Chapter 17 of 23 from Margaret Atwood

The Novel and the Shifting Sands of Genre

Play

Margaret discusses the evolution of the novel and asserts that the writer’s objective should be to stay true to the foundational elements of storytelling, regardless of genre.

Topics include: Forget Genre, Make Me Believe It

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood Teaches Creative Writing

Learn how the author of The Handmaid’s Tale crafts vivid prose and hooks readers with her timeless approach to storytelling.

Learn More

Share

Transcript

Class Info

Lessons

What are novels if not stories? If all they were was ideas, they wouldn't be novels. They would be works of philosophy or something else like that, but they would not be novels. And novels are always about people, even if the people are rabbits. And "Watership Down", it's a novel. We have these characters. They're rabbits, but really they're people. They have emotions like people. They have conversations and they have activities that are people like. "Lord of the Rings", there are some human beings in them, but the other characters are talking trees or Nazguls, things like that. But essentially it's characters in a story, and that's what a novel is. The thing about the novel as a form ever since it has appeared is that it's been infinitely malleable. That is it's polymorphic. It's taken many forms. People are always coming up with new theories of the novel or new theories of new kinds of novel or doing things like writing a novel in which the letter A does not appear. People are always pulling it this way, pulling it that way, pulling it apart, experimenting with it, declaring that it's dead. It's been such a shape changer that we do not know what new form may emerge. And that is one of the great things about this thing we call the novel, namely long prose narratives that are not medieval poetic epics or whatever preceded them, the novel. They've all got characters and events, and within that just about anything has been possible. But the main rule is hold my attention. [MUSIC PLAYING] What is the value of knowing the genre or type of book you're writing before you start? Well, there may be a value in not knowing. And the value of not knowing may be that you may be able to do some genre bending that if you lock yourself in to a preconceived box, you might not be able to do. What your job is is to make your book whatever it may be, as plausible, as believable as possible. If you can make us believe in "Rosemary's Baby", it doesn't really matter what shelf down the line somebody is going to put you book on. It's more of a requirement for people writing literary criticism than it is for authors themselves. Your job as an author is to make your book real. Literary fiction, commercial fiction, these are decisions made by publishers. So as an author, your job remains to make your book as good a book of its kind as it can be. So some editor then may come across and say, this has really great commercial possibilities. We're going to put a lot behind this, major marketing campaign. That's not your decision. You have made your book the best of its kind that it can be. And how it is marketed, although you may scream and yell and protest and say they haven't done enough or they've done the wrong thing or all the rest of it, those are not your decisions. Character-driven novels and plot-driven novels, another false distinction. If you've made your book the best book that it can be, it's going to have both. That is it's goin...

The art of powerful storytelling

Called the “Prophet of Dystopia,” Margaret Atwood is one of the most influential literary voices of our generation. In her first-ever online class, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale teaches how she crafts compelling stories—from historical to speculative fiction—that remain timeless and relevant. Explore Margaret’s creative process for developing ideas into novels with strong structures and nuanced characters.

Analyzing literary classics and her own work, Margaret demonstrates her approach to crafting complex dystopias.

A downloadable workbook accompanies the class with lesson recaps, assignments, and supplemental materials.

Upload videos to get feedback from the class. Margaret will also critique select student work.

Close

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood Teaches Creative Writing