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.