Margaret Atwood and Andrew O’Hagan on Fake News, Truth-Telling, and What Fiction Can Do

Part Two of Their Conversation with John Freeman

By  Literary Hub

This is part two of a conversation between Margaret Atwood and Andrew O’Hagan from the closing event of the 2017 Vancouver Writers Festival. The topic of the conversation was the writer in the world. There is no confusion over what it means to be a writer, but to be in the world these days can mean many things. Read part one here.

John Freeman: I was sitting in a restaurant with a friend the day after the election in Florida, and she overheard guys at a table behind us say, “This is it. We can do anything now.” And I wonder, you know, to what degree you think How do novels and literature push up against a kind of thunderstorm of misogyny? I mean, this has been true for a long time, as you well know more than me, but how do you fight against that with literature?

Margaret Atwood: Well, of course you’re assuming it’s the job of the novel to simply do that, and I don’t think that is necessarily the job of the novel.

Andrew O’Hagan: Well, it’s not the job, blanket-like, of the novel, but it certainly is free to some novelists to take up the fight if they choose to.

MA: Then you’re going to get just simple propaganda. Novels are about individual people, and if you don’t show them as real people but simply as metaphors, it’s not going to be very interesting.

AO: Of course. I mean, that would be true in every case. But if a novelist nevertheless is able to create character and has a strong view about this misogyny and finds a way to manage it within a novel, I’d be interested in reading it every time. But we shouldn’t forget that there has been an effective response to things like Harvey Weinstein. I mean, let’s just remember something about that. Hollywood moguls going all the way back to the 1920s have behaved horribly towards women. Harry Cohn at Columbia, Darryl Zanuck at 20th Century Fox… you can go through the whole lot of them. The casting couch wasn’t a fantasy.

When you read the memoirs of actresses through the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and into the 60s and early 70s, and you listen to those actors who are still around today, those women, the evidence is all that that was an active, accepted way of getting on in Hollywood. And those men weren’t called out. But Harvey Weinstein is being called out universally now, and I think that, you know, you have to give some congratulations to the generation of women who just speak up now about that, not just women, too. But it’s taken a long time, and I’m not saying set off all the fireworks, everything’s now cool. But it was never the case that any of those 40s and 50s studio heads were called out. We never, ever found out except in these private memoirs.

MA: [Is a lot of this stuff a case of the] guy who could not get dates in high school getting revenge later on?

AO: Oh, infinitely so. Those guys, and I’ve seen them operate in other worlds, we must remember that this is not confined to Hollywood studios and Hollywood producers. I’ve worked in publishing for 25 years.

MA: So were those guys who couldn’t get dates in high school either?

AO: No, that’s right, so they merge into powerful positions, and the first thing they do is get revenge on the boy they used to be, you know, and the girls who wouldn’t date the boy they used to be, by throwing their weight around with young novelists, young assistants. It happens every day in all industries. So I’m glad… the only point I wanted to make, really, was that, [aside from the] pessimistic picture of the effects of social media, is that social media has rounded on Harvey Weinstein universally, and thank God.

MA: So that was the point you were making.

AO: Yeah.

MA: OK. So on the plus side, it can do that.

AO: Yeah, I mean, it can bring …

MA: On the negative side, a lot of women who did speak out then got trolled big time.

AO: That’s right. That’s also part of the reality we’re looking at. It feels like a rising tide about the ankles and then it’s around the knees. There are great things about it, and then even as you’re announcing the great thing that happened, that feminism is, as it were, to some extent enhanced by the fact that all these women are talking to each other and emboldening each other through social media, and at the same time they’re being undermined by a mass army of trolls. So it’s not all good news but not all bad.

MA: It’s not all good news but not all bad.

AO: Yeah.


JF: I was thinking as you were speaking about novels by Upton Sinclair or Andre Malraux.

MA: They did the same.

JF: Novels that did the same, that almost had the effect that social media is having right now in the Harvey Weinstein world, about workers’ rights and peasants’ rights around the world. Is it possible to write that kind of novel today?

MA: I think one of the problems is that news cycles are so fast, and that the writing of a novel takes longer than that. So you may think, I’m responding to right now, I’m responding to today, and I’m writing this novel about today, but by the time you get it written, that was then, and people are on to something else.

JF: The Jungle was also serialized in a Communist newspaper that had 200,000 subscribers in the United States.

MA: Yeah, so if we were back in the age of serial novelization, you could probably do that. And some of that was tried. It was tried on the Internet, not with hideous success, you know, not really. Where you’re most likely to find that kind of thing is on Wattpad, because it does do serialization, but it doesn’t go in much for social realism of the Upton Sinclair type. So maybe if newspapers were still doing serials you could get that kind of fiction that would be pretty up to date, but the news cycles are… What would you say … a week, two weeks?

