Margaret Atwood on the role of the artist in testing times

I met Margaret Atwood last year. It was at an author party at the Brooklyn Book Festival.  She appeared to be quite shy – although maybe it was just me boring her to death – and her physical stature was in inverse proportion to her talent. What I’m trying to say is that, for a giant of modern literature, she’s small. But so what? My estimation of this brilliant novelist just rose because of a piece she wrote for The Nation recently (Feb 6/13 issue). In it she ponders the role of the artist in these appalling times.


She wonders, “Could we be entering an age of samizdat in the United States, with manuscripts circulating secretly because publishing them would mean inviting reprisal?” She then ponders what type of writing and art will reflect the next decade the way Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath captured The Great Depression and Miller’s The Crucible epitomized the McCarthy era. What will the artistic response be to this age?

My own answer echoes hers. I imagine many writers will produce works of fantasy, sci-fi, and speculative fiction to serve as allegories for what’s happening in the wider culture. Orwell’s work springs to mind. Those who read closely will “get” it.

Others will produce works of witness. Atwood mentions The Diary of Anne Frank and Nawal El Sadawi’s Memoirs From the Women’s Prison. More recently, the likes of Luis Urrea, Oscar Martinez, and Laura Love (Nights in Tents, about the Occupy Movement) have produced “witness art” in this hemisphere.

Atwood points out that the United States has no gulags, and it may be the case that artists and writers will barely register among the powers-that-be here. It’s not like France, where public intellectuals can make the front pages, or China, where their opinions are valued enough that the artists get locked up at the first sign of dissent.

Of course, as Atwood concedes, it’s too early to say how artists, writers, film-makers, etc. will react to this new era, but I will say there’s one factor in our favor: the president, according to one of his biographers, has barely ever finished a book. In theory, that should make us safer.



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