Atwood 4 Mayor: What Happens When Old Ladies Blog
By Lorraine York
University of Toronto Press, 2013
Lorraine York begins her intriguing behind-the-scenes look at Margaret Atwood’s emergence as a literary icon with an anecdote about a timely tweet. Before Rob Ford made international headlines as “the crack-smoking Mayor of Toronto,” the mayor made news for a controversy arguably more harmful to the public good: the privatization and partial closure of Toronto’s Public Libraries. As a Toronto resident, Margaret Atwood responded to Rob Ford’s deep budgetary cuts with a request to her Twitter followers: “Toronto’s libraries are under threat of privatization. Tell city council to keep them public now. ourpubliclibrary.to.” In only a few short days 24,000 citizens had signed the petition, and a political tussle – involving Rob Ford, his brother City Counselor Doug Ford, Margaret Atwood, and debates over the number of Tim Horton’s coffee shops in Counselor Ford’s ward versus the number of libraries – erupted across both social and traditional media. In this instance, the public influence of a celebrity-author on civic politics was undeniable. Even the graffiti of the city made its citizens’ requests known: “Atwood 4 Mayor.”
“I narrate this Canadian- and even Toronto-centric story,” York tells us, “because it sets the stage for the competing ideas about writing, celebrity, economy, labour, and visibility that are at the heart of this book.” Margaret Atwood’s public influence frames York’s attention to the more hidden side of what it takes to make a literary star. York’s study focuses on the particularities of Atwood’s career, but her rich discussions of celebrity, book production, and authorship will appeal to readers curious in a more general way about the connections between the seemingly closed doors of the publishing industry and public perceptions of an author’s work. As her title promises, York demystifies the multiple laborers and labors behind the creation of a single literary celebrity. Even for those readers who dislike Atwood’s notoriety or couldn’t care less about the minutiae of Can Lit, this book offers insight for anyone who has had the questions: What precisely does an agent do for a writer? How are best sellers edited? How do famous writers find the time to write and also be public figures? Do pressures to maintain a public persona compromise a writer’s aesthetic interests? or, for that matter, Why might an old lady tweet? This book will undoubtedly appeal to academic scholars, but it’s also for any would-be-writers – any future Atwoods – who are curious about the meticulous upkeep it takes to be a literary star.
In 2007 York published Literary Celebrity in Canada, which examined the reception and resulting fame of writers including Michael Ondaatje, Carol Shields, Pauline Johnson, Stephen Leacock, L.M. Montgomery, and, of course, Margaret Atwood. But the research York pursued on Atwood could not be contained to a single chapter. In her new book York publishes material never before released from the Margaret Atwood archives housed at the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. She mucks pleasurably in correspondence, emails, speeches, faxes, and other documents, written by or for Atwood, that together reveal the machinations and professional management behind one of the world’s most recognizable and revered living authors. Her project is not biography but book history: the study of the production, transmission, curation, circulation, and dissemination of texts. She explores how the flesh and blood person of Margaret Atwood and the Peter Pan shadow of her public persona connect to both the material production of her books and the intellectual and political effects of her celebrity.
Margaret Atwood and the Labour of Literary Celebrity begins with a general introduction on celebrity and the broader role of an author in society. The first chapter introduces the reader to the relationship formed early on in Atwood’s career between herself and her agent Phoebe Larmore. The second chapter discusses the editing of Atwood’s texts. The third chapter examines O.W. Toad, Atwood’s incorporated business, and how this Incorporation manages the trajectory of Atwood’s career. The fourth chapter enters the world of social media and interactive technologies; for, although Atwood still writes her manuscripts by longhand, she is also, paradoxically, the inventor of the LongPen, an instrument that allows authors to sign books from afar, as well as an active participant in the Twitterverse. The final chapter dives into close-readings of Atwood’s own fictional works that comment on the intersections of art and industry — York argues that understanding the industry of agents, editors, marketing staff, office assistants, and web designers which creates the public persona of Margaret Atwood, clarifies, rather than muddies, a reader’s understanding of the author and her aesthetic.
In York’s introduction, she cites a diptych of hand-drawn cartoons which Atwood showed during her keynote speech at the 2011 Tools of Change publishing conference in New York. The images demonstrate that an author feeds multiple species in the food chain of the book industry (including, for instance, you and I, reviewers and readers of reviews):
[Atwood] warned her audience that the author is a primary source that must be protected. Her metaphor of the primary source, as she explained, was borrowed from biology, and in her talk it was demonstrated by her drawing of a dead moose. Every moose carcass, she pointed out, supports at least thirty other life forms and, as such, it was comparable to her next case scenario: the dead author. ‘Helpful industry hint,’ Atwood paused to advise, ‘Never eliminate your Primary Source.’ Atwood’s next illustration, featuring a feet-in-the-air, blotto Shakespeare surrounded by a halo of industrial agents – bookseller, agent, school, printer, reviewer, college, publisher, editor, librarian – could well serve as an emblem for my study of the Atwood industry – except in one particular. The author need not be depicted as dead or, metaphorically, as powerless in the transaction.
