The Cultural Queen of Canada

How the country’s most famous writer balances creation and celebrity

In the final chapter of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, set in 2022, social media have transformed many familiar terms into what the book calls “word casings,” so that “democracy,” “story,” “real” and “friend” require quotation marks to signal irony. In the context of Egan’s book, this makes sense: one of the characters has a social network of 15,896 “friends.”

Should Egan’s dystopian vision prove accurate, the word “celebrity” will surely join the other word casings. Lorraine York, the Senator William McMaster Chair in Canadian Literature and Culture at McMaster University, repeatedly acknowledges the word’s protean meanings in Margaret Atwood and the Labour of Literary Celebrity. Indeed, it is the crux of the book, which was born out of a dismissive remark by Toronto councillor Doug Ford. When Atwood raced to the defence of the city’s libraries, he told the press: “I don’t even know her. If she walked by me, I wouldn’t have a clue who she is.” The CanLit über-star is the politician’s nobody.

So York revisited territory already somewhat familiar from her Literary Celebrity in Canada, published by the University of Toronto Press in 2007. Atwood merited a chapter in that work, but apparently one was not enough.

Now the very idea of literary celebrity, especially in Canada, may strike you as improbable. York takes pains to justify her topic. In Literary Celebrity in Canada, she starts with the assertion that Canadian writers have never been more visible, although scholars have neglected their public profiles in favour of their texts—leaving a convenient vacuum for her to fill. In this volume, Atwood provides a model of a writer who has crafted a presence that not only increases her sales, but also gives her some clout in the political arena to support the arts and the environment. With the possible exception of Pierre Berton, no Canadian author has worked as diligently and shrewdly to create and maintain celebrity status.

York does not mention it, but such a study should be particularly timely now, when anyone can self-publish online. When everyone owns a printing press, it can only become more difficult to attract readers—making celebrity ever more important.

I will return to the theme of what we talk about when we talk about celebrity. But for now let’s simply note that York is under no illusion that Margaret Atwood’s fame is at the level of Paris Hilton’s or Gwyneth Paltrow’s. Nonetheless, when Atwood set out to fight planned budget cuts to Toronto’s libraries in 2011, the occasion of Doug Ford’s slur, she was able to alert her 225,302 followers on Twitter to the campaign. That is impressive, but the last time I checked—May 20, 2013—Paris Hilton had 10,820,568.

Appropriately then, York takes a characteristically Canadian modest approach. Her focus is not the phenomenon of Margaret Atwood, cultural icon, but the labour that went into creating that iconic stature—specifically, Atwood’s own labour. This is a scholarly examination of what Atwood did to become a cultural colossus, at least here at home.

So York analyzes Atwood’s stable of assistants, editors and agents in terms of industrial relations. Consulting unpublished material from Atwood’s archive (Atwood made arrangements to archive her work astonishingly early), she pores over the writer’s efforts to promote both her own work and the causes she espouses. She discusses Atwood’s insights about remuneration for cultural work and her activism to improve the lot of other writers. She dissects Atwood’s late but passionate embrace of modern technologies: Atwood, who still writes books in longhand, has become a regular Tweeter and the inventor of the LongPen, a device for signing books by remote connection.

Above all, York tries to grapple with the core area of tension for the famous—the conflict between the actual person Margaret Atwood—a woman with a family, friends and, above all, a vocation as a writer—and the public persona that celebrity demands.

One useful reminder, somewhat buried under detail in this volume, is the extraordinary arc of Atwood’s career. In the 21st century, it is easy to forget that the poet Peggy Atwood did not start out as Margaret Atwood, Cultural Queen of Canada and the English-speaking Dominions beyond the Seas, Defender of the Arts. In the 1960s, the idea of Canadian culture was largely the dream of a distinctly raffish crowd, attracting little attention outside the confines of CBC Radio. The fact that we can now refer to the canon of Canadian literature without ironic quotation marks owes more to Atwood than to any other person.

