Margaret Atwood Inc.

A subtle examination of the business of being the queen of CanLit

Margaret Atwood Inc.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/CP

Fame is a strange and fragile thing in Canada, a country that for much of its history was on the fringe of successive empires. For the most part, Canadians spoke the language of the prevailing power, and the ambitious migrated toward it. Truly famous Canadians, from Mary Pickford a century ago to Justin Bieber now, gained that stature abroad. We celebrate them for it—Norman Bethune is famous in his own country primarily for being famous in China—and, hockey players aside, are suspicious of those here who claim celebrity. Mordecai Richler used to mock them as “world-famous in Canada.”

Then there’s Margaret Atwood, a genuinely world-famous literary celebrity still resident in Canada. How she achieved and maintains that staus—apart from her literary gifts—is the subject of Margaret Atwood and the Labour of Literary Celebrity, Lorraine York’s subtle examination of the business of being Margaret Atwood. Now 73, Atwood began her career a half-century ago, a young poet in the era of Leonard Cohen and Irving Layton, when poets were CanLit’s feted stars. (And it surely didn’t hurt that she was one ethereal, witchy-looking poet to boot. In a 2003 interview Atwood recalled old book tours: “Women would come up for signings, and lean over and ask, ‘How do you get your hair like that?’ ”)

But York, an English professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, constantly circles back to the foresight that Atwood, from the beginning of her career, applied to its business side—both in carving out space for her creative work and in protecting her brand. In the mid-1960s, Atwood was one of the first in what was scarcely more than a cottage industry in Canada to realize the importance of agents. For authors, agents were, as York—who combed through Atwood’s papers at the University of Toronto—quotes Atwood writing in 1965, “a necessity of life, rather than a mere luxury.”

The writer met her agent almost by serendipity in 1969. Within days of Atwood asking a Manhattan publisher about prospective agents, New Yorker Phoebe Larmore was phoning the same man to ask if he knew whether this exceptional young Canadian—Larmore had picked up a copy of Atwood’s The Edible Woman while on vacation in Montreal—needed representation. It was the start of a relationship, professional and personal, spanning four decades. Its tenor, York writes, is captured in Larmore’s 1976 advice that Atwood take a writing job that, while not enhancing her reputation, would provide “a comfortable income and a comfortable assignment at a time when that combination is a prime requirement,” that time being the final months of Atwood’s pregnancy.

And Atwood was perhaps the first Canadian—York has found no precedent—to incorporate her business as a writer, founding O.W. Toad (an anagram of her name) in 1976. It was an astute move, as her international career blossomed from the 1980s and publishing became ever more globalized. Atwood was well-placed to balance her creative life with the demands of editors in three countries, as well as translators, academics and journalists—what assistant Sarah Cooper summed up as “being asked to do way more than one person could ever actually accomplish.”

Besides prescience, what York found striking about Atwood Inc. was the mutual, long-lasting loyalty between her and the key figures in her business, all, like Larmore, women. She followed her British (Liz Calder) and American (Nan Talese) editors to new publishing houses; and in the 1990s used to gather them, together with her Canadian editor, Ellen Seligman, and Larmore in 10-day “pyjama parties” in a Toronto hotel whenever she was ready to unveil a new work.

There, a kind of consensus edit would emerge, with no one—except Atwood herself—having final say. Not officially, anyway, although York, having a found a handwritten poem in the archives, thinks that may be open to question. The “Ellen poem” is a comic tribute to Seligman: Who’s the very best at spellin’? / Ellen! / At the grammar, / she’s a slammer, / Ellen! Three cheers / Peerless amongst her peers.


Margaret Atwood Inc.

  1. What a booooooooooooooooooooore!

  2. Atwood is one of those who has made Canada globally famous in literature….and A Handmaid’s Tale is a classic.

    • and she hasn’t written anything worth reading since. she is simply not a good writer. she just has good press

      • The world disagrees with you.

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          • Then you must not read your own posts

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          • Margaret Laurence is ten times the writer Atwood is seems you are pretty ignorant of Canadian Literature

        • no, not the world, just literary critics who don’t dare tell the truth about Canadian icons like Attwood and Suzuki.

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          • have you even read an Atwood book? boring stilted language and poor descriptions. but lets face it, she is one of Canada’s icons so we all have to love her. and what does that have to do with martians and lizards

            Read Oryx and Crake, I dare you to say that is good literature

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          • the whole world does NOT love At wood any more than they love Pierre Burton or Farley Mowatt. its just that your Canadian education system has told you that they are the ones you should love. the fact is that outside of Canada she is not very well known, except on the critic circuit

          • And W.P.Kinsella and W.O.Mitchell; two Ws whose writings beat “Maggie Moonbeam” ‘s drivel every day and twice on Sunday.

          • Oferfuxakes….the woman has lots of fans globally….awards as well.

            Just because you don’t like her writing is no reason to trash her or Canada.

          • Pointing out five better writers than Atwood is not trashing her its being truthful.

          • No, it’s personal choice. Not everyone is going to like the same thing.

            However there is no reason to trash writers you don’t like.

          • yes, there is reason when they are not held up to the standards others are held to but get a free pass because they are considered icons. if someone else wrote many of Atwood’s Burton’s and Mowatt’s books, they would never have been published. anybody who doesn’t acknowledge that is either very gullible or ignorant.

