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on March 18, 2002
When I first picked up Negotiating with the Dead, I was excited about the insights one of the masters of the writing craft might be willing to share. I envisioned the intimacy of a kitchen-table talk, with Atwood revealing her deepest writing secrets while lamenting about the difficulty of the craft. But as I settled into my chair, it soon became apparent it was more like I was seated in a lecture hall (the book was born out of a series of lectures Atwood gave at Cambridge) and the lector intended to drone on and on about nothing of particular importance with only tenuous ties to the art of writing.
A reluctant host, she says herself in the book's introduction, "Writing itself is always bad enough, but writing about writing is surely worse, in the futility department." Her disclaimer, in part, reads, "I'm not a scholar or a literary theoretician," and I'm reminded of how someone once said the only thing worse than a bore is an unqualified bore.
Atwood draws mostly on the works of other writers, but also on interviews and conversations with writers in an attempt to answer three basic questions: "Who are you writing for? Why do you do it? Where does it come from?" On the whole, she doesn't even come close to answering these questions, and once the purpose is stated, it's like she thought, 'Well now that's out of the way. I've given the work direction. Now I can do as I please!' To be fair, she does produce a laundry list of reasons why writers write, some of which aren't half bad. ("Because to write is to take risks, and it is only by taking risks that we know we are alive.") But even this list seems more like the product of a quick brainstorming session than of deep, reflective thought, and she digresses widely from there.
For example, we spend almost 30 pages exploring the writer's need to leave one's self for the sake of writing, and the duplicity that results. Among the evidence presented to support this argument is the fact Atwood had a nickname in childhood in addition to her given name. "All writers are double," she continues, relentlessly, "for the simple reason that you can never actually meet the author of the book you have just read. Too much time has elapsed between the composition and publication, and the person who wrote the book is now a different person." Other suppositions along the same lines are equally absurd: "And how many times have you read in some review or other that a writer has finally found his 'voice'? Of course he has done no such thing. Instead, he has found a way of writing words down in a manner that creates the illusion of a voice."
One can't help but wonder if Atwood is herself experiencing a little too much duplicity when she asks, "Where does it come from, this notion that the writing self - the self that comes to be thought of as 'the author' - is not the same as the one who does the living?"
She veers off briefly into a discussion of twins, but soon returns to her obsession du jour, the "double," for "the double is more than a twin or sibling. He or she is you, a you who shares your most essential features - your appearance, your voice [guess that wasn't an "illusion" after all], even your name - and, in traditional societies, such doubles were usually bad luck."
A chapter dedicated to writing for art's sake vs. commercial appeal is equally inane. "...I have no answers," Atwood concludes after a lot of pointless debate; a statement that would seem to sum up the essence of the book.
The book's only redeeming quality, as far as providing insight goes, is the little morsels Atwood shares about how she came to be a writer, but even these are few and far between.
The book's subtitle should have been: A Writer Rambles on about Writing.