SECOND WORDS: SELECTED CRITICAL PROSE
Volume 11 Number 3.
It is possible to argue that Margaret Atwood's critical prose selection, Second Words, is a publisher's book. In the last year we have seen similar publications- Norman Mailer's Pieces and Pontifications, Gore Vidal's The Second American Revolution, and William Styron's This Quiet Dust come immediately to mind-published ostensibly to signal the arrival of writers who, though they have been with us for some time, may not have been considered primarily in the front rank. Since critical prose, as Atwood apologetically suggests in her introduction to this edition, is not her first interest (and so the title), the publication of Second Words argues implicitly that she and her publisher are taking advantage of strong critical and commercial interest in Canada and abroad: the book probably states more about the status of Atwood's reputation by implication than anything contained between the covers.
In addition, this publication may en-courage-and I think this is probably a more valid reason for its publication-a more probing and comprehensive evaluation of this very provocative writer: an assessment by scholar-worms and literary critics of her poetry and prose. Atwood has assumed the stature of a major North American writer, and we should be moving towards a fuller appraisal of her work in a larger context.
It is not possible here to exhaust the possibilities that a full, careful reading of all her work in conjunction with Second Words would uncover, but it is possible to expose some of the weaknesses and bring to light a few of the book's chief strengths. Though the volume reminds us of her early struggles as a writer and the uncomfortable, distortedly flexuous posture a "woman writer" had to assume during the 1960s and '70s, I find the book's chief concerns deflective, many of the ideas casually articulated and much of the criticism loose and bland. One is glad that Atwood pursued creative writing and did not feel encouraged to explore literary criticism as a possible career. Her criticism is sometimes interesting because we are always aware that she brings a writer's particular sensibility to bear on the subject, but in and of itself it lacks the gem-like integrity of say William Styron's reflections in This Quiet Dust.
For example, much of Miss Atwood's review of Timothy Findley's novel The Wars deals with the significance of its being published by Clark, Irwin, which "until recently existed primarily as a textbook publisher." She also discusses the "state of reviewing in this country" and, it would seem, only incidentally devotes space to the novel's literary merit. Now it may be unfair to criticize her approach in many of these pieces; this reviewer does not, for example, have the advantage of knowing the context in which these pieces were prepared.
I feel strongly, however, that only good writing justifies this kind of publication and that, since Miss Atwood does not appear to have submitted her critical prose to the same exacting standard as she has her fiction, it might then be argued that the publisher has taken a rather unfortunate risk with this important writer's reputation.
Generally, the essays and speeches/ lectures are much better than the shorter reviews. I would recommend the following pieces to the casual reader who knows some of Atwood's prose and poetry: "On Being A Woman Writer: Paradoxes and Dilemmas," "The Curse of Eve-Or, What I Learned at School," "E.L. Doctorow: Loon Lake," "Canadian-American Relations: Surviving the Eighties," and "Northrop Frye Observed." I found these ones the most interesting because they are longer and the space allowed Miss Atwood a larger canvas on which to compose her thoughts. One example, "On Being A Woman Writer," deals clearly and with subtle conviction with many of the infuriating discrepancies that a woman writer must confront. She does not pull any punches when discussing the inadequate critical vocabulary that has begun to surface to meet the increase in novels written by Canadian women. The real strength of this particular essay is that at the end the reader is convinced by Atwood and feels equally frustrated by the indiscriminate treatment women novelists receive at the hands of male critics.
Finally, the short essay "Northrop Frye Observed," recommended as a "mini-memoir," offers the reader a revealing look at one of the vital sources of Miss Atwood's enthusiasm for writing. Her exposure to Frye, the man from whose mouth "issued. . .pure prose, in real sentences," was enough to convince her of the deep importance of literature. His "attentiveness," quiet enthusiasm, and the fact that "He took our ambitions seriously" persuaded her finally "that the pursuit of literature is a significant human activity."
The Frye essay occurs very near the end of the book, so that one is left with a strong and favourable impression of the work, even though the tone of the whole is uneven. Since, one suspects, the people who will read this selection will also feel the profound significance of literature, there may only be the subtle disappointment that all the pieces do not speak with the authority of "significant human activity," but that might be setting too high a standard for even Margaret Atwood to meet.
James Kingstone, Ridley College, St. Catharines, ON.
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