I read Margaret Atwood’s 1976 novel Lady Oracle first as a seventeen-year-old, then as an earnest literature undergraduate.
In this feminist satire, acclaimed Canadian poetess Joan Foster fakes her own death and flees to Italy in disguise when her multiple identities collide. Not only is Joan a sort of red-headed Enya of the literary world, she’s also the writer of numerous Gothic governess romances and (in her mind this is the worst crime) a former fat kid.
The book is told in first person, interspersing flashbacks to an unhappy youth and marriage with excerpts of the “Costume Gothics” that Joan writes. Joan grows up with an angrily controlling mother who tries to get her obese teenage daughter to lose weight. A legacy from a beloved aunt allows her to flee to London, where she first meets a Polish count who churns out Betty Neels-type nurse-doctor romances and introduces her to a career as a romance novelist. She has a chance meeting with Arthur, a drippy young Socialist, who becomes her husband. The pair end up back in Canada, where Arthur adjuncts, agitates, and doles out contempt for his wife while she supports him with her secret writing.
Then, while hashing out a paranormal storyline, Joan tries Automatic Writing. (This involves staring into a candle and letting the spirit take her pen.) After several sessions, she finds that she has written a strange manuscript which Joan’s new literary publishers gleefully sell. Correction: they sell Joan as a tragic-feminist-spiritualist-redheaded poetess.
Joan’s husband becomes unhappy with her success (and the fact that the book seems to be about a stifling marriage). She stumbles into an affair with a performance artist who styles himself as “The Royal Porcupine.” The Royal Porcupine wears spats and a cape and hooks Joan by negging her. (The dystopian fantasy A Handmaid’s Tale is regarded as Atwood’s most prescient novel, but props to Lady Oracle for identifying proto-pickup artists.) But the pressure from juggling her secret lives comes to a head when a hanger-on of the arts scene threatens to blackmail her, threatening to spill about her affair, her secret life as a romance novelist, and her former heft.
I am having a hard time piecing together what I felt about Lady Oracle as a youth under the weight of what I think of it now.
I should note that, like Joan, I have at least two names: I’ve had one literary novel and two romance novels published, but I’m open about my identities (and—erm—am not successful under either of them). There is no danger that I’ll flee North America only to turn up at an Italian pensione with my luxuriant tresses chopped off.
When I was younger, though, and still struggling with one identity, I think I found Lady Oracle funny? Zany? I especially enjoyed the parody of Joan’s so-called Costume Gothics. It didn’t have anything to do with my life, I thought. And yet, shortly after reading Lady Oracle as a seventeen-year-old, I sent a self-addressed stamped envelope to Harlequin for their guidelines on writing romance novels.
My working title was “Worlds Apart.” The heroine, Lancie, was a food critic who was planning to attend cooking school in Italy. The hero—I don’t remember his name, so we’ll call him Jim—was an architect who was moving to China. They met, in the first chapter, at the travel agency run by Lancie’s sister.
Lancie had black hair and brown eyes. I never said explicitly that she was of Asian descent—probably because I didn’t admit it in my mind, either. The novel ended with Jim rushing to Tuscany, having sacrificed his plans to create a Beijing subdivision—having sacrificed for love. I suppose this was my version of a feminist ending.
I told people that I was writing a romance novel for money, although why I told people anything at all, I don’t know. Like Joan, I was secretive. I got maybe 20,000 words in before my dad sold our secondhand Mac (honestly, the real love story was between me and that cheery little computer) and switched us to PC.
“Worlds Apart” wasn’t the first book I’d tried to write. The idea of money attracted me, but that wasn’t really why I needed to do it. But it was the first attempt where my real motives for writing seemed hidden even from me.
Lady Oracle is not kind. It is not kind to people, to genre fiction. Nor is it kind to high literary work.
It skewers romance, of course, trotting out the usual stuff: the audience is made up of sexually unsatisfied (white) women. Joan reads romance novels but calls them “trashy books.” The writers and publishers feel contempt for their readers. Joan says, “I made the necessary revisions and received my first hundred pounds, with a request for more material. Material, they called it, as if it came by the yard.”
