A Second Chance to Fix A First Impression

So I think I owe Margaret Atwood an apology.

Once upon a time, when I was in high school, I got to be really annoyed about the whole literature thing. It never seemed to include books I liked*, and I was very put out when my teacher told me that books with happy endings aren’t literature, and that books about girls could never be read in high school because boys wouldn’t read them**. By the time I got to OAC (that’s grade 13 for anyone who didn’t go to school in Ontario before 2003), I was very bitter about the whole thing.

I was also kind of bitter about CanLit. I’d had brief exposures to kiddie CanLit (invariably stories about pre-confederation fur traders trying not to freeze to death or girls from Penetanguishene), almost all of which I read under duress. In high school, when I encountered Alice Munroe, Margaret Lawrence and Timothy Findlay, I was just so SICK of misery that I gave up on the whole thing.***

After a while, it became a point of pride. I don’t read CanLit. I read fantasy and science fiction. I read YA. I love books by Canadian authors, and I LOVE books that are actually set in Canada, but if you try to sell me on good Canadian literature, I will politely decline.

Fast forward to now and the ridiculousness going on in the United States. Actually, no. We need to go back to Christmas first, because that’s when I started working at Chapters again, and was exposed to in market books instead of just the books written by people I follow on Twitter.

Margaret Atwood had a book out in the Literary Criticism section about science fiction. I was confused. “Science Fiction?” I thought “Why is she writing about Science Fiction? She’s a literary author.” So I went into the fiction section and picked up ORYX AND CRAKE. I read the back, and there it was: Science Fiction.

I did some thought re-organization, which brings us to the present and to the current political shenanigans in the US. People started talking about THE HANDMAID’S TALE, and for the first time, someone told me the plot of the book: Science Fiction.

It’s not even “kind of” science fiction. It’s an outright dystopia! AND I HAD NO IDEA. I can’t believe no one ever told me! I can’t believe I was such a moron and never figured it out for myself! I can’t believe this book has been around for longer than I’ve been able to read, and not a single person sat my proto-feminist self down and said “Hey, did you know Margaret Atwood writes science fiction?”

This is just one of the MANY REASONS why genre labels bother me so much. They’re useful, I know, but sometimes they drive me crazy. Sometimes it feels like if only an author could squeak a book into the literary section, then it would mean something. My typical example of this is THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE (which I haven’t read). I’ve talked to people about how original that book is, and how they’ve never read anything like it before, to which I usually reply something like “Yeah, it’s a shame there isn’t a whole section of the bookstore devoted to stories like that one”, because I am a sarcastic soul. If the book was in the Sci-Fi section, where I would argue it belongs, it would not be so well regarded, even though the only thing about it that changed was the genre label.

The lack of clarity in genre is something I feel YA gets right. I don’t think of Beth Revis and RJ Anderson as sci-fi writers. I think of them as YA writers, and accordingly in the same group as Maggie Stiefvater, Malinda Lo and Erin Bow. That’s why I use so many comparisons when I talk to people about YA, even though I know it makes some people uncomfortable. “Oh, you liked THE DEMON’S LEXICON because it was about dealing with black feelings and a weird world view? Here, try THE SPACE BETWEEN.” “You liked THE HUNGER GAMES because it was bleak but oddly stirring? Here, try THE HANDMAID’S TALE.”

(I usually roll my eyes a bit when books are re-packaged for teens, but if there was EVER a book to try that with, I think it would be THE HANDMAID’S TALE. That said, I am also a HUGE FAN of making people buy books in unfamiliar sections of the bookstore, so maybe not.)

It’s a new era in CanLit. We’re starting to write outside the lines. A Western (albeit a Western that gets shelved in the literature section) won the Governor General last year. Maybe it’s time that the definition of CanLit, what gets taught in schools and lauded on the CBC, shifts a bit. Maybe that would make more people read the books.

