Margaret Atwood, reviewer extraordinaire?

Am I the only person finding Margaret Atwood harder and harder to read?

I say this as a former fan. No, cut the former, a real fan. I think The Blind Assassin is one of the true classics of our time. Alias Grace is a remarkable achievement. Oryx and Crake, simply stunning. But the new book, In the Year of the Flood, damn! What a waste of time. Having bought the thing and ploughed bravely through its tedious pages I have read the kind notices it received with astonishment, and not just a frisson of terror.

Now she’s taken to writing for the New York Review of Books. I buy the NYRB because no matter the subject I’m happy to read the articles, if only because of the quality of the writing. But in the two recent pieces I’ve read by Atwood the writing is woeful, a kind of embarrassing twaddle, patronising of both the reader and the author, missing the point of what a review is for. Here is the opening paragraph of one from last year:

‘The Confessions of Edward Day is Valerie Martin’s ninth novel, and it’s a triumph of her unique art. As usual, it’s easy on the ear—Martin writes with amplitude, precision, grace, and wit—but it’s hard on the characters. They do not spare one another, and their author doesn’t spare them. None of Martin’s books ends with kisses all around and happy feasts, and The Confessions of Edward Day is no exception. Reader, be warned: you won’t end up in Cinderella’s castle. But you’ll have a fine time not getting there.’

The review continues for another 3474 words in this same hectoring tone, like a schoolmarm addressing a group of reluctant readers. But if you thought this was a one-off you were mistaken. She adopts the same voice in the latest edition, this time discussing Anthill, the first novel by the acclaimed scientist E O Wilson.

It seems clear that Atwood feels it would have been better if Wilson had kept to science. In amongst giving a detailed outline of the plot and taking time out to question why Wilson should have engaged in the exercise at all (‘Those who’ve been at it for a while might have warned him off’) she finds writes the following:

‘Like Wilson, “Raff” grows up in Alabama at a time not far from that in which Wilson himself grew up. Like Wilson again, young Raff takes a great interest in nature, focuses on ants, and goes on to study at Harvard. As you might expect in the work of a first-time novelist, some of these passages most likely contain boyhood reminiscences. The foods of the time and place are lovingly described, down to each sundae with chopped walnuts and each bowl of gumbo…’

‘As you might expect in the work of…!’ This is a book that Atwood is praising, mind. God help you if she didn’t like your work. But then God help you if she reviews your book at all if the piece is made up of sentences such as: ‘Like Wilson, “Raff” grows up in Alabama at a time not far from that in which Wilson himself grew up.’ Is it possible to be more convoluted? Did no-one edit this crap?

I wrote above that I read The Year of the Flood with increasing frustration but also a frisson of terror. This last came about because it seemed to me that if someone as good as Atwood could produce such guff without realising it then what hope was there for any of us?(By which, of course, I mean, me.) So much of writing is the business of wading through shit for months at a time, believing your bare feet will somehow, somewhere, pick up a jewel. But what if it really is all shit and there’s no jewel? If Atwood can’t tell that, how might I?

I suppose the difference is that someone will be quick to tell me, whereas no-one, not even the New York Review of Books, has the guts to tell her.

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