York repeatedly mentions Atwood’s self-conscious participation in the various levels of maintenance and grooming that go into her role as “Primary Source.” Even the archives, these secondary sources that give us glimpses into Atwood’s life – and from which much of the material for York’s study is derived – are maintained and groomed to protect Atwood as a living legend:
I am aware that in forming conclusions about the management of Atwood’s career based on this voluminous archive, I am operating within distinct parameters. Foremost among these is the fact that the archive, like all others, is arranged and selective; as Robert McGill writes, ‘the content of the [Atwood] archive, as well as the classification of that content, bespeaks an attempt to circumscribe the orientation of academic inquiry, even as the archive ostensibly encourages and engenders critical interest in Atwood.’ In Atwood’s case, that circumscription takes the form of a focus on the professional rather than the personal, and that choice suits my own academic objectives perfectly well.
One of York’s stated goals is to demonstrate the combination of economics and art required to manage literary celebrity. Acknowledging the deliberate curation of a public image does, indeed, begin to clarify the vast scope of the often unrecognized labor that goes into creating a best-selling author. Yet, even after York invites readers into the archives with her, they likely won’t feel any closer to the person who wrote The Handmaid’s Tale and The Year of the Flood. The mystery of celebrity-creation is probed in York’s book, to be sure, but that greater mystery of the creation of story itself remains privately, tauntingly, inscrutable.
In her chapters on literary agents and editors York notes: “Because the short history of literary agency has been filled with hostility and skepticism from the beginning, the recurring debate that has surrounded the profession has been over the very need for them.” Many published writers themselves would not necessarily know what to expect from an agent, or why one might pursue an agent to assist them with the publications of their books: the Writer’s Union of Canada notes that “approximately eighty percent of published Canadian writers do not have agents at all.” York’s systematic explanation of just what an agent does on an author’s behalf is thus of great practical service to would-be published writers:
- Finding a good match between the author’s manuscript and an editor and publishing house, based on the agent’s intimate knowledge of both, and proposing the manuscript to them.
- Negotiating a beneficial contract.
- Collecting royalty statements and payments due to the author, deducting the agent’s fee, and then forwarding payment to the author; keeping accurate records as they do so.
- Supervising the process of publication of the manuscript, particularly as regards following the letter of the contract.
- Taking the ‘long view’ of the writer’s career and advising on how best to manage it.
- Handling any foreign publication rights.
York’s account of Atwood’s long-time relationship with her agent, Phoebe Larmore, certainly makes it difficult to imagine how a writer as prolific as Atwood could survive without this kind of support. That said, after working with Atwood over the entire span of her decades-long career, Larmore is hardly an average agent. Nor could she be strictly defined as Atwood’s employee: she is also advisor, confidante, and friend. York clearly rejects the image of an agent as a “corrupting economic force,” showing Larmore’s role as similar to that of the editors – including Ellen Seligman, Nan Talese, Liz Calder, and Louise Dennys – who help envision the larger arc of Atwood’s career, and also protect Atwood from public demands when she needs focused private time for writing.
The aesthetic and the economic, in other words, or the dichotomies of business and pleasure, cannot really be separated when it comes to the production of a new book. It’s the author most readers think of when holding a much-anticipated new title, but many hands have gone into the craft and creation of each sentence. Larmore describes an editing session of a new Atwood title as a “pajama party,” with Atwood’s Canadian, U.S. and U.K. editors gathered in a Toronto hotel room – a team ensconced in marathon reading and discussion in order to lead a manuscript to completion. Atwood’s U.S. editor, Nan Talese, recalls how with one particular novel, “after I began to read, I got up and pulled a soft white blanket out of the cupboard in the Toronto hotel room in which I was staying, and settled onto the sofa, knowing I was in for a delicious treat.” Any editor of a living author as successful as Atwood may, of course, have to be this positive about a forthcoming book. Yet York’s descriptions of the hours that these high-powered editors work, and the intensity of their oft dual roles as publishers as well as editors, does make it seem likely that the actual chance to sit down and read a book by a favorite author is the best moment of their jobs: the moment which the marketing, the publicity, the meetings, the book fairs, the red-eye flights, and the budget-balancing are all really in service of.
If the “editor is even more invisible than the translator,” as Ursula K. Le Guin has stated, then the literary assistant is surely more invisible than the editor. Atwood’s various assistants at O.W. Toad – an anagram of Atwood, and her Incorporated business since 1976 – have performed numerous tasks in the upkeep of what other Atwood scholars and biographers, such as Rosemary Sullivan, have deemed an “enterprise.” York notes that
The job description of the office assistants at O.W. Toad sounds much more wide-ranging that even [long-standing assistant to Atwood] Sarah Cooper’s capacious list – ‘from research and correspondence to banking and book-keeping’ – would suggest. From protective supporter to paperwork filer, from streamliner and organizer of promotional tours to first-line receiver of requests, the assistant’s role, like that of the literary agent, clearly crosses the line from commercial assistant to artistic supporter.
