This conversation between Margaret Atwood and Andrew O’Hagan was 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. A million more when you take into account the splintering of reality that takes place with each day. We began our conversation there, at the site of that breakdown.
John Freeman: The question I think all speculative fiction, and I think some of us who are politically active, want to know: Is now the time to be very, very worried?
Margaret Atwood: When was the time not to be very, very worried? Should we be more worried than ever before?
Andrew O’Hagan: Yes. Definitely.
JF: Maybe we should start when you both began as writers. Margaret, you in the early 1960s; Andy, you were, this was the early 1990s… What were the structural concerns that occupied you at the time, and how do they differ to some degree from what you see in front of you now as writers?
AO: Well, there was a basic reality that one could conjure with, certainly when I started. The situation now makes you feel slightly nostalgic for the Cold War, when the oppositions were pretty simple and almost charming, in fact quite delightful.
You know, one of the things that happened during the Cold War was that the CIA and the shape of the Council for Cultural Freedom decided the best way to tackle Russian ideology was to put money behind a literary magazine, Encounter, which it funded for some time thinking that, you know, somehow having an effect on the kinds of poets that would be published, and the way that F.R. Leavis would be handled as a critic, and the way that certain novelists would be discussed would be a decisive step forward in the war with Russia to rule humanity. And that makes me almost tickled pink to think that that was the level we operated on once upon a time, because now, of course, what’s happening is so deeply sinister, and it’s happening in the very basic units of veracity, of actuality, of what we can believe to be true.
Although there always was techniques and propaganda, of course, and lies—we always knew that—they were never operating at the level of everybody’s everyday life, I think, in the way that they are now. Everybody who opens a laptop and sits down for a mug of coffee in the morning is immediately confronted, I think, by a miasma of confected life and trying to separate out in order to have an opinion about what’s happening with the environmental crisis, or what’s happening in the election, or whether you can trust even the most basic reports.
Well, writers now, I think, are facing that every day, that you have got to see yourself, whether you want to or not, as having a responsibility, especially when it comes to nonfiction. You’ve got a responsibility to tackle that miasma and, if you like, the government institutional lying which is now an everyday reality for us.
JF: Margaret, you began writing before there was a digital component to life, and many of your novels, I think—Cat’s Eye, The Edible Woman—were about the creation of identity. I wonder how that would differ now in approaching how to write about a person or a woman building an identity in the miasma that Andrew just talked about.
MA: Well, you don’t have to be in social media. You can turn it off. So for writers I would say don’t go there if you find it uncomfortable, you know. But your publishers will say “Oh, you need to have a Facebook page,” you need to, now they’re saying an Instagram. I had to get an Instagram because there were two people on Instagram pretending to be me. And the same thing happened with Twitter. There were two people on Twitter pretending to be me, and one of them was tweeting this really mushy, romantic stuff that I would never do. So, I mean, it was offensive. Not because it was vulgar, but because it wasn’t vulgar enough. But this world is not for everyone, and I know a lot of writers who just don’t do it at all. Although they may still be having their lives ruined by email, they don’t do the social media stuff.
However, your real question is, What about young people? What about kids whose parents have ill-advisedly let them have smartphones at too early an age? I would have really strongly advised against that because the Internet is not the real world. It’s out of the matrix. Some of the people on it are real people, but other people are not, and other people are pretending to be people that they aren’t. And it can be quite dangerous in that way, especially at the point in which the Internet intersects with the real world and some child predator wants to set up a meeting. So you can, parents, get a thing that allows you to oversee what your kids are viewing and receiving on these platforms.
I’ll say a positive thing. Ready for this? Brace yourself. There is a platform called Wattpad, and that’s a user-generated, story-sharing site they try to keep pretty positive, like, free of trolls and abuse. And it’s used quite a lot by young writers, and the beauty of it is, when you were in high school, it used to be the only thing you were asked to write was “My Summer Vacation,” and students did not exert the best of their talents on such subjects. But had they written the steamy vampire story they really wanted to write, their peer group, their parents, and their teachers would have known it was them. That’s why they didn’t do it. But they’re doing it now, and they’re doing it on Wattpad under a pseudonym, and we know, because you get comments back from your readers, we know that once such a person knows they have an audience, they up their writing game. So that’s pretty positive, don’t you think?
