Atwood's politics can't be pinned down. (Credit: Leonardo Cendamo/Getty)

March 7, 2023   6 mins

If you are the kind of person who absolutely must know where your favourite novelists stand on any given political issue, Margaret Atwood presents a confounding figure. In an era when so many fans demand that artists advertise which side of the Left-Right divide they’re on — lest some hapless consumer accidentally engage with or, actually enjoy the creative product of a member of Team Bad — Atwood has, to immense frustration, refused to spell out her beliefs. The result has been a host of shrill and speculative coverage of what her every digital move could mean, articles that fret over the perceived implications or possible dog-whistles in Atwood’s tweets, posts, and essays. Attempts to pin her down ideologically invariably fail, albeit while producing some gems like this from a Guardian feature: “People want you to be on their side, which to them means you have to be their puppet. Not a good fit for me.”

Here, then, is some new grist for the mill: Atwood has now published possibly the most entertaining and least flattering satire of the state of contemporary feminism ever written — not that there’s much competition on that front. “Siren”, a short story in the Furies anthology released this month, takes place at the Liminal Beings Knitting Circle, where an exasperated siren is trying (and trying, and trying) to call the meeting to order amid repeated interruptions by other mythical creatures who take exception to her word choice, her tone, her asking for a show of hands when some parties present don’t have hands, and so on. Imagine a Twitter thread invaded by characters out of the Brothers Grimm.

Between the repeated apologies for triggering language and the debate over whether, having admitted vampires to the knitting circle, it’s only fair to open it up to zombies as well, “Siren” makes for a fairly scathing allegory of a feminist movement slowly language-policing and intersectionalising itself to death. Those given to scrutinising Atwood’s output for hints about her ideological proclivities will no doubt seize on it, as well as on its inclusion not in her own new collection of short stories, Old Babes in the Wood (published this week), but in this collaborative and explicitly feminist anthology. Certainly, it is tempting to see “Siren” as the explicit take on feminism, and related issues — including the presence of trans women in the movement — that she has thus far refrained from offering.

And yet, it would also be a mistake to do this. What this story reveals is not Atwood’s political orientation but her writerly one. As a novelist, she has an eye for the absurd and the tragic, the way that human (or liminal) beings who come together with a grand sense of shared purpose can nevertheless end up at each other’s throats over this perceived slight, or that minor etiquette violation, or the fraction of a percent of an issue on which they slightly disagree. “Look, I don’t know why we’re even considering the zombies. They haven’t asked to join,” the siren says. And then: “No, they cannot be educated about that. How many times do I have to emphasise that they do not have brains?” And then: “I am not blaming the victim. I know it’s not their fault that they are basically just reeking heaps of disintegrating biotrash.”

The idea that the siren must be a self-insert for Atwood (you can almost hear people making this argument) is replicated broadly in much of the literary discourse at present, which so often centres on a sense that fiction isn’t really fiction. Authors who portray this experience or that idea are assumed to be speaking on their own behalf, as readers increasingly fail to draw the line between imagination and reality, depiction and endorsement. If you put it on the page, the thinking goes, it must be in your head, and in your heart; the vivid depiction of a nasty character surely says something about the character of the author who created him. Add to this the eternal drumbeat that Everything Is Political, and it was only a matter of time before people began to treat the novel less as an art form than a scavenger hunt for the author’s ideologies and -isms.

The viral short fiction of the moment — works such as Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” or Tony Tulathimutte’s “The Feminist” — often seems designed to validate this ultra-earnest approach to reading. These stories are deft but depthless; their politics are easily discerned, right on the surface. Every generation has its artistic proclivities: younger millennials and Gen Z seem to not only crave straightforwardly instructive stories, but to find it confusing and unsettling when authors veer into symbolism, irony, nuance.