But, as in Shakespeare, it seems that it is rare for Mechanicals to perform in public before Kings and Queens, which is precisely why York’s scholarship dives into what might formally be deemed too “secretarial” for scholarly mention. To make public the work of the private assistant is to acknowledge the “hidden labor” of celebrity, and, likewise, the hidden players in history, which Atwood’s literary work so often regards: women, domestic workers, factory laborers whom society forgets when blinded by the spectacle of a show. In fact, when Atwood’s website was re-launched in 2010, the re-design included a clear acknowledgement of the labor that others extend to operate her enterprise. Under the heading “O.W. Toad Office” is the tab FAQ. Here is the first of these questions frequently asked:
What is O.W. Toad?
O.W. Toad is my office, run by my assistant, Sarah Webster. In addition to Sarah, the office has a staff of one other full-time, and two other part-time employees.
As York notes, this answer “contains specific measures of the office’s labour (the number of full- and part-time workers)”. Also under “O.W. Toad,” York identifies, “one finds the ‘Green Policies’ page, an extensive listing of information about the ways in which the physical office of O.W. Toad, located in Toronto, complies with environmentally responsible practices. No detail is too small: compact fluorescent bulbs…right down to the 100 per cent recycled tissues, paper towels, and toilet tissues used by staff.” Given the deliberate management of all other public aspects of Atwood’s public persona, York asks, might not her website be the ultimate extension of this curated self?
Considered in this light, is the Atwood office itself an Atwood text of sorts? In its balancing of privacy and publicity, in its commitment to writing and publishing as forms of labour that need public representation, and in its environmental protocols, the O.W. Toad office represents a range of meanings that readers of Atwood’s prose, fiction, and poetry have come to consider ‘Atwoodian.’
But, York also notes, to see the enterprise “as merely celebrity indulgence betrays the assumption that writing is entirely mystical inspiration and not labour.” York moves to a quote on Margaret Atwood’s company website as response. When asked by an interviewer “To what do you attribute your success?” celebrated Australian Soprano replied, “Bloody hard work, Duckie!” This quote, Atwood’s website advices, is “For Your Corkboard.”
When a reader wants quotes from Atwood for her corkboard the most likely place she will look these days is Twitter. Margaret Atwood “began tweeting around 2009, when her publishers were setting up a website for The Year of the Flood” and she has yet to stop. In a piece for the New York Review of Books, Atwood describes her early days on Twitter. At first she had no followers, but then media guru McLean Greaves
loosed his carrier pigeons to four of his hundreds of Twitterbuddies; and with their aid I soon had a few thousand people I didn’t know sending me messages like ‘OMG! Is it really you?’ ‘I love it when old ladies blog,’ one early follower remarked.
As of the writing of this review, Atwood has close to half a million followers. But, as with all aspects of Atwood’s career that York examines, the public and private is at play in Atwood’s tweets, as is both promotion and personal pleasure:
For the writer of literary fiction, like Atwood, the trick is to engage with new media promotional tools while carefully guarding the high-culture atmosphere of the transaction. One way in which she accomplishes this is by consigning the profits of any such promotional activities to charities that are particularly important to her, many of them environmental or culturally nationalist.
York points to Atwood’s support for Canadian magazine The Walrus — by auctioning off the opportunity to have one’s name used for a character in a forthcoming novel — as an example. Because the actual profits generated by social media interactions do not end up in the account of either writer or publisher, Atwood is spared journalistic or public outcry. York reminds us: “But, at the same time, participants in an event such as Atwood’s character name auction are reminded that she has a new book in the offing. Writers of literary fiction, if they are to promote their writings online, need to do so under the guise of not promoting them at all.” This new dance that writers are expected to perform – that of on-line marketing and promotion – is a waltz that Atwood does willingly and with charm. Yet it is also one more aspect of her persona that she – and her staff – must manage. For those would-be Atwoods who are just starting out, Atwood’s prolific engagement with social media may also be a worrisome indication of what it now takes to build a literary career. Rather than focusing on the dangerous and beautiful dive into unknown sentences on the page, they might be preoccupied with how many followers, friends, and likes they have collected. How many future novels were dispersed instead across posts and tweets this year? How many new writers – through the highly constructed public persona of literary stars like Atwood – seek the celebrity of authorship, rather than the labor of creation and composition?
Managing Atwood’s career, York’s book reveals, is not unlike managing a large city. Seeing the council that must be kept and the work that must be done in order for Margaret Atwood to remain an author, businesswoman, celebrity, activist, and “Canada’s national tweeting treasure,” it’s no wonder that even the city’s graffiti advocates “Atwood 4 Mayor.” If our civic leaders are failing us, perhaps it’s time authors did run for office. Perhaps then our civic conversations would turn away from cynical discussions of mayoral drug-use. Instead, new announcements would be made in the media scrum: not about how many libraries are closing, but about how many more the city plans to open — and about the new slate of programming set to begin in local branches city-wide that will teach old ladies how to blog.
Heather Jessup is the author of The Lightning Field; she lives in Vancouver and teaches at Langara College.