JF: Andrew, I once spoke to the writer Colm Toibin, and he was describing how the Internet was a big thing in Ireland, because growing up and being gay in Ireland, he was afraid of going to pubs because he would possibly run into a cousin or something there. And when Gaydar came around, suddenly you didn’t have to expose yourself to that many dangers of exposure as a gay man. And I wonder, we’ve talked about the dangers that threaten children on the Internet. But obviously there are freedoms that come with the use of the Internet as an adult, and I wonder if you can talk about those in the context of the communities that you grew up in in Scotland and live in now, and how do those freedoms differ from the way that, say, Julian Assange or some of the other people you write about use the Internet?
AO: Well, you know, when I was with Assange for the best part of that year I always felt, although we’re the same age more or less, I always felt like I was from the 1840s next to him because he would … he had no references outside the Internet, you know. He had no sense of the world beyond his own immediate zone of concern. And as a writer, even, as a professional writer, my life changed very much over the period when I watched the Internet coming.
When I wrote my first book, which was a nonfiction book you mentioned, about missing children, I spent months at the British library going through the electoral rolls to find out the streets where families had lived. And there was no Internet then, and the idea that I can, when I’m working on a story now, I can go to 192.com and get those addresses, and how many people have lived in that house, and how long they’ve lived there, within seconds. That has made a great difference. So if we’re into occasional positive things to say about it, it has revolutionized our lives in all sorts of ways. And there are different categories of concern with it. I would always return to this basic one of what is reality. I mean, you mentioned children. Of course people should be discouraged from going on it too early.
I’m not on Twitter, I’m not on Facebook. I don’t think writers should be, necessarily. I think you’ve only got so many sentences available to you as a writer. You shouldn’t be giving them away for free on Twitter. But when it comes to children, I’ve got a 14-year-old and she … I see that she and her friends don’t just live their lives, they produce and star in their lives in a way that wasn’t at all available to us. I mean, I don’t think of what we had in our childhood as lives at all now next to them. We had these existences that were off to one side. We knew nothing about what was happening in Vancouver or in Australia or in, you know, other subcultures of life. We just knew what was happening in our street, and even that was a bit mysterious at the other end of the street.
So I look at the children and think, What’s it like to never really trust actuality? My daughter and her friends are always adding filters to their photographs because what the camera caught isn’t enough for them. It needs to be better lit. It needs to be, you know, in Snapchat they want to have bigger eyes and funny ears, and so, you know, have sparkles around their heads. I think in the long run it affects … we’re already seeing it with people 10 years old. When I had students in London, I saw that they had absolutely no interest in going onto a bus in London and listening to what people were saying, or in reporting actuality in the old sense. Their sense of research was to go through Google and find what was happening in the world. As soon as you said, “Can you do some research on ‘this’?” they would just get their laptops out. An idea of talking to women who were bound by a series of problems, or going into a factory and talking to trade unionists, or any number of things you can think of, they thought, Why would you do that? Somebody’s already going to have written that down somewhere on the ’net. So looking into people’s eyes, and watching for the shades and the differentials, is not something that they’re coming forward with. I find that quite weird. They don’t think of reality as being so present as I think I did.
JF: One thing that has developed on social media is the potential for political movements—the Arab Spring, for example, began on the Internet, and then it took off once it became a physical thing. And the Internet was effective there because people didn’t have the freedom of movement in public spaces. But in freer societies, when people gradually express their opinions on the Internet, it seems like most social movements don’t physically take off until there’s two million women marching, say, after the presidential election. And I wonder if you have thoughts about communalism and using public spaces to put bodies there. And to move away from our discussion of the Internet, how do we get people to do that when right now the Internet is the primary modus operandi for …
MA: Flash mobs are created over people’s phones. But every human technology always has a plus side—or else nobody would use it—a minus side, and another side that nobody had thought about initially. And one of the negative sides of social media and cell phones is that a hostile Secret Service can use them to track you. I think it was The Onion who did a piece on Facebook saying, you know, “The Secret Service has just invented the most amazing intelligence tool. It’s called Facebook. They can look at it and they know exactly where you are, when, and what you’re doing.” So that’s why Snowden was, like, a big deal.