The tendency to take fictional works so literally — and, often, so personally — might have been most alarmingly embodied by the reaction, in January 2020, to a short work of speculative fiction titled “I Sexually Identify As an Attack Helicopter”, in which a protagonist has received a government-issued “gender reassignment” that essentially fuses her consciousness, her body, and her identity with the titular aircraft of which she is a pilot. The story, by a pseudonymous author named Isabel Fall, is a provocative and imaginative exploration of the relationship between flesh, self, and self-realisation; its reception revealed how obsessed readers, including those who should know better, have become with approaching fiction not just through a political lens, but also with an eye to knowing which “team” the author is on before they engage with a story — knowledge that often becomes an excuse not to engage with it at all.

Fall’s work was met with widespread outrage: the author’s intent was presumed to be nefarious, leading to the remarkable spectacle of readers and writers alike denouncing “Attack Helicopter” and demanding it be censored without having actually read it. Far from being embarrassed to critique a story without reading it, ignorance of the text became a point of pride, the ultimate expression of ideological purity and solidarity with those claiming harm.

The final twist in this sordid saga was like something out of a Philip Roth novel: the author — who asked that the story be taken down after the backlash triggered a mental health crisis, which landed her in a psych ward — turned out to be a trans woman. But far from rethinking their approach to difficult works of fiction, the literary community doubled down, even arguing that their misjudgement was Fall’s fault: she had not hand-held them to a proper understanding of her story. Arinn Dembo, a prominent member of the Canadian speculative fiction community — who was vocally and furiously certain that Fall was a “straight cis person” and “probably a white dude” — responded to the revelation of Fall’s actual identity with a huffy, look-what-you-made-me-do sort of statement:

“All I can say at this point is that a lot of people might have been spared a lot of mental anguish if that story had simply been accompanied by a sentence or two of context — an artist’s statement of the author’s identity and her intention for the work.”

Things have not improved since then. Last summer, social media was awash with bewildered reactions from 20-somethings who didn’t understand that Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, a satirical novel about “a young woman’s experiment in narcotic hibernation”, was neither a handbook for navigating depression nor a memoir of the author’s own bizarre prejudice toward East Asian people. Satire, as it turns out, is particularly difficult for members of the cult of authenticity and representation, who favour stories that make you feel seen instead of making you feel, well, anything else.

Furies, however, defies the literalist, inviting a very different sort of reader. The collection positions itself as a reclamation of sorts — the stories are all named after “traditional terms of misogynist abuse”, such as Harridan, Virago or She-Devil. But more than taking back the words so often weaponised against women, this anthology seems also to reclaim the role of fiction itself as a vehicle for interpreting the world, for exploring dark places, and for asking questions with neither the duty nor promise of providing answers. And while “Siren” so effectively skewers the dynamics that rule in certain Left-progressive spaces, it — like the anthology of which it is a part — also represents a subversive throwback to literary form that has recently seemed on the verge of abandonment.

Like the liminal beings in Atwood’s contribution, these stories cannot be simply categorised; they exist in the in-between, where things are nebulous, messy, and not easily boiled down to a moral soundbite. Even the creatures and archetypes for whom the stories are titled speak to the complexities of womanhood itself, that peculiar condition of being dangerous to men because they want you until the moment when you become suddenly, equally dangerous to them because they don’t: you may die a churail, who can disguise herself as beautiful, or live long enough to see yourself become a harridan.

And in this moment where the hag is having a renaissance of her own — with feminists such as Victoria Smith boldly defying the notion that a woman’s relevance depends on her youth — surely it is meaningful that these stories, not all but many, are written by women of a certain age. Liminal beings themselves, they are poised on the threshold of their supposed obsolescence, but stubbornly refusing to budge. Furies shows that there is a place for these women in literature yet, even as society tries to push them to the fringes. Here is the churail hidden in the trees, whispering; here is the woman who has lived too long and seen too much not to have a story to tell. They speak from within these pages: wry, insistent, and impossible to ignore.

Kat Rosenfield is an UnHerd columnist and co-host of the Feminine Chaos podcast. Her latest novel is You Must Remember This.