AO: I think the news cycle has presented an incredible challenge to the creative writer. I would say that without a doubt, and I’ll give you an example: 9/11. Nine-eleven was a disaster on a scale that we had never seen on television, but it was about the seeing on television. Everybody over-experienced that, and over-experiencing of it made it impossible for writers to then pick it up. I mean, even very good writers.

I would name Don DeLillo, he had trouble writing about that, I felt, and that’s just a critical point and a personal one. Falling Man is less strong as a novel because when a man who had spent 30 or 40 years outlining a system of paranoia and mass destruction was actually faced with an event like that, it almost went beyond the ability of his prose to encompass it. And on the day itself I remember editorialists—they call in novelists to write essays and so on, and there were some in The New York Times and elsewhere—I remember John Updike, bless him, great as he was, describing the tower coming down like an elevator traveling down at speed. Figurative metaphor. We all saw what it looked like. It looked like a giant tower block cascading toward the ground. There was no metaphor that would have done. And another novelist, another well-known novelist, described the plane going in like someone posting a letter at speed. Posting a letter at speed? No, we saw the plane go in. It was the fact that it was over-experienced that made it difficult for creative writers to invent a sort of experience for the reader which they hadn’t already done. Maybe it would have been like that had we watched the Civil War up close. It presents new challenges, the news cycle, I’m absolutely certain.

MA: We know too much.

AO: Yeah, the reader knows too much. The reader’s standing there waiting for your metaphors to fail. Don’t you think?

MA: Well, I would … what would such a novel be like?

AO: Well, say it was just like any other novel about … a Roth novel of the 60s, or a novel that had an interest in social realism and describing a big public event. It could describe how somebody goes to work that day, they go into the elevator, they go up, before they know it there’s a boom five floors above. You could describe it in social realist terms. But nobody has done that effectively, and we need to ask ourselves why.

MA: Well, but they’ve done a lot of factual reportage.

AO: Yeah.

MA: So and that’s possibly why. Maybe that space has all been taken up.

AO: I think it’s been taken up.

MA: But there is a reason why the great novels of the 19th century, a lot of them are set maybe thirty years earlier.

AO: Yeah, including Middlemarch and others.

MA: Middlemarch, Great Expectations, War and Peace even. They’re not dealing with what they’re facing every day. They’re dealing with something in the past that’s complete.

AO: Well, I think War and Peace wouldn’t have been the novel it is if he’d written right up against it with a public that already knew far too much about it. I mean, he was bringing the news, novelists could bring the news, both the moral news and, as it were, the social realistic news. They can still do it, but not about big events that have been well televised.

AM: As we said a couple of paragraphs back, the space is too full.

AO: Yeah, crowded.

JF: Andrew, the other thing that seems to emerge out of this conversation is that we’re desperate for context, we’re desperate to slow things down. You know, you’ve written this book, which has three 35,000-word pieces. Do you think it’s possible that you can still present something which has happened in front of people in context in nonfiction rather than fiction? Because you’re in the middle of writing about the Grenfell Tower fire.

AO: Yeah. I’m absolutely determined to do that and to write those. When it comes to nonfiction, whether it be the reported essay or the long narrative, I think it is more crucial now. I do believe that. That’s what makes me do them. I spent a year with Assange in order to write something, you know. Nobody could have funded that, no paper. I started in journalism in a time when newspapers could afford to have foreign bureaus. They kept journalists in a country just in case something happened. When you tell young journalists that now, they think you’re insane. “What, did you just sit around the Boko Haram in case something happened?” “Yes.” Next to the Boko Haram, it was the people who were there waiting for them in Nigeria that caught the story, like, “Tonight something’s happening. Oh, we’ve got people there.” So writing those long pieces seems to me almost a fight back against the overabundant trivial nature of reporting. Because we were talking about 9/11, it’s true that it was over-experienced, but it was over-experienced on a loop. You were seeing the same pictures again and again.

JF: Oh, visually.

AO: Yeah. I mean, we still haven’t had penetrating pieces about it, by and large, and I think that it’s often the way, and I’m absolutely sure it’s because of the economics of magazines, journalism, the way that’s changed. That’s one of the changes I’ve seen in my time, that we used to be sponsored to hang around and stick with the story. I mean, the Grenfell Tower story, I’ll be on that for eight months in the end in order to write about why 80 people lose their lives in a tower block in 2017. What cynicism in wrapping that cheap, oily rag around their building, that cheap cladding, saving 300,000 pounds so the local council could put that multicultural community to death. And somebody has to write that story.

