I used to be a literary snob. And by that I mean I was one of those wanky first year lit students who wouldn’t read anything published after about 1960. In my mind good literature started at Jane Austen and ended at Ernest Hemingway, and it didn’t include anything that could be considered fantasy or science fiction.
The classes I took in my first semester at uni only reinforced this attitude. I know now that they were introducing us to the literary canon before we delved into contemporary fiction, but at the time it seemed like the classics were the only books we were supposed to be reading.
Then I took a women’s fiction class, where we read The Handmaid’s Tale, and there it was: everything I had been trying to pretend I didn’t like in one devastatingly powerful novel.
Because the thing is, I grew up watching geeky science fiction movies. I was always drawn to bizarre, plot-driven stories. In primary school, I forced my friends to start an R.L. Stine fan club so we could write our own Fear Street stories (shockingly, I was the only one who tried). In high school, my classmates were hooked on The OC while I idolised Joss Whedon. I wanted to write about ordinary people thrust into dark and outlandish situations because these were the stories that moved me.
It was only as I got older that I realised these weren’t the kinds of novels that ‘serious’ authors wrote. They were lowbrow, science fiction pulp; tolerated for their entertainment value but disparaged for their lack of intellectual merit. I felt that if I wanted to be a serious writer, I would have to deny my nerdy impulses and focus on literature that mattered.
Atwood’s novel made me re-evaluate everything. Here was a serious, Booker Prize-winning author writing about something totally macabre, fantastical and suspenseful. It had none of the elements I associated with bad sci-fi, like aliens and spaceships and techno babbling sidekicks. Instead, this was a recognisable world gone wrong. The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a tyrannical version of the United States called the Republic of Gilead, where women are treated as second-class citizens.
In this terrifying near future, most of the Republic’s women are infertile due to their exposure to pesticides. As a result, they are slotted into different classes according to their fertility status. The protagonist, Offred, could have been yanked straight out of a traditional literary novel. She reflects on her reduced circumstances with bitter insight, and yearns for her husband and daughter, who were taken away from her when the new government took over. She is forced to act as a live-in concubine (or ‘handmaid’) to a married Commander, which involves participating in monthly mating rituals.
I can’t pretend I was mature enough to understand all of the feminist, religious and political nuances of the novel when I first read it. But I was so excited by the idea that genre and literature could coexist like this.
During our class discussion on the novel I remember the girl next to me scrunching up her nose to say, ‘This book was so disturbing, wasn’t it?’ like that was the only way we were supposed to react to it. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This is what I wanted to read. This is what I wanted to write.
The Handmaid’s Tale wasn’t my first introduction to speculative fiction. I read 1984 in high school, but that book didn’t resonate with me the way this one did. Maybe it was the strong feminist ideals and the languid prose that I liked, or maybe it was the creeping feeling that this reality was actually possible. While it was published in 1985, it's still referenced in media discussions about abortion and conservative government policies today. It’s an exaggerated dystopian reality, but it was inspired by real historical events concerning religious fundamentalism and repressive governments, which is what makes is so disturbing. And so fascinating. This is behaviour humanity has displayed before. It’s entirely possible it could happen again.
That whole year I had to get my hands on everything even remotely similar, which led me to Parable of the Sower, Never Let Me Go, The Road, and the first book in Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy, Oryx and Crake. The Handmaid’s Tale had such a strong influence on my literary tastes that I eventually wrote my Honours thesis about memory in speculative fiction.
That’s not to say that I don’t still struggle with the idea that speculative fiction – or anything that could be defined as genre, really – is inferior to other fiction. It's a hard thing to overcome when you're a fledgling writer. It's even harder now that YA novels like The Hunger Games have made the genre so popular, because while this has introduced it into the mainstream, it has also increased the (unfair) perception that dystopian novels are just trendy and disposable.
Even Atwood seems to have reservations about defining her work as straight genre. Instead, she appropriated the term ‘speculative fiction’ because her work describes ‘things that really could happen.’ Many believe she does this to avoid the cringe factor associated with the sci-fi label. This seems such a shame.
Regardless of her own take on the subject, I’m grateful to her for teaching me to embrace my love of genre. If I hadn’t changed my snobbish attitude, I would have missed out on some truly amazing books. I would have been too ashamed to write about what I really love, which is the worst fate I can imagine.
Emily Tatti is a Melbourne based writer and editor. She has written about pop culture and feminism for websites like Junkee, Killings and Birdee. She tweets @narrativekind.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.