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  • Engendering Genre: The Works of Margaret Atwood
  • Karen F. Stein (bio)
Reingard M. Nischik . Engendering Genre: The Works of Margaret Atwood. University of Ottawa Press 2010. 328. $34.95

In this study Reingard M.Nischik sets out on a daunting journey to analyze the evolution of Atwood's concern with gender throughout her career, as expressed in her prolific output that spans the genres of poetry, short story and other short fictions, novel, essays on literary and cultural criticism, and the visual media of film and comic strips. Many critics and scholars have noted - with consternation and/or approbation - Atwood's attention to gender, but I believe Nischik's is the first book-length study of this topic. Recurring themes in this book include Atwood's 'poetics of inversion' by means of which she 'undermines conventional values or textual norms' and turns them upside down, and the progress of characters in successive fictions from victimhood to the possibility of creative non-victimhood (along the lines of Atwood's thematic study of Canadian literature, Survival).

The book begins with a lively discussion of Atwood's 1971 poetry collection, Power Politics. Contextualizing the work within a time of feminist challenges to gender stereotypes and romantic ideology, Nischik argues that this book is a 'threshold text in the development of love poetry' because Atwood 'superimposes the critical code of gender politics over the idealistic code of romantic love.' This chapter provides the strongest analysis of the ways in which gender issues can affect and transform genres. [End Page 332]

Chapter 2 considers Murder in the Dark, Good Bones, and The Tent, which have been called 'flash fiction,' prose poems, or hybrid texts. Nischik illuminates Atwood's dramatic monologue 'Gertrude Talks Back,' a rewriting of Shakespeare's Hamlet. She also addresses the ways Atwood inverts a masculinist prose tradition stemming from the work of Charles Baudelaire.

Chapter 3 follows the sequence of female characters in Atwood's short stories as successive protagonists move from victimhood to creative non-victimhood. Chapter 4 focuses on the 'forms of address' in the novels, finding that early novels illustrate - and later novels analyze and critique - sexist language that trivializes, demonizes, and/or idealizes women. Although she speaks of Oryx and Crake only briefly, I believe Nischik misreads the novel. Observing that Crake attempts to produce humanoids, the Crakers, who are genetically free of jealousy and symbol-making, Nischik comments that their 'only concern is reproduction.' Since the women are programmed to come into heat only once every three years, I find it difficult to agree with this. Moreover, the Crakers begin to make symbols and generate religious beliefs, in spite of Crake's genetic engineering.

Chapter 5 focuses on The Handmaid's Tale as novel and film, and describes the problems Atwood and others face when adapting her works for movies. Nischik argues that the director, Volker Schlöndorff, 'remasculinizes' Atwood's feminist dystopia, turning it into a thriller and emphasizing the love story and the male figures, thus distorting the novel's themes. Chapter 6 addresses Atwood's literary and cultural criticism. Pointing to the continuing relevance of Atwood's critique of sexism, Nischik alludes to the US presidential primaries of 2008 when the media frequently denigrated Hillary Clinton in sexist terms.

Chapter 7, the longest chapter, rounds out the discussion of Atwood's work by addressing her cartoons, a genre that few scholars have scrutinized. At a time when graphic novels are receiving serious critical attention, Nischik's analysis makes an important contribution to the scholarship on this genre. She introduces material that has previously had limited availability, publishing eight cartoons from the Kanadian Kultchur Komix and Book Tour Comix series. Her thorough discussion sets the comics in historical and political contexts, and demonstrates Atwood's witty and trenchant political and social commentary. This assessment, along with the reproduction of many comics, gives appreciative recognition to a little-known aspect of Atwood's career. Chapter 8 contains Nischik's 2006 interview with Atwood, focused primarily on her cartoons. Atwood traces the origins of 'drawn narrative,' in Greek, Roman, and Egyptian art and the Bayeux tapestries. She recounts her lifelong fascination with comics, starting with...


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pp. 332-334
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