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Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (The Empson Lectures) First Edition Edition

35 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0521662604
ISBN-10: 0521662605
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Editorial Reviews Review

After having been through the "wash-and-spin cycle" a few times, Margaret Atwood realized that her "own experience in the suds may be relevant to others." Thus was born Negotiating with the Dead, six essays about what it means to be a writer, particularly a female writer. Each essay explores one aspect of writerly contemplation: art vs. commerce; the ideal reader; the separation between the part of a person that writes and the part that lives; and, as the title suggests, the constant presence of those who came before (both writers and other ancestors). Atwood relates her own experiences as a female poet (to be taken seriously, it would have helped to commit suicide) and as a bestselling novelist (whether your books are good or bad, sell well or don't, people will look down at you for it). These are intriguing meditations, with references to works by Virgil, Isak Dinesen, Robertson Davies, and countless others (Atwood's own dead, no doubt). --Jane Steinberg

From Library Journal

This book grew out of the series of Empsom lectures that prize-winning novelist Atwood gave at the University of Cambridge in 2000. In it, she addresses a number of fundamental questions: not how to write but the basic position of the writer, why a writer writes, "and for whom? And what is this writing anyway?" Wearing her learning lightly, Atwood allows her wit to shine on almost every page. She probes her life and work along with those of many other writers and brings in myths, fairy tales, movies whatever feeds her themes. Following an initial autobiographical chapter, Atwood addresses major issues: the duplicity evidently inherent in writing; the problems of art vs. money; the problems of art vs. social relevance; the nature of the triangular relationship of writer, reader, and book; and, in the final title chapter, the provocative idea that "all writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead." Atwood is not looking to provide answers or solutions but to explore the parameters of some interesting questions. The result is engaging food for thought for all who care about writers and writing. Recommended for academic and large public libraries. Mary Paumier Jones, Westminster P.L., CO
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Series: The Empson Lectures
  • Hardcover: 248 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press; First Edition edition (March 7, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521662605
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521662604
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 1 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #985,749 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

MARGARET ATWOOD, whose work has been published in over thirty-five countries, is the author of more than forty books of fiction, poetry, and critical essays. In addition to The Handmaid's Tale, her novels include Cat's Eye, shortlisted for the Booker Prize; Alias Grace, which won the Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy; The Blind Assassin, winner of the 2000 Booker Prize; and her most recent, Oryx and Crake, shortlisted for the 2003 Booker Prize. She lives in Toronto with writer Graeme Gibson.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

119 of 121 people found the following review helpful By jp on July 1, 2002
Format: Hardcover
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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37 of 37 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 30, 2003
Format: Hardcover
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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25 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Verita VINE VOICE on May 12, 2004
Format: Paperback
I agree that this is a graduate level course in one book, and I think the reader who wanted to give it zero stars was probably over her head. It is brilliant, philosophical and witty, as no doubt the author is also, but it is not an easy read memoir. Although there are elements of memoir, it's really a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a literary writer. Yes, these -- the problem of the double in myth and literature, the demonic/godlike sources of inspiration, the moral responsibilities of the artist, the meaning of the book as go-between of author and reader, and the different historical answers to all of the above -- these are the thoughts that occupy this writer. While the rest of us are absorbing entertainment, she is analyzing civilization and here she tells us what she thinks. A most valuable book! I also recommend her novels, especially Oryx and Crake, and The Blind Assassin.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Cipriano on July 17, 2005
Format: Paperback
I just finished reading this book and I must say, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I feel that anyone who truly ponders the intricacies involved in the process of writing, anyone who has grappled with the process itself, will find this book relevant, beneficial, and even entertaining.

Margaret Atwood mingles wit with wisdom. Erudition with transparency.

It is unpretentious from start to finish, which I think is an Atwood hallmark.

As explained in the prologue, the six chapters are really six re-worked lectures, delivered in the year 2000 at Cambridge University. They are intended for "specialists in literature, general readers, and - especially - writers at an earlier stage or dewier stage than my own."

They are not sequentially built upon each other, but rather, they circle like gulls over a set of common themes having to do with the writer, the writer's medium, and the writer's art.

The three main questions covered are as follows: "Who are you writing for? Why do you do it? Where does it come from?"

Who, why, and where... and nowhere how.

This is not a book about how to write.

It is a book about what it is like to write.

What it MEANS, to be a writer.

The most interesting section, in my opinion, was the third, entitled "The Great God Pen" because it focused on the second question "Why does the writer write?"... my favorite of the three. Here, Atwood talked about the topic of "art for art" and it was fascinating. Does the writer write to make money? For hope of fame? To project a moral statement? Create something beautiful? Exonerate oneself? Impress the masses?
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 24, 2003
Format: Hardcover
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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