Magaret Drabble

An Interview with Magaret Drabble
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OKR:

Do you often find yourself bothered then by the way critics and scholars have reacted to your work, and even sometimes appropriated it? I know that in The Witch of Exmoor, there's a line where you're talking about the character Frieda, who wrote a book called The Matriarchy of War at some distant point in the past, and is upset with the ways in which it's been appropriated since she wrote it. She says, I think, that it was a book for its time, but that what everybody else decided they were going to do with it wasn't really her problem. Was that intended to speak to some of the writing that's been done about you, particularly in terms of feminism? Do you actually read the academic prose that's been written about your work, and if so how do you deal with it?

MD:

I try to avoid reading academic stuff about my work because it's very inhibiting. Even if it's sort of favorable and true it's still inhibiting because you think, "Oh, I'll try and do that again." And it is inhibiting, so I avoid it. I'm even quite cautious about reading contemporary writers while I'm writing, because there's more anxiety of influence from your contemporaries than from the past. And I don't read reviews -- I mean I don't read journalistic reviews. I try not to. I thought The Matriarchy of War was a brilliant title, I must say. I was terribly pleased with it. I do call myself a feminist. I am a feminist. I'm not the kind of feminist that some feminists are, but I would say that I am a feminist. I want to get that clear. I'm not an anti-feminist or a post-feminist; I am a feminist. But I don't like some of the feminist approaches to my work because they tell me I should have been something else, and you shouldn't do that to people. The thing about The Matriarchy of War was in part based on Doris Lessing's irritation with the way people have read The Golden Notebook. Now I think that Doris is wrong about The Golden Notebook. Doris goes on saying, "Oh, but it's about this," but to me it's quite clearly about something else. I've said this to her personally, to her face, so I don't mind saying it to you now. She just goes on insisting "Oh, no, no, it wasn't about feminism, it was about the fragmentation or the compartmentalization of the personality," but of course it wasn't -- or not to us -- so my references to The Matriarchy of War became sort of a buried joke. It's a reference to the multiple readings of texts through time, and the rejecting of the subsequent responses of readers. Doris Lessing is unencouraging to people who come and insist on asking her about her membership of and relationship with the Communist Party and I don't blame her -- such insistence can be very irritating. We as readers are allowed to ask these questions about her position on feminism, socialism, and communism, but she doesn't want it and doesn't have to respond to it. I suppose that in the character of Frieda I was trying to suggest that a writer may reach a point when she just doesn't care about mis-readings of her work. You wrote your book, and other people have misunderstood it, and that's irritating, and then you may even realize that possibly they were right and you were wrong. I was exploring the area of authorial intention.

OKR:

Were you happy then to be able to write as a feminist in some of your early novels: A Summer Bird Cage, The Garrick Year, The Millstone? Or if you discovered the feminist movement later, were you thrilled to be writing a kind of female voice that hadn't been there in literature?

MD:

Yes, I was. I was thrilled. I think I was very lucky to be writing when and as I did. But I think that the feminist movement didn't really get going until the late 1960s and I began writing in the early 1960s. It's as though it was gathering strength at exactly the time I began writing. There were a lot of coincidences. It's as though it was a Zeitgeist really. It was a Zeitgeist of human response to a lot of economic factors and I was part of it and I felt in the mainstream. I don't now but I did then. I didn't think I was part of it, but it was there and it was only when I started writing that other people said to me "I agree with you." They said, "Yes, I'm part of that too." So it's as though it all began to cohere in the movement. I think we had lots of what you might call kitchen table conversations, very informal meetings that were talks about the way we lived and about how you get disappointed or frustrated. Those kitchen table conversations were like cells of a bigger movement and some people went on and joined the bigger movement and became spokespeople in it. But I have felt very annoyed with the woman's movement as well. At one point an American woman novelist and her agent came over to England and invited me out to a smart luncheon at one of the most expensive restaurants in London, and I realized they were trying to get me to like her novel and give it a quote in England where she hadn't yet been launched. To me that was not what the women's movement was about. It was about thinking and being, not about selling books. I think that's when I began to get a bit grimmer about certain aspects of market feminism. I didn't and still don't like the idea of women making careers or trading speculations out of what was to me a strongly unifying social movement in pursuit of justice for all, not the advancement of the few.

OKR:

You mentioned earlier that you feel that your voice has gotten more aggressive over the course of your career. Does your concern with the pressures of social theory help to explain that change? Comparing an earlier text like The Realms of Gold to The Witch of Exmoor, it's hard not to be struck by how much more cynical the characters are and how much more straight-forward the satire is in a lot of ways. Do you find yourself getting more aggressive and more determined as you go along? You referred to yourself earlier as "rebelling" against the control of F.R. Leavis, and I wonder if you find yourself doing the same thing in regard to various social movements.

MD:

Yes. I recently re-read The Realms of Gold, and it was a very strange experience because I did find it quite optimistic and innocent and hopeful in some ways. It did go back to a period of my life when I had different political expectations. I think that the voice in The Witch of Exmoor is most cynical. It was written at the end of Margaret Thatcher's regime, well, in the post-Thatcher period when politics in Britain had become so shabby and despairing that even the people who were in power had lost all faith in themselves. There was just nothing happening at all, and I think The Witch of Exmoor reflects that. There was a feeling of complete cynicism. I think it was the Mad-Cow Disease crisis which brought it to a head--the ghastly sequence of events, feeding ground-up sheep to cows in that kind of really unpleasant market-dominated atmosphere which is part of modern life. And my voice became kind of intolerant. I couldn't stand it anymore and the only thing to do was write black comedy. I mean, you need a Jonathan Swift. I can't do that but it seemed to me that that's the voice you needed to write about that kind of atmosphere. But I think that I feel better now. I'm not full of optimism and confidence, and I don't suppose I ever will be again, but I don't feel quite that sense of frustrated misery that I felt while I was writing The Witch of Exmoor. The only thing to do was laugh, which is why that book is finally a comedy; it was a depressing time. I was looking at The Needle's Eye recently -- I think I wrote it just before The Realms of Gold -- and I couldn't believe the optimism. I just found it rather sad that I once had such hopes for humankind.


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