Along the way, Atwood has made herself famous and at least relatively rich. That is obviously one of the reasons that York wrote this book. As Lord Black used to remind us so often, Canada suffers from a bad case of Tall Poppy syndrome. We get snippy when fellow citizens get too big for their britches. Let’s put this more baldly than York does: a lot of Canadians really hate Margaret Atwood.

Take for instance, Margaret Wente’s list of “7 Things You Can’t Say in Canada,” assembled for the Reader’s Digest Canada Online. The statement “Margaret Atwood Writes Some Awful Books” leads the list. Wente claims that “nobody is more feared.” She concludes:

There is no such thing as a bad review of a Margaret Atwood book in Canada. That’s too bad, because many of her books are tedious and unreadable, full of tortuous plots and unpleasant characters. Why will no one say so? Because we’re grateful that she’s put us on the global map. And because if they do, they’ll never work in this country again.

This is nonsense. Canada’s literary world is not the monolith that Wente imagines. Yet York sometimes seems to suffer from the same paranoid delusion. She spends a great deal of time defending Atwood’s reliance on the hidden labour of others—agents, editors, assistants—as if it were inherently immoral. Here is a quotation: “The major reason why relatively little attention has been paid to the workings of the celebrity culture industries is their own complicity in silenced labour.” York seems to assume that her readers will automatically condemn a writer who draws on the services of editors and researchers and an agent (actually more than one) and even a personal assistant. Is there really a school of thought on industrial relations that wants the names of all those supporting workers on the book’s cover with the author’s? Only an academic could feel such wonder that a commercial relationship, such as the one between author and agent, could also be a friendship. The rest of us are used to shades of grey.

There is also a very Canadian prudery about books’ dual identity as cultural artifacts and marketable commodities. York anticipates censure of an author who tweets and performs and tries to safeguard her image, who even sells T-shirts on her website for The Year of the Flood, although all proceeds go to environmental non-governmental organizations. York goes to considerable trouble to reassure readers that these activities are not necessarily corrupt. York’s target audience apparently believe that writers should live on art and air.

The fact that the same distaste for books as a commodity shows up in some of Atwood’s fiction (mostly her earlier novels, I notice) might be adequate justification for a scholarly article, but not, for most readers, an entire book.

Outside the academy and the Occupy movement, very few people believe that art is pure and commerce is filthy and never the twain shall meet. For every Gwendolyn MacEwan or Al Purdy, resolutely ignoring the bourgeois benefits of a healthy bank balance, there is a Thomas Hardy, diligently studying copyright law before signing his first contract—or a Margaret Atwood, signing with an agent long before her earnings could justify the commission.

Admittedly, the demands of the market often have unfortunate effects on art. But for better or worse, any perceived gulf between art and commerce is shrinking rapidly in our time. Look at the world of visual arts. Thanks to Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali—never mind Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons—the world has pretty well lost the idea that artistic integrity depends on starving in a garret.

Nor is the intrusion of commerce into art a new phenomenon even in Canadian publishing. York may be too young to remember the first Seal Book Award in 1977. The winner, Aritha Van Herk, gamely climbed a rickety ladder to sign a facsimile cheque, which was printed as a giant billboard. Moreover, any woman named Judith—the title of the winning novel—was entitled to a free copy. Hucksterism and literature are old friends.

Most of my university students would see nothing wrong with an author peddling T-shirts for her own profit, never mind for the worthy causes that Atwood’s spin-offs fund. They are already approaching the world of Goon Squad;they do not necessarily distinguish between art and the market. To my mind that is not a positive development, but it is already in place.

Still, you may be so interested in either Atwood or celebrity theories that you will choose to read this book. Take note that anyone but masochists or professors would be wise to leave the first chapter until the end or to skip it altogether. You can test your tolerance for its rhythm and vocabulary by choosing quotations at random, such as this one: “As Su Holmes and Sean Redmond point out in their introduction to Framing Celebrity, this need to retain the specificity of celebrity in various areas of study is a matter of balancing the discourse of celebrity with the locality of that discourse’s performance.”

