Reviewed by Nathalie Cooke
Reingard M. Nischik.
Engendering Genre, The Works of Margaret Atwood. U of Ottawa P, 2009
For anyone interested in Margaret Atwood’s work, there are a number of reasons to pick up the most recent book by prolific German scholar Reingard Nischik, Engendering Genre.
Let’s start with the subtitle: The Works of Margaret Atwood. While Nischik cannot tackle the whole of Atwood’s oeuvre in this slim volume, she does manage to find a useful peephole through which to provide a glimpse at a range of Atwood’s works in different genres by focusing on the way gender impinges on genre. This approach allows her to touch on a number of texts that have received comparatively less scrutiny than Atwood’s blockbuster novels. She touches on the power politics of Atwood’s early poetry, provides commentary on the frequently overlooked Murder in the Dark and Good Bones, and looks briefly at the short story cycles and criticism, as well as nine of the novels. (Her omission of Bodily Harm seems surprising given the volume’s focus on gender politics.) The most valuable critical contribution to Atwood studies this volume provides, however, lies in Nischik’s perspective, as a German scholar, on the film debut of The Handmaid’s Tale in Berlin and her commentary that includes translations of some of the original German reviews.
Readers will also be rewarded for taking up the book by the inclusion of a new interview: one that pauses to spend some time talking about the comic book tradition. Nischik and Atwood have known each other for some time, and there is a conversational ease to the interview that makes it eminently readable. And, there are all the classic elements of a good Atwood interview. At turns, Atwood plays the teacher, asking her own questions, signposting ways of thinking about the various forms of expression (e.g., Photo romanzi, those Italian soaps in comic book form that were popular even in the late twentieth century ). At other turns, Atwood is the social historian, describing cerographs (256), a time when ballpoints weren’t yet invented but coloured pencils were (255), when she was a young artist who learned the ropes of silkscreening, Letraset, printing, and book production. She also lifts the veil, but just an inch or two, on the secrets of the writerly life – to remind us that Michael Ondaatje writes in longhand (269), for example, that she uses one computer for her work and another for her email (267), and that her own writing is hard work, recently supported by ice packs and painkillers in true Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours style (270). The familiar Atwood gamesmanship is in evidence here as well. She demystifies one of her pseudonyms – the satirist, Shakesbeat Latweed, coined to represent collaborative projects composed with university classmate and subsequently Anansi Press colleague Dennis Lee – but reminds Nischik and other critics who might be reading that the pseudonym lived on after her departure from Victoria College. “So you have to be very careful in looking at Shakesbeat Latweed” (259). And one can almost imagine the grin and arched eyebrow as she says, “I’ve used pseudonyms before (laughs). You just don’t know about it (laughs)” (258).
Another reason to look at this book: the pictures. Although Atwood’s own cartoons have been included in previous publications by and about her, this is the first extended glimpse we have been given at her as a comic artist and at her contribution to the cartoon genre. We are also treated to a discussion of the role of the comic book tradition in her oeuvre. We are given the opportunity to meet the superheroes of this tongue-in-cheek cartoon artist – including Survivalwoman, Superham, Amphibianwoman – and to acquaint ourselves with the cartoon series of different phases of her career – Kanadian Kulchur Komix, for example, or the Book Tour Comics. As well, the chapter devoted to the comic book tradition, taken together with the interview, provides an excellent introduction to the way comic book culture influenced a generation of writers. In the interview, Atwood goes to great pains to explain the impact of comic books, the clandestine pleasures of reading and trading them, and the imaginative possibilities of figures who defy the limitations of the daily world and function in a world of endless transformations.
Tantalizing in this commentary on cartoon culture, accompanied by a wealth of Atwood’s illustrations, is the absence of a key comic strip – “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Cipher” – despite Nischik’s very rich discussion of its significance (227). One can find this comic strip both in Nischik’s other Atwood Society Award winning book, Margaret Atwood: Works & Impact (316), a collection of Atwood articles published in 2000, and in my own biography (1998; 76-7).
Why, one may wonder, did Nischik not simply include it here for handier reference? One answer surely is that she both hopes and assumes that her readers will not stop with this book. Another, equally surely, is that she does not assume that her readers have started their reading of Atwood scholarship here. Rather, she makes it explicit throughout that Atwood is – and there’s no qualification given - “Canada’s leading writer”(2) and so deserves extensive attention.
At some level, in other words, this book by this veteran Atwood scholar raises more questions than it answers. But it does so on purpose. The gauntlet is thrown down frequently. Nischik challenges the reader to look for more pseudonyms, to find more comic strips, to explore in greater depth the international perception of “one of the best and best-known contemporary writers worldwide” (2). Nischik is, like Atwood, an extremely prolific writer. Like Atwood too, she teases and tempts her readers to read on, offering suggestions and sources to guide them on their way. In doing so, they both fan the fires of curiosity and of the Atwood industry itself. And they make for interesting reading.
At press time: Nathalie Cooke is professor of English and associate provost at McGill; her publications focus on Canadian literature, culture & foodways and include a biography of Atwood (1998), commentary on the process of writing that biography (2000), and critical companion to her work (2004).