Margaret Atwood and the Labour of Literary Celebrity

Image of Margaret Atwood and the Labour of Literary Celebrity
Release Date: 
June 12, 2013
University of Toronto Press
Reviewed by: 

“. . . very of the moment.”

Margaret Atwood and the Labour of Literary Celebrity is a hard work to assess. It is, after all, an academic book that surgically considers myriad aspects of “celebrity,” in this case the celebrity attached to (and/or been courted by) Canadian author Margaret Atwood.

It is hard to imagine that readers will flock to such a book. It is, however, a book that might be of more than slight interest for writers and those who love them.

Leave it to the academics to always and forever be developing new fields of study, as here:

“. . . In 1976, she became the first Canadian writer, to my knowledge, to incorporate herself as a company, O. W. Toad.”

Note that the amphibious name is a scrambling of the letters of “Atwood.”

The author continues:

“The implications of this move, and the expansion of Atwood’s global career in the years since 1976, call out, I feel, for special study, since the growth of what Graham Huggan calls ‘Atwood Inc.’ poses some new and intriguing questions about literary celebrity considered as an amalgamation of the visual economy of fame and industrial labour relationships. So although Atwood’s career is indeed exceptional in its degree of industrial organization, at least in Canada, the complicate exchanges between art and commerce that I discern in her career are fairly typical of the field of literary publishing in general.” Thus author Lorraine York introduces us to our new elective study:

“To be fair, in the midst of all its intense—not to say obsessive—scrutiny of the individual, celebrity theory has, at moments, been attentive to collective labour. There are suggestive moments in the critical literature, threads that may usefully be pulled out and examined, the better to understand celebrity in its broader dimensions . . .”

Ms. Atwood herself is therefore emblematic, or, perhaps, metaphoric, for all that which is both literary and famous, although the author, in her study of “celebrity theory” never seems to ask the most basic question: is there still such a thing as a literary celebrity?

And the whole of the text, technological advances aside, seems mired by its very concept in the 1970s, a period in which authors loomed large as witnessed by the fact that they visited talk shows as often as movie stars did.

Still Margaret Atwood and the Labour of Literary Celebrity is not without its rewards. The book begins (in an introduction called “The Dead Moose and the Publishing Pie,” in which Ms. Atwood herself more or less is cast in the role of the moose) with this illustration of the power of literary celebrity:

“In the summer of 2011, Margaret Atwood’s visibility as a Canadian literary celebrity came under sustained and energetic public scrutiny. It all began on 21 July, when she marshaled her considerable ranks of followers—22,302 strong . . . —on Twitter to fight proposed cuts to Toronto’s library system. The city had just received a report from its hired consultants KPMG . . . which recommended that the system be privatized, that cuts be made to the library outreach services and programs, and that some branches possibly be closed. Atwood retweeted in response, ‘Toronto’s libraries are under threat of privatization. Tell city council to keep them public now…” This was enough to crash the server of the Toronto Public Library Workers Union CUPE 4948, whose petition, ‘Project Rescue,’ was linked to the tweet . . .”

The book contends that Ms. Atwood’s political might is no accident, but a result of her wise cultivation of a literary reputation that has, over time, ripened into international fame. And Margaret Atwood and the Labour of Literary Celebrity is the story of how she achieved that fame and the resulting political clout and how she uses both to her advantage.

Not a likely choice for beach reading.

What those who do manage to work their way through the text will get is a very clear, concise and rewarding depiction of the publishing industry and how it works, complete with job descriptions for all involved, including publishers, editors, authors and assistants and those most mysterious of persons, agents.

Along this line, Ms. York even manages to reveal the reason why agents today have abandoned the Harold Ober archetype (patterned after the representative of famed author F. Scott Fitzgerald during what might well have been the Golden Age of publishing in which the role of the agent was not only representing the business interests of the client, but seeing to his emotional welfare as well) and, instead have today become a separate editorial industry unto themselves:

“Publishers are less and less likely these days to accept material that they feel will require substantial revision, so agents often step in to offer editorial advice, in order to ensure that the manuscript is in the best possible form to impress the editors who will be considering it for publication.”


Because of this breakdown of the industry upon which every author depends, Margaret Atwood and the Labour of Literary Celebrity makes for an excellent resource volume for any who would like to see themselves as an Atwood-in-the-making.

And it is also an excellent source of information on the author herself, and about her passions and especially her political passions, as well as her development as both an author and a businesswoman. Also, it reveals (to this reader, at least) that Ms. Atwood herself is not only a wise consumer and proponent of new media, but is also a creator of new technologies.

About that new technology, the “Long Pen” as it is known is a “signing device that allows an author to sign a book remotely, while chatting with the book’s owner through a webcam setup. Atwood dreamed up the concept in 2004, while she was touring for Oryx and Crake; she wondered if some such device could allow writers who found travel too rigorous to sign books from afar.”

Although it sounds the stuff of futuristic novels (and let us not forget that Ms. Atwood has written her share of speculative fiction), the author formed the company Unotchit (pronounced “you-no-touch-it”) to develop the product.

As the author comments, “Some technical difficulties, involving ensuring Internet connectivity, persisted, and designing the writing device proved to be extremely challenging, since it had to mimic the complex movements of a writing hand.”

The device, however, was launched in 2006 and has, in ensuing years, proven to be useful for more than digitalized author’s tours (it is, for example, used in long distance signing of contracts when the signatures need to be witnessed), proving once again both Margaret Atwood’s understanding of the potential that new technologies represent and her savvy as a businesswoman.

Given that most authors (if they even get the chance to do book signings and personal appearances at all) would find themselves speaking via computer hookup to three people, two of which are having coffee at the in-store café nearby, it is hard to see a reason to bother with the Long Pen. But still. For Ms. Atwood, at least, is represents a way in which she can use technology to avoid travel in her old age and still manage to greet her fans. (About this issue, she comments:

“I sometimes think I am a little bit old to be doing this; we have bloggers now instead of stalkers. I remember one blogger writing on her website that with my red shawl and white hair, I looked like a Q-tip on fire. Some people may have been offended, but I recognize an artist when I hear it.”)

As an academic text, Margaret Atwood and the Labour of Literary Celebrity has been scrupulously researched. And the text is somewhat crammed with “celebrity theory” jargon that can make comprehension a complex undertaking.

But Lorraine York has given us a volume that is very of the moment. One that, should young authors choose to learn from Margaret Atwood’s wisdom as passed down by Ms. York, would most certainly help create a new generation of literary lights.