If you decide to proceed, be warned that words such as “imbrication” and “impellate” crop up later in the book as well, although there are straightforward passages that avoid such constipated, academic prose. The tortured style can feel like someone playing hopscotch while lugging around a ball and chain. It underlines the paradox of devoting 200 pages to a close analysis of the woman whose office sports the message “Wanting to meet an author because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pâté.”

Still, you can find some new information and provocative ideas here. In particular, York provides fascinating details and analysis of Atwood’s use of technology. The LongPen—that remote signing device—struck me at the time of its invention simply as a clever gimmick to cut down on travel for time-pressed writers. But York is right to tease more meaning out of it, to examine the fan’s desire for contact and the question of the celebrity’s aura.

In fact, I would have liked to see more discussion of what York calls the author’s “body,” of that question of fame’s aura. Celebrities used to have glamour, a magical quality that gleams in the distance but dissipates in close-up. Something—probably TV—has changed that. The sense of distance is being replaced by a growing sense of ownership, as if celebrities’ lives were by definition public property.

That is one reason why it is important to ask what we mean when we talk about Atwood’s celebrity. How can one word embrace the renown enjoyed at one end by Margaret Atwood and at the other by Lindsay Lohan and Jessica Simpson?

It is not just a question of scale, of the size of Atwood’s image next to the vast imprint of Brangelina and Justin Bieber and David Beckham. Those are the people who are actually famous for achievement, however disproportionate the resulting rewards. There is another vast stratum of people who are famous for doing almost nothing—famous for being famous.

They are not an entirely new phenomenon. Helen of Troy does not seem to have done much beyond looking good. But the 21st century is the Golden Age of random fame. Think back a couple of months to Charles Ramsey, the neighbour who helped to rescue three girls kept captive for years in Cleveland, Ohio. One of his interview clips (“Dead giveaway! Dead giveaway!”) was set to music and posted on YouTube. Within two weeks, that video had received 13,220,854 visits.

His fame will fade fast, of course, especially after the news about those domestic violence charges. But some highly unappealing figures have exhibited surprising staying power. The checkout line in supermarkets shuffles along under the baleful gaze of the dreaded Kardashians (Kim, Khloe and Kourtney), a family that can actually make you nostalgic for the Gabor sisters. TV channel surfers run the risk of encountering the ubiquitous Honey Boo Boo, the wannabe preschool beauty pageant queen—the Shirley Temple de nos jours, minus the talent, the looks, the sunny disposition and the charm. Readers of this journal probably would not recognize three quarters of the tabloids’ current celebrities, a motley collection of the winners and casualties of reality and talent shows, attention-hungry socialites, alcoholic and anorexic and drug-addicted actors and musicians.

Most of them will not enjoy much more than the 15 minutes Andy Warhol promised us all, of course, whether they have achieved celebrity or had it thrust upon them. Fame requires hard work over the long haul—although the effort does not always pay off. In this ocean of shlock culture, Atwood is entitled to enormous credit for managing to finesse the demands of the market and the media while still producing books.

Ah yes, the books. Politically engaged though she is, surely Atwood is more concerned about the survival of her work than her public image. And that is the great irony here. Atwood may be a celebrity, and one who sells a lot of books, but she and her CanLit colleagues are losing the war. In the June issue of the LRC, Michael LaPointe lamented the neglect of Canadian writing in our schools. Add to that the evaporation of so many Canadian publishing houses, the industry’s fixation on mega sellers and the general decline of reading, and you can see a future when the words “Canadian literature” and possibly even “book” will require ironic quotation marks.

The important point here, it seems to me, is that Atwood’s hard work to become a cultural icon—a celebrity—is anchored in an unparalleled body of work. You do not have to like all of it—it is hard to imagine a reader who would. But art is long and life—never mind fame—is brief. Atwood’s celebrity is a sideshow; I am going back to her books.