some of the more startling and disturbing plotlines of her recent The Heart Goes Last.

The difficulty of writing about the present is what motivated Atwood too. “As soon as you’re writing about now, six months later, it’s not now,” Atwood said. Even the “real” past has its own kind of challenges. “No one wrote down ordinary procedures like ‘I brushed my teeth today, here is how I did it.’”

She advocated doing better than past generations for the benefit of our future authors: “I sometimes say to people, write it down, write down a typical day of what you were doing in 2015, because our habits have changed.”

Even in Atwood’s lifetime, the changes are evident. As she pointed out, when she was 17 in 1956, feminism hadn’t truly arrived yet. She leaned into the mic for emphasis: “That’s a long time ago. There were no pantyhose.”

Atwood also pointed out that her birth year has influenced her world view: 1939. Because of that, she has “always taken a special interest in totalitarian regimes”. And in a moment that fits all too comfortably into our current political climate, she added: “I am one of those people that if someone says they’re going to do something, when they get power, they probably will do it. You may think that people are a bunch of nutbars and just running off at the mouth; I would never make that mistake. I take those kinds of things seriously.

“That’s the pattern you see in history,” she concluded.

• The picture caption was amended on 3 December 2015. An earlier version included a quote from NK Jemisin, rather than Margaret Atwood.


Sarah Galo

The GuardianTramp

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