Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Negotiating with the Dead

I’ve read a number of books about writing — John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction is a favorite, though the exercises are intimidating and the subhead, “Notes on Craft for Young Writers,” always gives me the uneasy feeling that I might be too old to benefit — but until recently I hadn’t heard of Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead. I don’t think it’s particularly well known. Part of the trouble may be the forbidding title. Another part of the trouble may be that this isn’t like other books on writing. It’s not all about craft, like Gardner's book, or about the life of a writer, like Stephen King’s. There’s some of that, but mostly there are meditations on questions like “Who is the writer when she’s writing?” and “Who is she writing for?” and “Is it wrong to write for money, and if so, why?” Atwood is surprisingly funny in this book (based on a series of lectures), especially about her childhood as the daughter of an expert on forest insects. I was pleased, too, to see that she discovered Edgar Allan Poe and the Sherlock Holmes stories at the same early age that I did.

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