Last year I read an article in the Toronto Star by Heather Mallick about Robert Fulford of the National Post writing a critical review of Margaret Atwood’s latest story in the New Yorker, called Stone Mattress. The Atwood story is about a woman who was raped as a teenager by an older boy who gets away with it. This act sends the woman down a bad road in which she gets pregnant, becomes a prostitute, and then marries older men of ill health so that she can help them die prematurely and get their money. Ultimately she meets the man who raped her and exacts her revenge.
Fulford doesn’t like the story because he thinks it “comes across as a classic man-hating story.” Mallick doesn’t like Fulford’s review because she thinks Atwood is “entitled to fill her fiction with hateful men.” She also didn’t like that Fulford didn’t own up to once having been skewered in an Atwood piece, suggesting that his review of Stone Mattress was simply revenge, as if it’s not possible to dislike a story solely on its own merits, or lack thereof.
Mallick professes to have once adored Bob Fulford, “wisest and cleverest of older male journalists.” Now, she claims that Fulford has stopped regarding life with endless interest and even joy, and turned sour. This seems a harsh assessment based on a single review of Atwood’s story. When I read that line in her article it seemed so disproportionately harsh that I wondered what else must be informing Mallick’s revised opinion of Fulford.
As a reasonably decent man this whole episode struck a nerve. I’m aware that certain women don’t like men, or distrust them, and that because of the actions of some jerks they have good reason to feel this way. I have always tried to conduct myself in a way to give women reason to like men. I have three sisters, a mother, a wife and two daughters and many female friends and colleagues. I like women. I’m good to them. I treat them with respect. So it annoys me when I am confronted with women who think that, as Fulford writes, men are villains except when they are clowns. That’s just a different kind of hatred, and it’s no better than men disrespecting women. Understanding that there are men out there deserving of scorn, just as there are woman deserving of scorn because of hateful attitudes and actions.
So I am sympathetic to Fulford’s take on Atwood’s story, although Atwood is equally hard on women in Stone Mattress. The female protagonist, essentially a serial killer, is certainly no more sympathetic than the male schmuck she murders. But I’m more sympathetic to Fulford himself than I am to his take on the story because I’d like to know why Mallick has come to dislike him so much. Just disliking Atwood’s story, and not owning up to having been a victim of an earlier Atwood story, just doesn’t seem to justify it.
I once spent four days at Atwood’s house recording a series of interviews for CBC Radio. Surreally for me, the entire four days were spent conversing with Atwood and the rest of the crew in French, which I was in the process of learning at the time, having recently returned from several months of living in Aix-en-Provence, France. Apart from Atwood’s assistant at the time, Sarah Cooper, Atwood and I were the only anglophones. On the third night we all went to a restaurant together where circumstances contrived to place Atwood and myself alone together for about twenty minutes, and we conversed in English for the first time. The whole experience generated a certain camaraderie between us, or at least that was how it felt to me – I’ve met her several times since and she has never indicated that she remembers me. Although I consider this last point worthy of mention, I don’t hold it against her. I’m not sure that I would remember her much either if she were not one of Canada’s most famous authors, mentioned time and again on the CBC and in the rest of our national media. Impossible to forget, in other words.
However, I’ve never forgotten her friendliness at the time. She did not come off to me as the least bit man hating. Her characters and stories are fiction, after all, not necessarily representative of the author’s own mind set. The truth is I haven’t actually read much Atwood, apart from some short stories in a book she gave me on our last day together (Good Bones) and the aforementioned Stone Mattress. And a handful of radio drama adaptations of her work such as The Handmaid’s Tale.
No, if I had one bone to pick with Margaret Atwood it wouldn’t be her stance against men, it would be her stance against science fiction, which she seems to regard as less than worthy. Yes, she writes it from time to time, but when she writes it is isn’t science fiction, it’s something else, something better, “speculative fiction” maybe. I find this attitude inexplicable and insulting, and no I don’t feel that way because she has previously skewered me in her work, at least that I’m aware, not that I would be aware not having read much of her work.
So neither Robert Fulford nor Heather Mallick have done anything to alter my opinion of Margaret Atwood. I’ve never given Robert Fulford much thought but I feel rather sympathetic toward the man now. As for Heather Mallick, whose work I have read from time to time in the Star, and to whom I haven’t given much thought either, I am now unduly curious about her.
Just what the heck does she really have against Robert Fulford?