Ready, Aim (Carefully), Fire
- Margaret Atwood (Author)
Moving Targets: Writing with Intent 1982-2004. House of Anansi Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sally Chivers
This is an odd volume. Few besides reviewers and Atwood devotees will read it from cover to cover. Though full of utterly enjoyable, immensely readable, and devastatingly clever nuggets, the pieces within Moving Targets were not intended to work together as a unified read, and they do not. That said, the book provides a sense of Atwood’s range of reading, analysis, and relevance. It also offers an intriguing cultural history of the end of the twentieth and the very beginning of the twenty first century. The three sections “1982-1989,” “1990-2000,” and “2001-2004” provide a distinctly Canadian but broadly applicable vantage on global phenomena. Not many thinkers can provide insight within a moment that endures, but Atwood can.
As Atwood ages, her readers increasingly expect and want her to produce an autobiography. This book is full of the first-person and some revealing self-portraits. Though it will not satisfy those looking for a tell-all journey through Atwood’s development as a writer, it begins to tell the tale. She provides a refreshing retrospective glimpse at the pre-fame Atwood and helps readers to know that she was not always aware of how much she would succeed as a writer. Looking back at her experiences in the 1960s, she reveals that,
Fleeing a personal life of Gordian complexity, and leaving behind a poetry manuscript rejected by all, and a first novel ditto, I scraped together what was left after a winter of living in a Charles Street rooming house and writing tours-de-force of undiscovered genius while working by day at a market research company, borrowed six hundred dollars from my parents, who were understandably somewhat nervous about my choice of the literary life by then, and climbed onto a plane.
The book contains many self-deprecating hints of her struggle to be confident in her choice to write but also her good-humoured embarrassment at her past confidence. For example, in a charming section where she explains her aunts’ influence on her development as a writer, she says of herself in the late 1950s, “I had already produced several impressive poems; at least I was impressed by them.”
The first section of Moving Targets, 1982-1989, culled from the period when Atwood was working on and published both Cat’s Eye and The Handmaid’s Tale, contains a mix of contemporaneous book reviews (of The Witches of Eastwick, Difficult Loves, Beloved, The Warrior Queens), theoretical contemplations on literary form (especially utopia-dystopia), articulations of her relationship to other Canadian women writers (Marian Engel, Susanna Moodie, Margaret Laurence), and some characteristic environmentalist writing. She provides some revealing insights about her coming to know Canada as a literary place:
This was one of my first intimations that, beneath its facade of teacups and outdoor pursuits and various kinds of trees, Canada—even this literary, genteel segment of Canada, for which I had such youthful contempt—was a good deal more problematic than I had thought.
She also offers some cutting assessments of what differentiates literature from other forms of transcription:
Those little black marks on the page mean nothing without their retranslation into sound. Even when we read silently, we read with the ear, unless we are reading bank statements.
As counterpoint, she highlights the tension required to produce good writing:
Perhaps it’s from the collisions between these two kinds of stories—what is often called ‘real life’ (and which writers greedily think of as their ‘material’) and what is sometimes dismissed as ‘mere literature’ or ‘the kinds of things that happen only in stories’—that original and living writing is generated.
The collection’s second section, 1990-2000, contains auxiliary pieces written alongside Wilderness Tips, The Robber Bride, Good Bones, Morning in the Burned House, The Blind Assassin, and Alias Grace. Topics for this section continue the themes set up in the first, but the literary critical focus is on historical realism. She concludes her public talk about writing Alias Grace:
The past no longer belongs only to those who lived in it; the past belongs to those who claim it, and are willing to explore it, and to infuse it with meaning for those alive today. The past belongs to us, because we are the ones who need it.
Her focus is on the knowability of history, which she claims rests on “individual particulars” rather than grand patterns. The general tendency is a slight nostalgia undercut (no doubt deliberately) by wit. Her frustration and fascination with the growing effects on her readership of the postmodern questioning of authority and master narratives shows in statements such as,
it’s typical of the cynicism of our age that, if you write a novel, everyone assumes it’s about real people, thinly disguised; but if you write an autobiography everyone assumes you’re lying your head off.
The collection’s third section, “2001-2004,” comprised of pieces written alongside Oryx and Crake, continues to flirt with readers who desire autobiographical nuggets. Atwood refers to this final section as “A Fistful of Editors” since, as she says, “in occasional writing, it is often the editors who come up with the occasions.” The most momentous occasion in this time frame is of course the attack on the World Trade Center, and Atwood’s “Letter to America” comments upon the event, though she points out it began as a piece she had already promised to The Nation before September 11, 2001. The section also contains moving remembrances of Mordecai Richler and Carol Shields after their deaths. It concludes with a pithy set of “mortifications” wherein Atwood remembers embarrassments from her early, middle, and modern periods.
This book is aptly titled. The collection is full of moving targets, which makes it not all that readable and yet valuable. Though Atwood does indeed show herself to be an impressive cultural critic, what is most consistent and useful is her ongoing discussion of what literature is and what it can do.
- Epiphany vs. Exploitation by Jennifer Fraser
Books reviewed: Airstream by Patricia Young and World Body: Selected Stories: 4 by Jerome A. Greene
- Women in the North by Sherrill Grace
Books reviewed: Winging It in the North by Lyn Hancock and Kabloona in the Yellow Kayak by Victoria Jason
- Those Voices Speaking Now by Neil Querengesser
Books reviewed: Rudy Wiebe: Collected Stories, 1955-2010 by Rudy Wiebe
- Faith or Doubt? by Kate Douglas
Books reviewed: Burdens of Proof: Faith, Doubt, and Identity in Autobiography by Kate Douglas
- Muddy Histories by Ajay Heble
Books reviewed: The Projectionist by Michael Helm and Laterna Magika by Ven Begamudré
MLA: Chivers, Sally. Ready, Aim (Carefully), Fire. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #190 (Autumn 2006), South Asian Diaspora. (pg. 141 - 143)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.