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7 Things You Didn’t Know About Margaret Atwood

Today, Margaret Atwood’s 14th novel, MaddAddam, is officially published. That seemed like a prime opportunity to share some trivia about the career of my country’s most visible literary exports.

1. Her first novel, The Edible Woman, sat in a drawer on submission for two years. According to an interview she gave Newsday in the 1970s, it was only when she won a Governor General’s award for her poetry that the publisher pulled it out and published it. “I was so naïve that I thought two years might be how long it normally took a publisher to consider a manuscript,” she told Newsday.

2. She was among the first to name and analyze “Canadian literature” in a way that made it feel meaningful and vital to the country. Permit me a moment of nationalism on that score. Of course there was Canadian literature before Atwood, and there were others involved in the great flowering of writing about people sitting in cold prairie farmhouses as a metaphor for marriage. (Just kidding, we write about other things, sometimes. Occasionally.) Her critical study Survival identifies, well, survival as the central metaphor running through Canadian writing, and whether or not you still buy the thesis, Canadian writers still end up defining themselves by relation to this book!

3. Mary McCarthy panned The Handmaid’s Tale. Now often memorialized as a classic, most of the “serious” literary reviews of the book were less enthusiastic than you’d expect. The famed critic McCarthy was particularly skeptical. She admitted, first, that the book was “very readable,” but felt that the particular dystopia it envisioned, of a theocratic state where reading was banned and procreation rigidly prescribed and enforced, wasn’t “recognizable.” She also found Offred way too passive, and the characters thin. “It seems harsh to say again of a poet’s novel – so hard to put down, in part so striking – that it lacks imagination, but that, I fear, is the problem.”

4. She once went toe-to-toe with Norman Mailer on gender issues, and he came out looking the worst for it. At the 1986 PEN conference, a committee of women including Atwood drafted a formal statement complaining that of the 117 panelists at the conference, only 16 were female. Mailer replied with characteristic restraint and understatement. “Since the formulation of the panels is reasonably intellectual,” he told the New York Times, “there are not that many women, like Susan Sontag, who are intellectuals first, poets and novelists second. More men are intellectuals first, so there was a certain natural tendency to pick more men.” Oh, Norman. Chaos erupted. Mailer complained about the manners of the women. Atwood dryly pointed out, in a speech, that she had herself attended Harvard, and therefore had “a smear of intellectualism.” Quoted the then-president of the Los Angeles section: “I thought Norman was having a nervous breakdown in public.” I’d say the Atwood-led women won.

5. Many of Atwood’s books have been read as criticizing the excesses of feminism as well as patriarchy. Atwood is often described as a “feminist writer,” but her work bears a more ambivalent relationship to feminist politics than you might expect. In The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, Offred writes despairingly of her mother’s wish to have women in power: “You wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one.” In Cat’s Eye, the protagonist Elaine, an artist, is frustrated by the way her work is interpreted and almost appropriated by feminism. Some readers, including the biographer Hermione Lee, interpret this as Atwood expressing ambivalence about the way her own work gets read through “uncritical feminist enthusiasms.”

6. Atwood’s been cosplaying almost since before your parents were born, young’uns.  For the uninitiated, cosplaying is the mildly nerdy practice of getting dressed up as your favorite fantasy/scifi character. Atwood generally appears in such pictures as herself. Last year, she posted a picture of herself in the act of her very first cosplay in 1953. For some reason she was wearing a hot dog outfit, and a mustard pot for a hat. Now she tends to be more proactive on the design side than engaging in the practice herself.

7.  She also identified and considered the trend of “girlfriends” long before Candace Bushnell or Lena Dunham. On May 11, 1986 (as it happens, that’s two days before Lena Dunham was even born) Atwood published a long essay in the Times about the sudden rise in interest in girlfriends among novelists. She not only points to the white women’s paradigms, like Mary McCarthy’s The Group; she notes that in novels like The Color Purple and Sula, women’s friendship is a certain concern too. But Atwood didn’t take the sunny attitude towards the empowering nature of female friendship that has become a common theme nowadays: “Perhaps the reason it’s taken women novelists so long to get around to dealing with women’s friendships head on is that betrayal by a woman friend is the ultimate betrayal… Because friendship is supposed to be unconditional, a free gift of the spirit, its violation is all the more unbearable.”

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