AO: That is an amazing thing that’s come over. When I was growing up in Scotland there were only three channels on the television and I used to cry when it came to the end of the night. The Queen would come on, and that would make everybody cry anyway in our house, being Catholics and everything, we had trouble with that. And then you would press this button [on the TV] and it made a kind of “thud” noise, and then the picture disappeared into a little dot. It sort of receded into the twilight zone, and I used to get quite upset because I’d think, God, that says “alone” now. It’s just me and them. And that was the extent of our technological affections.
But now I find myself sitting here able to say in relation to the thing about how revolutions are affected by social media. During my time with Assange there was a moment, it was during the uprising in Cairo, and it became obvious to Mubarak, the leader there, only too late that the revolution was essentially being organized by Blackberries, by social media, and by people fully in connection on their phones. So he closed down the Internet in the country, and I have to give him credit for it. It was an amazing thing to watch. It was new to the novel, new to the cinema, new to any sort of reportage that I’d ever encountered, was that five young people, young hackers in this house, me leaning my back against this typical English Aga, as they went to war from this house with Mubarak’s official hackers, going through the portals of a Canadian telecommunications supplier and fighting them in those dark corridors and finally beating them. And you saw on the big screen, as the Assange-istas won that battle, everyone holding their phones up in Tahrir Square. The Internet was back up and the revolution could continue. That’s new.
MA: Yeah, it really is. Mind you, revolutions were carried out long before there were even telephones.
AO: Of course. The other … back to what you said, which is the flip side of that, is our televisions can now watch us when we’re not watching them. Now there are particular models, as Snowden in fact found out, and both the British Secret Services and the American had been collaborating for quite some time with companies, allegedly Mitsubishi and others, to produce “fake off,” it’s called. So that business of my childhood, of turning the television off and feeling you’d vanquished the outside world and civilization, actually it stays on and watches you. So as you’re walking around in your living room of an evening and talking and, you know, you’re being surveilled, if you have that kind of television. So we’re living in the age of “fake off,” as well as fake presidents and all the fake information, so it really is a giant subject. I don’t think it is just a question of just unplugging things, because it’s gone right into the body politic.
MA: Well, I think if you really unplugged it … I don’t mean turning it off, I mean pulling it out of the wall.
AO: Well, you started with the joke about unplugging him. How do you unplug the body politic, though, which is so invested in systems of surveillance and so on at that level, you know, that it’s not just a question of that television or that make. Every phone, we found out from what Snowden reviewed from the NSA, the telephone records were being handed to spy agencies by telephone companies. So the whole commercial industrial spying complex has become so embedded and strange that none of us really could have a private life.
MA: What’s your problem? What have you got to hide?
AO: So much, so much. You know, I live in fear. I mean, stop taking pictures. Nothing, really. I wish I really did have. I mean, all this fear about surveillance, it causes me to be worried for society, but not that much for myself. I wish I had more to hide. I need to get out more!
MA: Don’t get a smart house anyway.
AO: Yeah, I’ll do my best.
JF: But given how many governments around the world, especially your southern government, governments south of [Canada], are consolidating power and wealth, we have a wealth problem, not a poverty problem, in the world. What does this mean about realism as a fictional device? Because if you’re duplicating what the world presents to us as real, which could be different every day, is that a corrupt entry point into fiction to some degree?
MA: I’m not sure what you’re saying. You mean if you really believed all this stuff, when was the last time we believed advertising and everything we read in the newspaper anyway? So unless a person is very, very naïve—and I think by the time you get around to sitting down and writing a novel, you’re probably not that naïve—I don’t think you’re going to take that presentation as real. Your problems may rather have to do with it’s not that you think that is real, you’re not sure where reality might reside. More like that.
JF: I was thinking of this because I put together an anthology of younger writers from around the world, and almost none of them are writing realistic fiction. It was as if they somehow looked at the world and decided that they could not keep up with what the world considered to be real.
MA: And what were they writing?
