I must begin with a confession: With the exception of a poem I stumbled across in a modern anthology years ago, I had never read Margaret Atwood before I came to this book. From that one poem and from the odds and ends that circulate through the media about any prominent person, I had gathered the impression that her work was dour, militantly feminist, fatalistic, pretentious, inscrutable, and brilliant. As a Name in Canadian literature, she was on that list of authors that I should read but had no real motivation to approach.
Coming to this book with such loosely held generalizations, I was ready to be surprised. I was not ready to be delighted.
Moving Targets is Atwood’s second collection of occasional pieces, following Second Words , published in 1982. The subtitle, Writing with Intent , describes the genesis of this book. Every piece was commissioned with some specific purpose in mind and aimed at one of a range of targets: Napoleon’s two greatest mistakes and their implications in America’s War in Iraq, Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved , or the concept of north to a Canadian.
In explaining her title, Atwood states “I can’t write about subjects for which I feel nothing. Thus moving .” Such feeling cannot be felt and not be communicated, and the emotion shared with the reader is one of the most compelling aspects of this collection. She is enthusiastic in her praise for the writers she reviews, since she refuses to review a book that she doesn’t like. And she shares her sense of loss in the memorial pieces for authors whom she knew. Her reminiscences of Carol Shields are particularly vibrant, playing on the theme of “delight” and “light” in her work. She uses that imagery to respond to those critics who thought that Shields’ work lacked “the thread of blood,” saying that “the problem of the luminous is that their very luminosity obscures the shadows it depends on for its brilliance.”
Atwood in luminous in her own right, shedding so much light on the literary age and culture in which she lives. Particularly revealing is her detailed essay describing the influence of George Orwell on her own work in particular and on the other authors that succeeded him in his genre.
It is an incredibly generous book. The majority of the selections are about other authors, an eclectic gathering including a healthy dose of Canadian authors as well as three Iranian women authors and crime writers Elmore Leonard and Dashiell Hammett. The lesser known among these authors will surely benefit from the influence of her name recognition. Her style in these reviews is enough to make another review weep. She cuts incisively to the bones of the matter, drawing on a wealth of previous acquaintance not only with the works of the author at hand, but also with related books.
A very few of the essays in comparison are directly concerned with her own work She writes about the foundations for several of her novels— The Handmaid’s Tale , Alias Grace , Oryx and Crake
—giving details that delight those who want to know how a work of fiction comes into being. In “Nine Beginnings, unable to give a direct answer to the question of why she writes, she offers a series of unconnected meditations on the process. And “The Grunge Look,” perhaps the most personal of her essays, is a wryly humourous, ironic, yet poignant account of her first trip to Europe as a soul-improving exercise.
Reviewing this book, full of its own masterly executed critiques, is rather like instructing Wayne Gretzky in stick handling. It is sufficient to say that it offers a first-time reader of Atwood an accessible, intriguing entrance to her work. I can only imagine how delighted her long-time fans will be with this further glimpse into the writer as craftsman, evaluator, and champion.