Sunday, December 26, 2010

Talking Out of Turn #8: Margaret Atwood (1984)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was now starting to take place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large. 

Talking Out of Turn had one section devoted to critics who ran against the current of popular thinking in the eighties. That chapter included discussions with film critic Vito Russo (The Celluloid Closet) who wrote a book about gay cinema before the horror of AIDS changed the landscape; also Jay Scott, who would later die from AIDS, spoke about how, despite being one of Canada's sharpest and wittiest writers on movies, he was initially a reluctant critic; and author Margaret Atwood who turned to literary criticism in her 1983 book Second Words. She discussed -- from an author's perspective -- the value of criticism and how it was changing for the worst during this decade. 

kc: How important do you think it is for a writer of fiction, non-fiction, or even poetry, to take up the task of doing critical writing about these genres? 

ma: I think that writers have a different slant on reviewing than people who do nothing but critical work. People who have to review books for a living get very sick of books. Maybe they should take a breather every few weeks because I think they just get saturated. But if you are a writer, you are less likely to dismiss a book because you know how long it has taken to write it. Even a very bad book has taken a lot of time and investment on the part of the writer. And if you write that it's a very bad book, you won't muse at the expense of the writer.

kc: Sometimes though I read reviews and all I seem to get is the plot of the book, or consumer reporting, but a good critic opens me up to why the book matters or not. What is your approach to reviewing?

ma: When I review a book, I like to read all the books that the person has written to that point. That means that I don't take the assignment to review a book lightly. I don't like to say that I'll review it unless I read it and find that it's the kind of book in which I have something useful to say. The general standard of reviewing in Canada is not at present up to the standard of the writing. Once upon a time, I would have said that it was the reverse, as in the late fifties and early sixties. The reviewers were often better than the books in many instances -- in fact, quite a lot better. You had people like Northrop Frye reviewing books by Joe Schmoe -- or someone you never heard from then or since - and he's bringing all that critical intelligence to bear on this rather ephemeral material. But I think now the writers have surpassed the standard of reviewers. You're hard pressed to assemble something like The Sunday New York Times Book Section

kc: You would think that if you had a book that could startle readers and reviewers...say, Timothy Findley's The would inspire some critics to some of their best analysis.

ma: Some were inspired. Others definitely were not. But you'll find that in every country. In England, though, where people have been reading and writing for a long time and the idea of writing and reviewing is nothing new, you generally have the sense that the people who are reviewing have read more. The reason I reviewed The Wars in the Financial Post was that it had received a really wrong headed review in The Globe and Mail. They got someone to review it who wrote comic novels about the First World War and this person said that Findley's book wasn't funny enough. It was the wrong choice of reviewer. So I was impelled into reviewing the book, not just because it was unfairly treated, but that it was out of the traffic lane. But I have to tell you: I hate reviewing books (laughs). It's the hardest thing for me to do. 

kc: Since you are both a writer and a critic, what do you as a writer try to bring to your role as a critic?  

ma: When you commit yourself to reviewing the book what you're trying is to do some kind of justice to the book. You want what you say to reflect as accurately as you can what is in that book. Some reviewers go off on a tangent because they have some little axe to grind. They end up reviewing what they think the writer's personality is like. Or they take an idea that they think the writer has and give forth their ideas about what they think the writer's idea is. And I don't think that is what reviewing should be so I try to deal with the book as much as it is. 

kc: Some people complain that we just don't read books as much anymore.

author Margaret Atwood
ma: Yeah. But there have always been lots of people who don't read much. At one time it was because they couldn't. They were illiterate. Literacy became more widespread in the 19th Century and idealists at the time thought that literacy would make everyone nicer, better, more intelligent, and more progressive. But along with the rise of literacy, you had the rise of penny dreadfuls -- shocking tales and minimal language. In fact, that's what what most people read (laughs). So the situation hasn't changed. Some people only read nurse novels, or Harlequin romances. So when you talk about readerships, you're drawing from a large pool.

kc: What about the small independent presses? How invaluable are they for writers? 

ma: They've never been very accessible, if we're talking about the numbers of books they've published, or books that they sell. But they do serve a very important literary function and should be encouraged. They're the place where young writers get their start. These are the people who publish many books of poetry and short stories. And if you trace these writers back and ask them where they got their first break, they'll tell you it was one of those little magazines, or a small press. They may not be important in terms of numbers -- and no one makes a million dollars running them -- but they're very important in terms of allowing new writers entrance to the market. And for that reason alone, they should be supported by anybody interested in the state of writing in this country. 

kc: Speaking of Canada, one of the things you address in Second Words, this collection of literary reviews, is the exploration of the Canadian character in our writing. This concept has always been open to debate as to whether we have a character, or even a culture capable of defining.  

ma: You're right. And it has been debated for years and years. This idea of no Canadian culture has been around for years and years. But surely by now it must be out of date. Anyone who believes that surely hasn't caught up. To me, it has been proven just like the Earth has been proven round. I think that the dissemination of knowledge hasn't taken place altogether, but there are also a lot of people around who don't know anything about the Second World War, but that doesn't mean it didn't happen.  

kc: I was in high school when you wrote Survival and I remember -- before even reading it -- looking at the title and thinking: Is something at stake here?

ma: (Laughing) Something may not be!  Especially in the eye of the universe. Sitting on the planet Pluto, it probably doesn't make much difference whether Canada continues to exist or not. But for people who actually live here, it does. This is one of the leit motifs of not only our literature, but our politics as well. When you go to India and you come back, you might wonder what the fuss is about because compared to other people's problems ours are not that large. But they're ours. Survival aroused a great deal of controversy when it got published. There were people violently for and violently against it. I remember some folks writing in and saying that they were so glad to have read this book because they were told in school that there was no Canadian literature except Stephen Leacock. I think the popularity of the book meant that readers were interested in their own literature. If they could get somebody to talk about it in an understandable language that wasn't just abstract footnote making. So it was a fairly direct and to-the-point book. And, for that reason, the academics didn't like it. 

kc: Why do you think academics -- Canadians or otherwise -- largely write in labyrinth theories that seem out of touch with the experience of what art and popular culture can offer people? 

ma: Some people don't like to connect their field of study with real life. They don't like to feel that if they're studying the curve of a sculpture that it would have anything to do with how much money the subway workers are making. The two things have to be kept completely separate. But my feeling about literature -- even more than any of the other arts -- is that it's very connected to where people live, how they live, what they think, how they view themselves, how they view themselves in relation to other countries, and whether they feel big or small. All of those things are reflected in a literature. Not everything in each book, but if you look at literature as a whole, it's not just taking place in a never-never land. It's taking place here.

   Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Beginning in January 2011,Courrier will be presenting a lecture series on Film Noir at the Revue Cinema in Toronto (see

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