No doubt editors are as old as authors. For Shakespeare, there were not only his fellow actors, but also the Master of the Revels to regulate, edit, and to censor his plays. T.S. Eliot made abundant and explicit use of Ezra Pound’s incisive cutting for ‘The Waste Land’ (1922), calling him ‘il miglio fabbro’ (‘the better craftsman’). And contemporary authors acknowledge their publishers’ in-house editors without fail.
Margaret Atwood is no exception, and her latest novel, The Testaments (Chatto & Windus, 2019), is evidence of a positive and productive author-editor relationship. The book has soared to the top of The Sunday Times’ bestseller list, and sailed on to the Booker Prize’s shortlist of six.
It may well win.
In spite of these self-evident successes, I am confused. Not only about the popular clamour surrounding the book, but also as to who I should fault for its manifold failures.
Are they Atwood’s fault? Or her editor’s?
Much of the excitement for the novel derives from the recent success of the MGM/Hulu-produced television drama of The Handmaid’s Tale. The show updated the novel, first published in 1985, and brought it to public attention in the twenty-first century. In many ways, the TV show led to Atwood writing this sequel. The show has attracted a young female audience with its acute focus on women’s bodily rights, embodied in the powerful performances of Elizabeth Moss as Offred. Moss brought the terrifying realities of a post-truth, anti-feminist dystopian USA to the forefront of public imagination.
And here is The Testaments’ first failing: it is not a dystopian novel. It is closer to a YA novel that charts the adventures of, primarily, two young women as they grow up into their teens and twenties. This might have worked, if it weren’t then offset by a third narrative from the perspective of a pension-aged woman. Afflicted with a simplistic narrative strategy—three first-person narratives which are, supposedly, a mix of oral testimony and written confession, but are indistinguishable apart from some platitudinous nods to ‘my reader’ or the interviewer—the novel both undermines the successes of YA-writing, and Atwood’s own terrifying testimony in The Handmaid’s Tale.
Where was Atwood’s editor when the style needed nuance, and the characters needed more realistic dialogue?
Another failing: the story seems to have been composed back-to-front. Rather than charting the problems and resolution of an innate conflict in her Gilead, Atwood appears to have decided what the resolution needed to be, and tried to fit a conflict into that mould. The ultimate meeting of the three narrators is, consequently, underwhelming and totally inevitable. The tension that Atwood had clearly hoped to evoke and stoke with these three narrative strands is a bathetic failure.
Why did Atwood’s editor not notice the signal lack of suspense and send the manuscript back to its author?
Another failing: the novel’s self-indulgence. The writing could be trimmed and refined throughout. Without the linguistic and narrative incisiveness which is typical of all top-quality literature (not to be confused with brevity), the 415 pages drag tortuously. I felt like I was in a tired Rocky Balboa film when one character underwent a literary montage sequence preparing her for battle (Chapter 33). I felt I was reading deliberately poor, first-year creative writing students’ dialogue:
‘Indeed,’ I said, ‘The bad news, however, is that we have now uncovered a breach in our defences. […] Someone was passing messages to them, from here to there—informing them about our security operations, and even about our agents and volunteers within Canada.’
‘Who would do that?’ said Aunt Vidala. ‘It’s apostasy!’Margaret Atwood, The Testaments (Chatto & Windus, 2019), p. 114
There is far more exposition here than artistry, compounded by the wholly unnecessary reference to ‘apostasy’. I was left wondering why an experienced Aunt—disciplinarian of young women in Gilead—would exclaim this so blandly, decades into the Gilead experiment. The character is flat, the dialogue flatter, and I was both bored with the writing and shocked at its quality.
Why did Atwood’s editor not notice these banalities and the low quality of the writing? At best, this is a simplistic first draft, trying out different narrative strategies.
I could go on as there are few pages I genuinely enjoyed. However, my main query concerns how the manuscript got past the eagle eyes of Atwood’s editor—and the rest of the publisher’s staff, the copy-editors and the author on her re-read and revisions.
With books like these, low in quality and yet rich in publishing and authorial wealth (both finance and talent), the editor’s touch is transparently absent. If anything should revise readers’ understandings of the authorial process and the way in which texts evolve and develop, then this novel’s failure should do just that. Nevertheless, it doesn’t ultimately matter whether it’s the author’s or editor’s fault: a bad book is a bad book.
Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments is available in hardback from Chatto & Windus, RRP £20.