Research in fiction writing: Thoughts on Negotiating with the Dead

After reading 10 popular books on creative writing in search of information on the role of research, I’ve now shifted my focus to a set of more “academic” books that are specifically about fiction writing. I say “academic” because, of all of the books on a very long list of recommended creative writing books that I found, these are the ones that are a) about fiction writing specifically and b) owned by the libraries at 20 institutions with highly respected creative writing programs at either the undergraduate or graduate level.

Today I’m taking a look at Negotiating with the Dead by Margaret Atwood.

Now that I’m nearing the end of this project, it’s starting to become clear to me that the books I’m reading are falling into a couple of different categories. The biggest one is craft criticism. These are books that spend a lot of time analyzing Great Literature through the lens of technique—all of the books by Charles Baxter, a lot of the essays in Woman Writer, The Art of Time in Fiction, and most of About Writing fall into this category. Less well-represented are “how-to” books like Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me and, to some extent, The Secret Miracle. Then there are the ones that are basically the book versions of lectures the authors delivered  in a classroom (or classroom-like setting). From Where You Dream and The Way of the Writer are the most obvious examples of that. These lectures tend to be a mix of craft criticism and how-to advice.

Of the three categories, Negotiating with the Dead probably fits most closely into the “collected lectures in book form” category. Atwood acknowledges in the introduction that the essays in the book come from a series of lectures she gave at the University of Cambridge in 2000. The first lecture is autobiographical while the rest consider the role of the writer more broadly. This is pretty typical of these more lecture-based books but Atwood’s take on the subject struck a chord with me in a way that From Where You Dream and The Way of the Writer kind of didn’t.

I think the main difference is that those other books (and, frankly, most of the books on this list) take the writer’s genius as more or less a given. You can still be a good or even talented writer without also being a genius, but if you want to create Great Literature (which all of these books assume that you should), then being a genius is a prerequisite. Atwood seems a little less sold on the idea. Or at least she’s willing to poke at it and play with it a little more than most of the other writers I’ve encountered on this list. All told, Atwood’s book is a little closer to Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott than anything by Charles Baxter (though Baxter also pokes at Great Literature a bit in Burning Down the House).

In Bird by Bird, Lamott talks less about the genius of writing than about the everyday realities of what being a writer is like. In Lamott’s view, writers can be creative geniuses…but just as often they’re petty, jealous, insecure creatures who are fine with their friends being successful as long as their friends are less successful than they are. Atwood talks about writers as these sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type people who are one person when they sit down to write and another when they’re just out there living in the world. She calls the writer part of her personality a “slippery double—or at best a mildly dysfunctional one” (p. 37).

According to Atwood, the “double nature” of the writer is such that you can never actually meet the person who wrote the book you’ve read because the time that’s elapsed between when the book was written and when someone reads it means that the writer is now a completely different person than they were when they “committed the act of writing.” This idea really struck me, especially as someone who occasionally stumbles on old pieces of my own writing and hardly recognizes them as mine. Even stuff that’s not that old—like early posts on this blog.

So all of this still kind of sounds like Atwood is still portraying the writer as some sort of magical being and she is but I guess because she’s approaching it with some playful humor, I’m willing to forgive her for it. It’s also worth noting that even as Atwood sometimes talks about writers as magical geniuses, she doesn’t do so in a way that feels exclusive of those who don’t aspire to be counted among the ranks of Great Writers. In fact, she seems a little surprised and delighted to have found herself among those who might be considered “great.”

I actually think it’s that delight that sets Atwood’s book apart from a lot of the others. From Where You Dream and maybe parts of The Faith of the Writer are the only two other books on this list that I can think of that treat writing as a source of delight or wonder. Some of the other books have a certain amount of delight as well, but that delight is for the products of writing—the literature they’ve chosen to analyze—rather than for the actual act of writing, which is largely elided.

Unfortunately, like most of the other books on this list, Atwood doesn’t talk about research in any substantial way (or even mention it). I noticed this the most in an essay where she talks about writers’ ability to perform certain illusions, including forging eye witness accounts and “appropriating the voices of others.” In 2020, the use of the word “appropriate” in this context probably has slightly different connotations than it did in 2002, when this book was published. These days, there are a lot of questions about whether white writers in particular have the right to “appropriate” the voices of others, even if they have the ability to do so. Since this was written long before that conversation was happening, I don’t blame Atwood for not diving into those questions more deeply here (she may have done so elsewhere since then—I’m not sure) but this is an area in writing books where, as a reader, I tend to feel the gap when it comes to discussing the role of research in fiction writing most keenly. Because even if research isn’t actually enough to make it okay for you to appropriate the voice of another person who isn’t like you, it’s better than trying to make it sound like writers just “inevitably know” what’s right in these situations.

But like I said, that’s a very 2020 reading of a 2002 book.

Reading a book that considers the role of the writer in a playful way was something of a relief after spending so much time in immersed in craft criticism. Unfortunately for me, it’ll be back to the craft criticism salt mines for me with the next book: Lectures on Literature by Vladimir Nabokov.

On the bright side, Nabokov’s book is the second-to-last one on my list for this project. The end is in sight!

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