I read that the doors would open at 6:30pm for the Margaret Atwood lecture, so I planned to arrive, with my husband, a little before that time. I figured we would mill about for a few minutes outside the Jordan Ballroom before being allowed inside.
Instead, the doors were already opened and the seats starting to fill, at least in the front. I wondered whether the large numbers of chairs in the rear section would fill as we found a pair of seats on an aisle to stage right. I wondered around a bit, looking for and greeting a classmate.
By the time the lecture was about to start, my concerns about whether or not there would be a full house were changed to wondering if we were going to be violating fire code:
When Margaret Atwood took the stage, she began with what seemed like an extemporaneous bit of talking. She said that people had been asking her why she came to Boise, to which she replied, “Why not?” And she revealed to us that more people in Toronto should be coming to Boise at this time of year, since Boise had something that Toronto would not for another four weeks. Flowers. Which made me think of The Handmaid’s Tale and the importance that that narrator places on flowers.
And then she began what seemed to be her prepared speech. I marveled that she seemed to be nervous.
Margaret Atwood, nervous?
And so she spoke of the power of words, and then began to speak of the infamous Clean Reader App. I wonder if she was being polite by not mentioning that it was the invention of parents in Idaho or simply did not know. After all, the creators of the app were not the important part. The important part was how the app slaughtered the meaning of works – the carefully intended meaning of their creators. And how the app makers had neglected, in many cases, to gain the consent of the authors whose works they were scrubbing.
Atwood regaled us with some great examples of how the app caused unintentional hilarity. For example, since the word “breast” was deemed unclean, the reader would be forced to confront what exactly the author meant by writing “chicken chest.” We laughed at each example, causing her to call us easy to amuse. I would say not easy to amuse, but giddy at her presence. (We don’t get visitors like her very often in Boise.) Her solution for readers who found words that offended them in a text was to shut the offending book, and, if desired, fling it across the room. That is any reader’s right.
She spoke of running a conference session on “The Men’s Novel” at which she and the other attendees had great fun ruminating at length over the definition thereof (a book with no women, of course, would qualify, such as Moby Dick). A fellow session leader had a less humorous time trying to get two groups of women, older ones who preferred less “language” (swearing) in books, and a group of women who argued quite loudly against using patriarchal language (while using patriarchal language).
The power of language is evident throughout recorded history. Prayers and spells and names, words used to curse and bless and implore. Creativity and story served survival purposes, teaching communities how to survive in the ways that are best remembered: as stories and poems and songs. We use our memories of stories to anticipate the future. Stories get under our skin and make us feel empathy for the other, fostering the ability to survive in community.
On writing, Atwood brought up word choices. How they must fit the setting, the narrator’s voice and their vocabulary. Writing in the past poses different problems from writing in the future. The past is already recorded and research can reveal how words were used at the time. The future requires imagining which words have disappeared, what swears might become and what new words would be created.
Spelling: Spell – coincidence?
Atwood is writing the first book for the future library
, a project in Norway that intends to send books into the future. Each year, for a hundred years, a book will be chosen and sealed away, not to be read until 2114. This project represents hope. Hope that readers will still exist in a hundred years. That the future reader might be able to understand the words written before their parents were born, in an era that will probably look quite distant and quaint from their perspective. The reader brings themselves into the experience of the book.
Atwood answered questions after her lecture. Some questions on writing, during which she recommended Wattpad, and terribleminds. She revealed one of her hard lines of censorship (child porn with real children should be censored) while also stating that there are lessons to be learned from Mein Kampf.
On the use of religion in The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood stated that a religion used as a tool of political control simply becomes an ideology. Totalitarianism doesn’t really have religion. But in the US, she thought the easiest route to totalitarianism would be through religious ideas, and so that’s how she set the story.
A positive opinion of fan fiction, as it is as old as the hills – even slash.
And when a young woman asked her for advice on how to make her way, I tried my best to write down her exact words, but I couldn’t keep up, so I will leave off the quotation marks and end with a paraphrase:
Have good parents. Have good teachers. Don’t believe those who would put you down. If you can’t go through, go around. Don’t give up.