I recently landed in two separate discussions with two separate groups of people (all college educated) who had no idea who Margaret Atwood was. Literally, not one of them had any idea. I'm not about to suggest she's an underrated writer; she's certainly celebrated for her numerous contributions to literature. But it continues to bother me, or at least sit on the edge of my consciousness, that 1984 is read and recognized widely in schools and universities across this country, but The Handmaid's Tale is not. Namely, because I start to wonder if the "female writer syndrome" is at work, here.
To be fair, most of the people involved in said discussions recognized Atwood when I mentioned she wrote The Handmaid's Tale, as they'd heard of that book, but only two had actually read it. Dystopian fiction is pretty timeless in its popularity, but why does dystopia always invoke discussions on Huxley and Orwell and Orson Scott Card and Philip K. Dick, but not Atwood? She's not strictly a science fiction writer, but she's written a handful of novels set in dystopian societies. And, why on earth is it okay to get through high school and college English without even knowing who she is? She certainly doesn't lack material, having written novels, short stories, poetry, essays, children's books, nature pieces, etc., and in all these fields, her work excels. There are, of course, many good writers whose work is overlooked by the mainstream; with Atwood, the question inevitably has to be, "Is she excluded because she's a woman?" I can't fully answer that, myself, but I do think the more recent movement of more female writers into the science fiction and fantasy genres will bring more acceptance of all of them as credible writers in the genre. And maybe, The Handmaid's Tale, which has lately become a more realistic than fictional perspective of modern society, will eventually find its place in the mainstream, alongside Orwell and the like.