Comparisons between The Handmaid’s Tale and today’s politics became fashionable following the ascension of Donald Trump to the presidency, with many interpreting the Administration’s pro-life measures as the first steps toward the establishment of Gilead, the totalitarian theocracy described in Atwood’s novel.
Fueled by Trump-induced paranoia, many leftists are now encouraging fiction writers to become more politically active in an effort to prevent our culture from hurtling toward a Gilead-like future. One author wrote that Trump’s election means “we’ve got to get really loud these next four years. We’ve to become nasty writers.”
Margaret Atwood, however, disagrees.
Political Fiction or Propaganda?
When Mic asked her what role “art, and especially writing, can play toward resisting authoritarianism,” Atwood offered a very pointed critique:
You just have to be very careful about telling artists what they should [write]...because what you’re basically going to get out of that is basically propaganda, or a bunch of writers in exile because they don’t want to be pawns of the state, or they don’t want to be mouthpieces of some of other group.
When you start prescribing what authors should write, Atwood says, “it’s game over. Because that’s just authoritarianism in another form.”
Atwood’s comments come at a time when many writers feel intense pressure to come up with politically correct material. Modern literature is expected to embrace themes of “social justice,” an expectation now enforced in some cases by “sensitivity readers,” people hired to review upcoming books and “check for issues of representation, bias, insensitive language, and cultural inaccuracies, and make suggestions to authors.” Indeed, these sensitivity readers make a living telling authors what they should and should not write, pushing authors to become, as Atwood warned, mere mouthpieces for someone else’s agenda.
Political Fiction Has Its Place
That’s not to say that fiction should never contain political messages. Many of the 20th century’s most significant novels have been explicitly political in nature, including Orwell’s Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
And of course, Atwood’s own claim to fame, The Handmaid’s Tale, is overtly political, with a strong progressive bent. When the book came out in 1985, Atwood was so adamant that her novel was politically relevant that she brought newspaper clippings to interviews to prove how “radical” some Christian conservatives had become.
Even to this day, Atwood continues to dabble in political apocalypticism. Just a few months ago, for example, during an interview with ABC News, she warned that “there are Gilead-like symptoms going on,” referencing the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and the curtailment of “reproductive rights.” Naturally, she also expressed her support for protesters who appropriated the red and white “handmaid” costumes in order to show their opposition to Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.
Still, despite the character of her own political activism, Atwood’s admonitions against turning writers into propagandists offer a refreshing perspective on today’s literary culture. We need more authors who are willing to stand up to the politically correct establishment and simply write the stories they feel inspired to create.