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Humour and 'readability': Margaret Atwood and Helen Simpson discuss I'm With The Bears

Kishani Widyaratna26 October 2011

Prize-winning writers Margaret Atwood and Helen Simpson, contributors to I'm With The Bears: Short Stories From a Damaged Planet a collection themed around climate change, appeared on BBC Radio 4's Open Book program in conversation with Mariella Frostrup. Atwood read an excerpt from her story in the anthology,'Time Capsule Found on a Dead Planet' and Simpson read from 'Diary of an Interesting Year', before both authors discussed their writing practice.

Framing their discussion in light of the popular trend in contemporary fiction for environmental disaster fiction, exemplified by Cormac McCarthy's The Road, they considered the challenges of making issue based fiction attractive to audiences who may be wary of feeling sermonized to. Simpson acknowledged the difficulty, commenting: "moralizing, that's about as popular as telling someone they need to lose weight. It's the nagging and being preached at element that is very hard to avoid around this subject".

In light of the recent Booker Prize furore over readablity as a criteria for the literary prize, it was interesting that this issue was also put to the authors by Frostrup. She asked them about the particularities of depicting complicated and controversial issues of such enormity as climate change within the demands of a literary narrative. Simpson described how she employed the tension of the believer and the non-believer in her story, allowing her characters to argue the issues out for readers of either persuasion. Both writers emphasized the importance of humor and the banal drama of the everyday as devices that tether the narrative of issue based fiction, making it realistic and readable. On whether making these stories funny and palatable trivialized the issues concerned, Atwood countered that "they are only funny in parts" with Simpson adding that "black comedy tells the truth, black comedy is one of the best modes of getting things over". Atwood went on to surmise:

Making jokes of that [dark] kind is one thing that human beings do, even at moments of crisis and catastrophe. It's a way of coping, it's a way of diffusing the panic, horror and fright, and terror and all of those things that you also feel

Considering the weaknesses of  dystopian fiction, Atwood and Simpson observed that the majority of books in that genre highlight the "pioneer-like" capabilities of the male protagonist while maligning the role of women in the post-apocalyptic world. Simpson put it thusly, "the women in dystopias, obviously they've got extra worries, they've got rape and childbirth. Just generally, they're demoted to much lower than they were before."

Frostrup questioned whether readers might by skeptical when faced with a collection such as I'm With The Bears, which has an overall topic. Atwood elaborated the dilemma as common to all writers, and objected to the idea that readability is a separate issue from the process of writing fiction in general:

This is a very, very old argument, which is of how much should be instruction and how much should be delight. Unless it's delight you're not going to turn the pages. Unless there's some content to it, you're only going to read it once. So that is the problem facing any writer of fiction when you sit down: 'how do I make it interesting enough so that page one becomes page two as the reader is reading?' All you have is five pages, if you can't get them through five pages they're not going to go on.

I'm with the Bears brings the capacity of the human imagination to better comprehend ecological disasters of inhuman proportions. Royalties from the sale of the book will go to, an international grassroots movement working to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

On on November 14th contributors to the book, Helen Simpson and Toby Litt, will be taking part in The Book Stops Here, a free literary party night in London with book readings from the featured authors.

Visit Open Book listen to the program in full, it will be available until 12:00AM 1st Jan 2099. The program will also be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 again on Thursday 27th October at 16:00.

To read more about their events, visit The Book Stops Here.

Filed under: broadcast, interviews