  3. If only she didn’t hate men so. I wonder why she doesn’t like us… we’re just as good as are women.,

    • She’s been married since 74, and has a daughter

      • Poor Guy!

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          • Being a married mother has nothing to do with liking or disliking men. I didn’t say she was a lesbian, although a great many lesbians are married mothers too. The two are not mutually exclusive.

  4. if only they traeted other aspiring writers with half the (undeserved) respect Atwood gets Canada’s literary section would be 10 times better than it is. even her bad books are acclaimed as great when they are garbage

    • Problem is school boards are made up of inane,academic progressives promoting other inane, academic progressives. I think the short stories and books W.P.Kinsella wrote about Canada’s Native people should be required reading in high schools

      • School boards are elected.

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      • no, I have never sent a book to a publisher. none of them take un-asked-for manuscripts, and definitely not a Canadian publisher any more

        • That’s because everyone is online

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          • LOLOL riiiiight.

  5. Look folks, if you don’t like Atwood….don’t read her books!

    Simple as that. Jeezus.

    • not quite. as long as people like you accuse others of being ignorant bigots for not supporting the hack, we still have to protest her unearned status as a literary icon

      • You HAVE to eh? No, actually you don’t.

        Maybe you could do something for useful with your time instead of whining.

        • its funny, but you are the only person here who actually thinks she is a good writer and whining that we are mean. are you her daughter, or her agent? she is a hack and the sooner people like you realize she is not worthy of praise the better we all will be

          • I haven’t said anything about her ability. actually….I said she was well thought of, famous, and an asset to Canada. A success.

            For some reason that bothers the small petty Canadians on here…..who’ve accomplished nothing on their own.

            Envy is a bad thing.

          • i like atwood. i think she has incredible talent.
            insulting people because of what they like to read is really silly. in a idiotic way.

          • I know…’s not like anyone is forcing them to buy her books.

            I can’t believe the animosity towards her.

          • they ARE however forcing teenagers to read them in school.

          • Poor babies…..

            Ciao means goodbye in Italian Jusy

          • yes, emilyhtinkssheknowseverything, I know what Ciao means. I also know the statistics of kids dropping lit studies because they are forced to read horrible books by the ‘Canadian Icons’. for 4 years my son was forced to read Pierre Burton and Farley Mowatt murder in the Arctic books and Atwood ‘s dystopian so called sci fi because schools get a discount if they buy those books, right up until the day I told his teacher to stop. he hated it and so did his whole class. he hasn’t picked up a book since. when my daughter came home with the same book a few years later, I returned them and told the teacher and school board that if they could not find another author I would burn any book she brought home. she reads almost as much as I do. nobody is doing anybody a favour by insisting atwood can write anything but garbage

          • good lord. a family haunted by the three amigos of Canadian lit. i like pierre burton but farley fetched mowatt would cause most people to consider book burning. maybe the teacher threw atwood in to keep students interested. parents are not consulted when curriculum is selected and assigned. the reading material chosen likely is not for the students amusement. and yeah,it’s no fun reading a book you just don’t like. i would think the school would not care if you burned their books as long as you paid to replace them. maybe throw a backyard book burnin campfire/marshmallow roast. the kids could dress up as their most despised authors and dance around the campfire chanting awful poetry.

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          • why would I bother? its not like they are good authors. and I DID spell the names correctly, and I AM educated. [perhaps that’s why I know they are hacks being paid to write by the Canadian government

          • You did spell them wrong – it’s Berton, not Burton, and Mowat, not Mowatt. And anyone who is as educated, as you claim to be, would never talk seriously about book burning.

          • sometimes you have to make a statement to get your point across. there are better Canadian writers than those three, writers who use better grammar and descriptive scenery, who should be on the reading lists for schools, and not just because someone gave them a critics award for writing. being forced to read just those writers is like being forced to learn only American history every year in high school.

          • True any Atwood book can be used effectively as a sleep aid, what talent!

          • I adore Margaret Atwood’s writing. I tend to prefer her earlier novels but I have never read an Atwood book that wasn’t at least fascinating. I will never forget the first time I read The Handmaid’s Tale — I remember vacumming and reading at the same time, I just could not put it down — and I studied her work at university.

            She is a smart woman, but why her work is so controversial and political here on this blog is beyond me. Conservatives like simple action stories with clear heroes and villains — so they don’t have to think too hard and smart people can handle sophisticated literature. So what?

      • Good to have a purpose in life, no matter how silly it may seem to others. Your hostility to her wouldn’t have anything to do with Rob Ford would it?

        • nope, I couldn’t care less about the hijinks Rob Ford gets up to, or is accused of. however when that woman’s books are forced on our kids in school, simply because she is a ‘Canadian icon’ I have the duty to complain.

          • Oh I see – you’re one of those (backing out of the room).

          • one of those what? one who wants kids to read good literature in school? or one of those who thinks bad books shouldn’t be passed off as good simply because of the author’s name. when bad books are forced on kids in school, the stop reading.

          • But Atwood books make great door stops for high schools

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          • I read upwards of 40 books a MONTH and how dare you think that because I call a hack a hack that makes me illiterate and a welfare recipient. I buy my books because libraries simply cannot keep up with my reading habits, and until my kids bought me a Kobo, I used to donate books to the local library. The most important thing you can teach a person is reading. Atwoods books do not encourage reading, but everything she writes is published, good or bad. Sadly, its mostly bad