JF: They were writing gothic fiction, they were writing fiction, they were writing sci-fi, speculative fiction.
MA: Well one of the pluses, from a certain point of view, of sci-fi and speculative fiction and even gothic placed in the past is that you don’t have to deal with a lot of things that might get you into trouble if you were trying to describe society as it is right in front of you right now. So instead of having to have a person who is white, black, or any other real skin colors, you can have somebody who’s purple, and nobody can object to that unless they decide that it’s a metaphor, right? In which case you’re cooked. “No, it’s not.” “Yes, it is.” “No, it’s not.” “Yes, it is.” So I think one of the reasons people are going to those modes is that. And another reason that we’re getting so many dystopians is that people are scared of the future.
JF: Can you write if you don’t believe in the future, Andy?
AO: I think you can try, but, I mean, the thing about metadata, and I think a lot of the younger writers, certainly the ones I encounter, they’re overwhelmed by the presence of this metadata gathering thing, and partly, I think, for a straightforward reason, a straightforward literary reason, which is that we assumed as novelists that it was at the core of the art form the sense of a private self. It’s impossible to think of, as it were, Henry James without the notion of a private self. Things that you were only saying to yourself, things that were inside your heart, as it were. Isabel Archer as an entity is impossible to think of as just an advertising, a publicity construct. She’s got to be a thing of language which points always inward, always back towards manners at self-containment, a certain presentation of self which depends on a control that she can maintain.
AO: Yes. And we’re not saying that’s been abolished, it’s just that it’s been slightly complicated by the ways of expressing oneself through data. If you’re Isabel Archer and you start tweeting, or if you’re Isabel Archer and you start writing texts, and you start engaging with a world that thinks it knows you anyway, which is what I was saying about my daughter’s generation is that they feel known. They’re responding to a certain sense of celebrity that just simply didn’t exist in that way.
There was always a Judy Garland, there was always an Oscar Wilde, there were individuals who believed in self-invention and self-fabrication. That’s been there in humankind for a long, long time: were self-makers, self-fabricators. But now there’s something about the technology, since we’re talking about technology, that really enables that at such a giant level that you can now go global in your box bedroom, living in Glasgow. You think you’re playing Call of Duty on your Xbox, it’s just you, but of course within minutes on a headset you’re playing … the guy flying the helicopter you’re trying to shoot down is somewhere in the Philippines and you’re talking to him whilst playing.
That introduces another deep multiple world that I think does present a challenge to the novelist, if the novelist takes an interest in it. There’s always going to be a novelist, thank God, who says, “Well, I live in Wyoming, and I’m interested in horses and I’m not bothered. I’ve unplugged.” And that’s a part of the universe. I’ve spent quite a lot of time in Africa. There are still, I mean, just whole societies now responding to these things we’re talking about. But this is the era we’re talking about.
MA: I think that any new technology mesmerizes people when it first appears. So I don’t think Hitler could have gone where he did so quickly without radio. It was very new, it was right up against your ear, it sounded as if it had real authority. Television, when it first came in—I remember that. People really did sit in front of this box, which didn’t even have color, with things called TV trays, and on them they put things called TV dinners, which they had heated up in the oven and then put on the tray, and they ate like this while watching this mesmerizing box. You don’t see that anymore. You might see people in sports bars drinking and watching the game on a great big screen, but you don’t see the whole family lined up in a row, eating TV dinners off TV trays, because now we’re used to it. And I think these things are going to become similar.
A couple of years ago it was all, “Oh, the book is obsolete. We’re not going to have paper books anymore. We’re all going to be reading on Kindles and we’re going to be reading e-books.” That has not happened. It didn’t happen. It looked as if it was going to, and then people tried it out and got used to the idea and stopped running around and screaming about it, and now it’s back to the level of a sort of aide. You could have it or not have it, but you don’t have to have it.
JF: So, to move one… After Nixon was kicked out of office, Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, and other writers wrote their Nixon novels, Our Gang, Deadeye Dick, and I wonder to what degree—Andy mentioned the word responsibility—when you see someone like Trump talking about respecting the generals, don’t question the generals, there’s an alarming number of fascist tics being ticked off the box. We’ve been joking to some degree, but is there a point at which you can’t joke anymore?