In Joan’s (or Atwood’s) vision, writers of romance novels are prized for the quantity of work they can produce rather than the quality. (There has been speculation that Atwood herself has written romance novels.) At the same time, however, the quality of literary publishing seems to be a myth. When Joan meets with her imprint, Colin Harper, a beleaguered editor, seems less than impressed with the book. Doug Sturgess, the publisher, has dollar signs in his eyes.
“We thought it was—ah—reminiscent—of a mixture of Kahlil Gibran and Rod McKuen,” said Colin Harper unhappily.
“Oh, I said. “It’s that bad, is it?”
“Bad?” said Sturgess. “Is she saying bad? You know how many copies those guys sell?”
Harper thinks the book is cheesy. Sturgess, with book covers and TV appearances in mind, wants to know if Joan plays the guitar. To her romance publishers, words are material. To her literary publishers, Joan is the material.
Throughout the book, it’s clear that the products of women aren’t valued.
“I have read your [poetry] book,” Count Paul, failed literary writer/author of nurse-doctor romances, tells Joan. “It is promising, I think, for a first book, by a woman.”
The qualifications Count Paul appends to his compliment water down any admiration he might have professed. At every turn, Joan thinks she’s a fraud. But that’s also partly because at every turn there is someone dismissing her accomplishments, telling her she doesn’t deserve love, thoughts, success, her life.
I said I wasn’t honest with myself or with others about why I wanted to write a romance novel at seventeen. By twenty-two, the second time I read Lady Oracle, I’d told myself I didn’t want to write at all.
This was my version of managing expectations—by getting rid of them. I’m not going to say that Lady Oracle made me despair. Life did that—it keeps doing that. Besides, I still apparently wanted to try something new after having read it. And well, obviously, I still write.
But the prevailing feeling I’ve had reading it this time around has been one of recognition. I’ll be honest: rereading Lady Oracle was a mind-fuck, partly because I saw myself in it and partly because I wasn’t even in it at all. If the message for women is that their work can be discounted because it is done by women, then what do we say to women who are not white?
In 2016, forty years after the publication of Lady Oracle, there is a lot more talk—in the world, in publishing—about the need for writers, editors, agents, reviewers, who are not heterosexual cis white men.
I am grateful for the work I’m getting this year. (Seriously BMP, thank you!) But while I am delighted that I get to write, there is always someone—from within, from without—trying to keep me in a confined space.
Writing about diversity—God, how I’ve come to hate this term!—in Kirkus last month, romance reviewer Bobbi Dumas exhorted, “I hope you’ll consider reading outside of your own comfort zone.”
Your own comfort zone.
A lot has already been made across the Internet about this piece and Tweets by a prominent white literary agent about getting that diversity in—as if it’s an onerous duty, as if all audiences are white, as if diverse stories are bitter, medicinal, and fundamentally unappealing to white sensibilities. (For one rebuttal, check Courtney Milan’s response in the comments to Ms. Dumas’s piece.)
Women’s writing is already seen as insubstantial because it’s by women—but work by POC will also taste bad going down? I don’t want to be a nonwhite writer who is given a berth so that white audiences may absolve their guilt and then move on to the “real” reading. I prefer not to think that my writing—or the writing of any WOC—is a pill for anyone to choke on. But so often the writing of WOC is framed this way. Even the praise is qualified. It’s as if Count Paul is there saying, You are promising, I think, for a new writer, who’s a minority hire.
Rather than wallow, this is how finally I have chosen to see Lady Oracle, a satire that veers close to and diverges from my life in many ways.
Joan thinks she’s a fraud. But while Joan says she’s an impostor, she’s an unreliable narrator in another completely different way: while she’s busy telling us that she deserves nothing—that she is so buffeted by circumstance that her own poetry book was penned by invisible spirits—she discounts what she has accomplished. Despite her apparent powerlessness, she’s a woman who escapes her terrible family, invents and reinvents herself, writes seventeen books, supports her husband and his hangers-on, and—even after life starts falling down around her—harbors hope for the future.
What does it say that in the end, the thing that she’s most frantic to hide is not that she’s a successful writer of Costume Gothics? She’s not most intent on preserving her literary reputation or her marriage. The thing she’s most eager to hide is the fact that she was once big. She still has heft—she is substantial. The thing she wants to hide is that she is bigger than all who surround her.
Top photo: “25 cents each,” Kitty DuKane, flickr