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Margaret Atwood's novels can be described as tales of three types of struggle: women v. men (The Handmaid's Tale), women v. women (Cat's Eye) and life on this planet v. multinational corporations (MaddAddam trilogy).

Elissa Schappell does this in the introduction to her interview with Atwood that was published in Tin House's summer edition (#56). Thinking about the storm created last week by David Gilmour when he asserted he didn't want to teach literature written by women or written by Canadians, and who calls himself "a natural teacher", well, who else but Atwood would come to mind?

Let's face it. Gilmour's statement is narrow and self-centered. He has limited knowledge of something -- great works of literature written by women or Canadians -- and doesn't want to expand his knowledge, so he tries to justify his limited knowledge by saying he's not going to teach about these writers. He's admitting his shortcomings.

In a follow-up piece, Gilmour, not surprisingly, claims he was misinterpreted. This has been happening to poor, trodden-upon white men ever since they doubled down on the theory that they are a superior species. He does himself no favors by claiming that perhaps other teachers don't have the same level of commitment and passion that he does, and that his writing resembles that of Roth and Fitzgerald because he's been so influenced by them (even if he acknowledges he isn't as good).

It's easy to fall into the type of "boy, but privileged white men can sure be stupid" rant against two interviews in which a privileged white man displays myopia. I just did it myself. And for a reaction to this latest instance of foot-in-mouth syndrome that gives a good overview, an actual full-time English professor at the university where Gilmour is pretty much a guest lecturer has a good ranty one.

A statement of Atwood's in her Tin House interview strikes a chord closer to my own better heart than my initial eye-rolling one. Asked whether she is a feminist writer, Atwood replies that she does not like pigeonholes:

I believe women are human beings. ... Women come in as many different varieties as men do, and are subject to circumstance. ... But different kinds of societies treat women differently. And class and income and race play their parts.
Fiction is an exceptional tool when it comes to examining various aspects of the human condition. Sometimes that aspect focuses on gender, sometimes on power, sometimes on love. But it still an aspect of being human. This is something I've always felt in Atwood's writing, even the works that most powerfully express what it is like to be a human who is a woman.

What Atwood says in the interview strikes me as the way that even someone with a lot of experience reading, as Gilmour apparently has, can read and still miss the point of what's right there on the page in front of them:

... However, sometimes people are just stupid about reading fiction. They think it should be entirely about well-behaved, decorous folks leading happy routine lives -- Hobbiton without the wizards and the Eye of Sauron.
If Gilmour, for example, cannot connect with the human beings in anything written by women or the other groups of people he doesn't feel a passion for, well, it's hard to not form a conclusion about his abilities as a reader or even his ability to feel empathy for another human being. It's like his world view formed as a very young man and never expanded or even deepened. The more one reads, the more one should be able to make connections in wider and deeper ways both. If one lets oneself do this by being open to the experience of seeing what's on the page and letting the author take one away.

But that's not what happens every time. And there's nothing a writer can do about it, as Atwood notes:

... I don't think anyone can "control" the "stories" of entire genders or groups of people.They can write the stories. But they can't control them. Stories get out into the world and take on a life of their own.
Just as Gilmour can no longer control the story about himself. It's out there now with a life of its own.

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Tue Oct 01, 2013 at 05:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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