I’m not supposed to buy books right now, but yesterday I went to Chapters and bought the mass market copy of “The Handmaid’s Tale”. I have a few other things to finish reading first, but then I am going to read that book. And then it’s possible that I will read everything Margaret Atwood ever wrote. Right after I finish eating all that crow.

So here it is, my apology.

I’m sorry, Margaret Atwood. I didn’t even judge your book by its cover. I judged it by its place in the bookstore, and because your name got tossed around while I was struggling (and failing) to find a personal connection to “The Wars”. But I’m going to give it a shot now. I’m sorry it took me so long.



*Except “The Chrysalis”. And maybe Fahrenheit 451, but I didn’t really GET it, and we spent too much time talking about the movie.
**Newsflash: the boys didn’t read the books about boys either.
***Alice Munroe is FROM MY TOWN. I am so embarrassed that I don’t love her!

****And here is a short story, in the theme of THE HANDMAID’S TALE, which is one of the reasons I finally got the book: http://amandaching.wordpress.com/2012/02/20/67/


11 responses to “A Second Chance to Fix A First Impression

  1. I liked THE CHRYSALIDS too, only they never assigned it to us in school, so I had to read it on my own. The only book we did study that I actually ended up liking was LORD OF THE FLIES, and that tells you something about how depressing and tedious everything else we studied was. (But LotF had Simon! I loved Simon! Piggy whatever.)

    • I had already read The Chrysalids twice by the time we got to it in high school. I’ve often wondered if that’s the reason I liked it so much, or at least the reason that high school English managed not to kill it for me.

  2. I love science fiction and fantasy. I love most YA.

    I also adore literature and spent a great deal of free hours in high school reading Canadian Literature. And I never once hated the curriculum for the books I had to read. I read them all and then read others in the same genre that other classes got to read and I didn’t.

    Except Of Mice and Men. Because no one likes that one. And the movie was worse.

    I’ll be honest and say I can’t really understand people who don’t enjoy reading literature. Or maybe better put: I don’t understand how people can’t love reading anything that’s a good story. I’ll read anything when I find the time. And this year, I’ve already enjoyed a great many brilliant literary books, and I’ve got about 20 more on the list before December! I’ve missed the classics especially.

    But that’s me.

    • I remember hearing about books other schools got to read, and being TERRIFICALLY jealous. We read: Waiting for the Rain, The Chrysalids, Fahrenheit 451 and Catcher in the Rye, The Wars, and A Separate Peace. I genuinely love The Chrysalids, and I think I would appreciate F451 more now, but we didn’t even get to read “good” classics, and by the time I was done high school, I was committed to reading “off the grid” and kind of obstinate. 🙂

      • Got back and read them now! You’ve got the time. Though start with Atwood, considering. But seriously, I’m enjoying the escape from PhD research in the evenings before bed and also catching up on some old favourites and a lot of old newbies too that I never got around to reading. I appreciate most of them more as an adult anyways.

  3. I’m not sure I understand your reference to “ridiculousness going on in the United States.” Which? But I do understand that labels which put any author (or book) into a single category do a disservice to readers. I would never browse the Science Fiction shelves but I am a big Margaret Atwood fan. I have also found myself in the library’s YA room on more than once occassion looking for specific titles. Who comes up with these categories anyway?

    • I was talking about the personhood amendments, and bills like the one that just passed in (I think) Arizona, which forces a woman to carry a still born “to term”.

      Publishers! And they are trying to make it easier to find books. And I think it kind of does…but if you get married to a genre (or poisoned by one), you might miss something amazing.

  4. My grade 11 English teacher assigned an independent research assignment that had to be based on a female (Canadian? I’m pretty sure) author because all of the authors/stories we’d read were by/about men. I ended up choosing Margaret Atwood and The Handmaid’s Tale was one of the books I read. (There’s also a movie; I watched it once on CBC years and years ago.) There was also The Cat’s Eye, IIRC, but I remember very little about that.

    Oryx and Crake is one of those books I keep meaning to read but haven’t yet. Maybe the library has an e-edition now.

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