Margaret Atwood’s novels typically have titles that, though obscure at first, ultimately are revealed as statements of the thematic core of each narrative. Only after one has finished reading The Edible Woman (1969), Cat’s Eye (1988), or The Blind Assassin (2000) does the full significance of each title become clear. Similarly, while Atwood indicates the subject matter of Negotiating with the Dead in the subtitle of the book, A Writer on Writing, she does not explain the meaning of the title until the end of the book. Then, just as in her fiction, it becomes clear that nothing in her work is accidental, that every detail is related to the central theme.
In the introduction to Negotiating with the Dead, Atwood poses the question, “What is it that motivates a writer to write?” None of the responses she has collected seem to satisfy her, though she does note that many of them suggested difficulty, darkness, or danger. That her own book was, above all, a quest for a more definitive answer to this question becomes evident when, in the last chapter, which is also the title chapter, Atwood argues that fiction writers, perhaps all writers, are motivated by a “fear of and a fascination with mortality,” which propels them, like Odysseus or Dante, to make a journey to what she terms the Underworld, the place where the dead reside. Throughout the book, Atwood has provided examples to prove how dangerous this journey is. Anyone who visits the dark Underworld of lost memories and imagined realities risks the loss of faith, of creativity, of sanity, even of life. However, Atwood concludes that only an artist who is willing to take those risks, to make a bargain with the dark powers, and to return from their world, bringing “something or someone back from the dead,” can produce a work of lasting worth.
Negotiating with the Dead began as a series of six lectures in honor of the noted critic William Empson, presented by Atwood at Cambridge University in 2000. In preparing her lectures, Atwood had to take into account the diverse nature of her audience, which ranged from literary experts and their students to embryonic writers and members of the general public. Fortunately, Atwood did not attempt to use the language of scholars in these lectures or in the published work; however, though her style is simple and her tone often conversational, the intellectual complexity of Negotiating with the Dead, as well as its truly dazzling array of allusions, clearly justify Atwood’s presence on the academic podium.
In her prologue to the published work, Atwood points out that each chapter in her book deals with a particular conflict or set of conflicts that bedevil every writer. The first chapter, which is titled “Orientation: Who do you think you are? What is ‘a writer,’ and how did I become one?,” begins with a discussion of the relationship between a writer and his or her background, which in Atwood’s case was rural eastern Canada, a place where, during her youth, there was very little interest in the arts. Luckily, her parents provided her with two essentials for a budding writer, books and solitude, but like her Canadian contemporaries, Atwood found herself at odds with her society and its values. Even after she found some like-minded souls in the coffeehouses of Toronto, Atwood continued to be torn by both internal and external conflicts. On one hand, in so limited a circle she could not assess the worth of her own work; on the other, she had to wonder whether or not anyone in the outside world would ever hear about a young writer from a country that was thought to have no literature. It is significant that in the first three epigraphs of this chapter, Canadians writing in mid- century ponder the implications of their particular heritage, while in the fourth, dated 1999, Alice Munro, a later Canadian writer who is recognized internationally, does not list her nationality among the impediments that she had to face as an artist in the making.
The second chapter in Negotiating with the Dead focuses on another internal conflict, this time one that does not derive from the writer’s society but from the very nature of the...