March 28, 2014

The Handmaid's Tale: Discuss

Three Criticisms of The Handmaid's Tale that Make No Sense
by April of The Steadfast Reader

So I told Becca that I'd do a discussion post on Margaret Atwood but I've been struggling to put something together. So today I was perusing reviews on The Handmaid's Tale on Goodreads for some inspiration.

Naturally, I love me some conflict so I started looking at the one star reviews.

Wait. I don't want to get ahead of myself. First, The Handmaid's Tale is critically and popularly considered a seminal piece of feminist literature. Further, Margaret Atwood is widely renowned not only as one of Canada's premier authors, she's respected internationally, as evinced by her Booker Prize, Arthur C. Clark Award, et al. and more honorary degrees than you can shake a stick at.

Full disclosure: Next to Stephen King, Margaret Atwood is an author I would likely (maybe, possibly) fan-girl all over myself on. 

So. I'm on Goodreads looking at the trolls negative reviews. I'd like to respond to some of the criticisms I found there. (Because, y'know, Margaret Atwood totally can't defend her own work...) 

1. "It’s less a real exploration of religious extremism and gender equality than it is a narrative written for shock value..." -Kate

Can I cue the Family Feud sound that you hear when the big red X comes up? IT'S TOTALLY AN EXPLORATION OF RELIGIOUS EXTREMISM AND GENDER EQUALITY! The preface of the edition that I read points out that every. single. instance. of gender repression represented in The Handmaid's Tale was culled from history. Atwood made nothing up of the way women were treated in this novel, all she had to do was cruise history and put that repression together! 

Yes, there are shocking things that happen in The Handmaid's Tale. Yes, I think it's intentional but every instance of 'shock' in the novel is carefully crafted to pull a certain response from the reader. I find no extraneous shock.

2. "Not a very well written book. The writing itself is clumsy. It doesn't feel like you're reading a story; it feels like you're reading a piece of writing." -Victoria

Lord. Can I use the Costanza facepalm again? I'm not even sure what the reviewer means here.. but there are a couple of reviews that complaining about the style of the narrative so let's deconstruct a little.

What I'm guessing Victoria meant was that the book came across like reading historical documents, or a primary source document which! if you've read the whole book (or even some of it...) it's very obvious that the tale is told from an extremely limited perspective... it is THE Handmaid's tale... her diaries.

Atwood often writes in unusual styles, The Blind Assassin is told through newspaper clippings, excerpts from a sci-fi novel and different character perspectives. Surfacing (another timeless Atwood novel dealing with feminism) is also told from a very limited perspective. This is part of what makes her storytelling so compelling and makes her a unique voice in fiction. 

3. "Here's a story that describes the essentials of what life would be like for women if Islamic fundamentalists took over our civilization."  -Stephen (Also known as the it is completely unbelievable this could ever happen in America argument.)

Really? Really?! I don't want to (necessarily) talk religion, politics, or nationalism but the fact that many reviewers complain that it strains credulity that this book could take place in America but... maybe if the setting was the Middle East it might be a little more plausible... just seems flat out asinine. It also seems to miss the point. This book is about the subjugation of women and it can be read as a warning that it can happen anywhere

Speculative fiction isn't necessarily written as actual prediction, it's written more like the Ghost of Christmas Future of what may be if we are not constantly vigilant, aware, and willing to examine ourselves. 

Lest you think my reactions are merely reflexive, I want to share a two star review that I appreciated:

"While I can appreciate and admire Atwood's genius as a writer, and how effectively she made this world of hers come to life and feel plausible, I just flat-out did not like the story. At all. There were no glimmers of light or hope to help counteract some of the darkness of the story. And I really need that." - Heather

Fair enough Heather, cheers to differing opinions by other critical thinkers.

So, what about you Reader? Are there books you love that other people have baffling reactions to? Am I wrong about The Handmaid's Tale?

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