In some senses we’re back in the 1930s as a series of societies. We’re living through an extreme age and, you know, where the situations like that with us are wrong being committed, if writers don’t go in and do it, then it will just pass into normality. It will become one of the conventional unpleasantnesses and nobody will get what actually happened. And what actually happened, it’s emerging from my research there, is that cynical moves by local politicians who are into gentrification of the alien and pushing poor people out of London, as happened in Paris and Singapore, that kind of social cleansing directly resulted in the death of those people, and I want corporate manslaughter charges, and I’m sticking on it until it happens.

MA: Good for you. Do you think they wanted those buildings to burn up?

AO: No, they didn’t want them to burn up. They just wanted it to be made clear that in an area where a five- or six-bedroom mansion off Ladbroke Grove costs seven-and-a-half million or eight million pounds, that these people who live in social housing five minutes away are not welcome. Oh, did they need new lifts? Well, we’ll wait until the very last minute and then we’ll get, with elderly people living in the 23rd, 22nd, 20th floor of these blocks, they were never going to get down those stairs in a fire, and yet they went ahead and commissioned a flammable wrapping around the building not a few months before this happened. It’s a disgusting state of affairs. And you need to send a message in journalism, I have to say, and the novel, I would argue for that, writers of every description can speak truth to power. It’s not over, that responsibility, and that’s why I describe it. You may choose not to allow that to be your personal responsibility as a writer. I’m not giving writers their program. I’m just giving you mine.

MA: Now, just to encourage you …

AO: Do you think I need encouragement? I need encouragement to shush for a minute. That’s where I need encouragement.

MA: Just to encourage you that some people are taking what you do seriously. Some people are taking what journalists do seriously. If they were not taking it seriously, you wouldn’t be getting about two murdered journalists a week.

AO: Yeah, yeah, that’s quite so.

MA: So that is another area that we have to be pretty concerned about, it’s when they do speak truth to power, somebody shoots them.

AO: Well said, Margaret, because that’s happening all over the world. There was a demonstration today. A Maltese journalist murdered for simply reporting on powerful people, telling the truth. So when people say, “It’s all fake news, we’re all just letting it happen and nobody’s replying,” every day somebody’s being held up against a wall with a gun at their throat, or being kneecapped, or being murdered, in lots of countries. It’s happening all over the place at the level you described. So, you know, I’ve got it easy. I’m just taking on a bunch of counselors. You know, there are people in grave situations, including in giant societies like Russia, being threatened because of what they’re writing.

MA: Or just shot. Or just plain old shot.

AO: I mean, it’s got to be borne in mind all the time that there are people fighting for reality. It’s not just everybody sitting back luxuriating in this new sort of unprincipled lack of veracity. There are people trying to get the truth out so that we can protect people.

MA: One of Tim Snyder’s points is that post-truth is pre-fascism, and if you really want to do one thing, you reader-citizen, one thing you can do is support legitimate news outlets.

AO: Absolutely. That’s where the fight starts.

MA: And they’re legitimate because they can be held responsible if they tell a lie. Whereas some of these others, you’ll never sue them. They just keep changing their website name. You can never pin them down.

AO: History bears you out. In every situation where there’s been an impending threat of fascism, the first thing they did was to disappear the truth-tellers, which usually meant the journalists. And that’s happening again, and it’s happening at an alarming rate.

You mentioned Hitler before that. We have historical precedence. We know how this goes, quieting and disappearing journalists. The fact that it’s happening more at the moment should be a main topic of conversation in all the news channels.

MA: It’s extremely worrisome, so that’s where Index on Censorship and PEN International…  Human rights organizations, Amnesty International, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression…

AO: They’ve been keeping up on this for years.

MA: Yes, and they are the institutions one has to support because they are the people who are actually watching all of this.

The preceding is from the new Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which will feature excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The new issue of Freeman’s, a special edition featuring 29 of the best emerging writers from around the world, is available now.

  • I think part of the difficulty with 9/11 is that so many true stories are still out there, never told journalistically. And some of these stories have unfolded through the not-quite-seventeen years, as in the case of PTSD or cancer from exposure, or questions of culpability on the part of designers and inspectors of buildings. So just as you might have an auxilliary character in a novel of any race or nationality, gender, religion, etc., but to make that person your protagonist raises the issue of why you tell the story, and not someone closer to it; here, we would suspect whatever person we invent is a false copy of someone who is out there, and should be allowed to speak first. If we were talking about the Civil War, as fiction writers we would be doing a service, in contrast, by giving voice to the dead–and history at length, provided the research is careful, becomes a common heritage.

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