MA: You know, I think that point has already come. I think you raise two questions. Who’s writing those novels? I would be (well, it’s early days, the guy hasn’t been there very long), but I bet a lot of people in the White House are keeping journals every minute in preparation for their big tell-all once they get kicked out.
But the other thing is point of sale. Book number one on the New York Times Best Seller list is a book called On Tyranny. And it’s by Tim Snyder, and it’s twenty questions from the 20th century, and he runs down the list of ways that tyrannies get in the door. And in that respect I would recommend a television series called The Rise of the Nazi Party, which is basically how Hitler did it, step by step. I don’t think the United States is that kind of country. I think it’s too diverse. I think it’s too spread out. You might get some strange things going on at the federal level, but because of states’ rights there’s going to be a certain amount of pushback, and there already is. There is going to be and there has been, and there is now a certain amount of pushback.
AO: I think the two states that we’ll be talking about are really connected through him, through Trump. I think that he has both feasted on and exploited a tendency among a certain large proportion of the people who support him to believe in the fake news that he accuses other people of coming up with. They don’t have a grip on reality, his supporters. But he has quite cleverly exploited this freefalling venom and chaos. He’s encouraged it, and it’s impossible, I think, and absolutely alarming at every level that, you know, fifty years after civil rights campaigns and water cannons were seen in the streets of Southern cities in America that what actually we seem to have taken a step back to have Obama and then him. Forget Trump’s personality, if you can, for a second. Just think to have Trump, to have Obama and then him, shows how the country is in such a mess that that could happen. And I’m absolutely shocked that even when people object to his misogyny, to his pussy-grabbing, to his white supremacist attitudes, to his absolutely blatant support for the NRA, and we could go on, that there doesn’t seem to be a mechanism, either in the press or in the opposition party, to really step in and call him out. He seems to feast on the opposition and just denounce the press as being fake.
JF: Quite a bit like Julian Assange.
AO: Well, actually, they have quite a lot in common. The main feature they have in common I noticed was that they judge other people’s value systems based on their loyalty. So both Trump and Assange, they can’t understand the people who oppose them. I mean, they deliberately have constructed a way of thinking, I feel, a vengeful way of thinking which deposits their opposition into oblivion as soon as it’s clear that they oppose them. I mean, for example, the aid that Assange gave—allegedly, but I have no doubts—to the Russians in their effort to smear Hillary Clinton were entirely to do with the fact that Hillary Clinton didn’t like him and said so in public quite some time ago. Whereas Trump supported him. He was grateful to Wikileaks in these earlier incarnations. So that was all it took for this machinery to fall into place. And it’s dangerous and narcissistic, of course, but we’ve seen the effects. I mean, I’m not fantastically in support and never was of the Clintons, but I think that as a piece of maneuvering it was just so deeply cynical as to set off every alarm.
JF: How much of that election do you think came down to misogyny?
MA: Oh, quite a bit. Yeah, in fact I’ll quote myself and say that not since the 17th century have we seen such a large amount of overt misogyny. But I’m going to quote another little theory for you: Are we not seeing a proxy war between the Koch brothers on one hand, who back Mike Pence, and the Mercers on the other, who back Stephen Bannon? And are not Bannon and Pence sort of surrogate soldiers for these two very, very rich, powerful interests whose views somewhat differ? They’re both after total power. But on the Pence side you have the anti-women, anti-gay stuff, which I don’t think means much to Trump, to be honest. I think that’s … it’s not something that comes to him naturally. Maybe the anti-gay stuff. The anti-women stuff—he just considers them a subsidiary form of being, but he doesn’t much care about the Pence style of 17th century roping them in. And Bannon, his main interest is racial and nationalistic. What do you think of that proxy warfare?
AO: Well, you can see that what’s developing is a sort of ethos. It seems a subcutaneous ethos is emerging where they will suddenly say, “Well, we had no choice,” you know. The Bannon-ization of democracy is going to seem like, in the end, “We had no choice. We were propagated.” “We’ve tried our best with these people.” The misogyny is at such a level that it takes your breath away. I mean, it’s not even masked most of the time.
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.