Margaret Atwood's new short stories tackle cancel culture, reproductive rights, technology

TORONTO — Margaret Atwood has been applauded for her speculative and sometimes bleak bibliography that imagines a future not too far from reality, but the renowned author is not in the habit of making predictions about her own times ahead.

Atwood, 83, hasn't yet decided when it will be time to put the pen down.

"If you have a book to write, you write it. And then if you don't have one, then you don't," says the Canadian literary legend, whose vast collection of writings explore a range of topics from dystopian futures, animals rights and identity, often from a feminist point of view.

In fact, she's showing no signs of slowing down. In addition to the author's new collection of short stories, "Old Babes in the Wood," published Tuesday, Atwood told "The Today Show" she's working on a memoir.

She's also expanded how she communicates with readers outside the printed page by starting her own newsletter with Substack last November.

"It allows my readers to connect with me in a different way," Atwood said, noting the platform allows for posts that are longer and more engaging than Twitter feeds.

In "Old Babes in the Wood," Atwood continues to provide literary commentary on present-day challenges surrounding cancel culture, women's reproductive rights, as well as society's reliance on technology and, though not explicitly said, social media by extension.

Atwood understandsthe lure of social media but when asked if she is on TikTok she responds with, "are you joking?" followed by a reference to her age. She does see the promotional appeal of the app, especially for a younger generation of readers.

"BookTok on TikTok is very much a young person thing," she said referring to the subculture where users review and share their favourite books.

"There's a benefit for the authors and also for the readers if they're enjoying the book...but there is no human technology that does not have a plus and minus and then something stupid that you haven't anticipated at all."

TikTok has recently come under fire with federal and provincial governments banning employees from using the social media app on government-owned devices due to security concerns. Atwood said she doesn't expect this to impact the number of users contributing to BookTok.

Fans can still find musings from Atwood on Twitter despite the deluge of misinformation and toxicity found on the app, but only because, "there hasn't been anything that has quite replaced it yet."

The author has spoken out about cancel culture previously and explores the phenomenon in "Airborne: A Symposium." The story is situated around a group of older women friends discussing the evolution of feminist movements and social protocols when a friend's blunder blows up on social media.

Atwood said it's never a question of whether or not people can say anything they want without consequences because they can't, but it's more of a question of where society draws the line.

"It's the old biddies trying to figure it out, and if you think the biddies aren't doing that, think again," said Atwood.

"Old Babes in the Wood" is Atwood's first collection of short stories since releasing "Stone Mattress" in 2014.

The bookfeatures new pieces such as "Bad Teeth," which tells the story of two older women who have built the kind of friendship where a white lie cannot shake its foundation, and "Metempsychosis," a quirky tale of a frustrated snail who has taken over the body of a customer service representative.

"Old Babes in the Wood" is bookended by several stories featuring married couple Nell and Tig, characters introduced in Atwood's previous short story work. The pieces examine love, aging and the grief of losing a partner in life.

Atwood dedicated the collection to her late partner Graeme Gibson who died in 2019.

While Atwood pulls from her own experiences when crafting a story, she said readers often think that the process of writing is entirely self-expression on the part of the writer, when it is evocation on the part of the reader.

"The concern of the writer is not so much to do self-expression, which you can do by going out into the backyard and screaming, but to put words together in such a way that they will connect with a reader."

The collection also includes previously released pieces including "Impatient Griselda," which is set in a pandemic world where alien-like creatures are brought in to intervene.

The piece was included in a series of short stories commissioned by The New York Times months after the COVID-19 pandemic started.

Atwood surmises she's "kind of too old to be influenced," even by a pandemic that upended many people's lives, so she doesn't expect COVID-19 to impact her work.

"What do writers do anyway in their lives? They sit in rooms by themselves and talk to people who aren't there. So not much of a change," she said, of pandemic isolation measures.

And while she may be used to writing about a future plagued by uncertainty, Atwood said she's not sure she would have incorporated the pandemic in her craft if she hadn't been asked to.

"Writers in general write about the times that they're living in. It's kind of hard not to."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 8, 2023.

The Canadian Press