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on May 22, 2016
One of the finest books on writing I have read, and I've read a few! This is a readers' guide to writing, the depth and breadth of literary reference is nothing short of astounding. From Old English to current day references, Atwood is at her singular best here; she intersects/dissects and delivers, often in hilarious juxtapose, insights on the reader, the writing, the author and the book with her usual incredibly frank and honest prose, all sorts of revelations which border on on the startling, of life behind the desk. It's an incredible journey of the English language in print and the difficulties in wrestling that print to the page. Bravo, Atwood. Although this book might be considered a little dated, buy it anyway. It's a treasure for your library. I keep going back to it. As will you.
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on August 30, 2003
I just finished reading this book--twice!--and may just read it again. An intelligent, provocative, and very funny discussion of life lived in the writing realm. Each of Atwood's chapters could support a book-length volume of its own. Her ability to cross the boundaries of time, genres, genders, the human and the divine is astonishing. She is genius.
The back matter--notes, bibliography, acknowledgments, and index--are invaluable, and if you'd like you could launch a lifetime of study just using her references as the guidepost. This book has gotten me excited again about literature--a dive deep into the profound waters, far from the frothy, frivolous "acclaimed" writing that has increasingly made me feel so discouraged and alienated.
No, this is not a how-to. This is a wondering-how-and-why.
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on September 9, 2002
Battles that were "long since resolved" do not lose their relevancy simply because the matter is no longer front page news. I waited nearly two years for this book's publication, and having read, loved, and laughed out loud over such lectures as "Spotty-Handed Villainess" on Atwood's web site, and having had the recent honor of seeing her speak at Radcliffe, was not disappointed. Any serious reader knows how heavily and intelligently Atwood draws upon and subverts the conventions of fairy tales and especially of 19th century gothic novels; after all, she did years upon years of postgraduate work at both Radcliffe and Harvard in exactly that literary period and genre. With novels as dense and intelligent as Atwood's, did anyone honestly expect a critical, scholarly text by her would be a fun read? Any aspiring writer (or non-passive reader, for that matter) who has not mastered the canon--and the history behind it--won't go far. How can anything new be created if you aren't capable of recognizing what's alredy been done, and playing with conventions with the knowledge that they are conventions, and how they've been used in the past? I can't believe I'm using this analogy, but if you watch the Simpsons without a basic knowledge of American pop culture, you won't get the joke. Nearly everything written after 1950 has some kind of basic postmodern, intertextual play going on somewhere. I am American, and wasn't even alive in the 60s or 70s, and even I know that a basic grasp of literary history (including the impact of the feminism on literature) is vital to any writing life.
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on July 12, 2002
I felt compelled to write this review because of a previous reviewer's slanderous and ignorant comment that Margaret Atwood is an alcoholic. I am familiar with the arts community in Toronto and so can say with absolute certainty that this is untrue. This is a scholarly and beautiful text culled from a series of lectures and should be read as such. I suppose that if you believe, as another reviewer did, that being a writer does not require familiarity with the body of English literature then this is not the book for you. But if, as I did, you found that comment ridiculous and sad- then consider this text.
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on November 11, 2002
I have collected M.E. Atwood books for years now, and it was by accident that I came across Negotiating with the Dead in the academic section of my university's bookstore. Sure, it's not a novel or book of poems, but if it has her name on it, I buy it. I wasn't dissapointed. I love MEA's characters and stories, and now I love her take on literary aspirations and operations. Her refreshing, cynical angle on this field was inspiring and very interesting. Buy this book if you love Atwood, but also if you love writing and don't know why you do.
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on July 1, 2002
I feel the need to respond to reader "Liz," who believes that the author's "alcholism" [sic] was to blame for her disappointment in this book. Liz clearly confuses Margaret Atwood for Margaret LAURENCE, the brilliant and troubled Canadian writer who committed suicide in 1983. Atwood is alive, well, and (according to all reliable reports) in no way suffering from "alcholism." I would respectfully suggest that a little more scholarship and considerably less judgmental commentary (not to mention careful proofreading) are in order before posting reviews on
As a longtime fan of Atwood's work and as a writer myself, I found her insight fascinating, though I can understand the disappointment some readers felt; this is not a handbook or a how-to, it's an intellectual memoir and will consequently be a let-down for many. But if you are curious about analysis and process more than in absolutes, there is much here to interest and entertain. Atwood-the-writer can seem remote in her fiction; here she is personable and humane. Anyone who has put pen to paper will recognize and value much that is to be found in this volume.
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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?"
Uh, you?
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.
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on April 24, 2003
You have to wonder if most of the previous reviewers of this book have actually read any of Atwood's fiction. If they had, they would have known the kinds of topics that interest her and that she might pursue in lectures about her career as a writer. It's hard to imagine, for example, criticizing Atwood for drawing references from 19th century literature. I see this book as following in the tradition of Virginia Woolf and Eudora Welty, by combining stories about the author's life as a woman with her reflections on what it has meant to write fiction of the highest order.
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on April 3, 2002
What a disappointment. Instead of the insightful observations Atwood is capable of -- and I have heard her speak -- this book is a mishmash of cutesy comments and esoteric references.
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on January 5, 2003
I was so disappointed in this book - it's very egotistical in assuming we really care about the author's memories of her bell-bottom hippy days - very little about actual writing and just a total waste. Too bad.
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