SIGH… Margaret Atwood, everybody.

If you’ve heard of her, you probably know her as the creator of The Handmaid’s Tale… aaaaand you might be feeling the urge to click on something else after reading that. Well, lucky for you, because Atwood is inescapable in Canada. She is THE living Canadian author. Pick up a Canadian high school English class reading list and she’ll be on it. Read a Canadian newspaper and she’ll be featured at least once a month – look, she patented a machine that allows her to sign books remotely! Who cares if the thing didn’t actually work – the point is that more people can have an audience with Margaret Atwood!

Atwood owes her lofty status to three factors. First of all, she’s achieved a measure of international success. Secondly, her politics are just left of centre enough to seem radical. The ideological thrust of The Handmaid’s Tale fits neatly within the mainstream Democratic Party narrative – Christian theocrats who want to control women’s bodies are bad, mmmkay?- and Handmaid protestors outside Supreme Court confirmation hearings may look bizarre, but they don’t actually have to do anything.

Most importantly in a Canadian context, however, is the third factor – that Atwood is the sort of official writer-in-residence for Canadian elites – insecure, over-educated, reflexively anti-American and anti-religion, and clustered together in a few ultra-wealthy neighbourhoods in the large cities. This nameless and faceless Family Compact has been a feature of Canada since its inception. They are the ones who run the publishing houses, the PR firms, the theatre companies, and the newspapers. Perhaps most egregiously, however, they have allowed Atwood to believe that she can get away with paragraphs like this one:

“What I need is perspective. The illusion of depth, created by a frame, the arrangement of shapes on a flat surface. Perspective is necessary. Otherwise there are only two dimensions. Otherwise you live with your face squashed up against a wall, everything a huge foreground, of details, close-ups, hairs, the weave of the bedsheet, the molecules of the face. Your own skin like a map, a diagram of futility, criscrossed with tiny roads that lead nowhere. Otherwise you live in the moment. Which is not where I want to be.”

Remember: The Handmaid’s Tale is supposed to be dystopian fiction. Instead, it contains page after page of rambling passages that add nothing to the plot, images for the sake of having images, out-of-nowhere meditations on the meanings of words that go on for pages, political messaging that redefines “stating the obvious”… you know, all the kinds of things that belong in dystopian fiction.

And in case one book of this bilge isn’t enough, there’s plenty more where that came from. We have the Maddaddam Trilogy (it’s a PALINDROME, get it???), which is about how genetic experimentation leads to a second Flood and the near-extinction of humanity. The Heart Goes Last is about using prisons as time-shares. Hag-Seed is a weird reinterpretation Shakespeare’s The Tempest but- in an unexpected twist!- it’s also a satire of Canadian theatre festivals!

Margaret Atwood has made a career of taking the utterly banal circumstances of her life and her own brain drippings, slapping some contrived fantasy, magical realism, or dystopian veneer over it, and calling it serious literature. And oh, do her fans take her seriously. Here is Quillette editor Jon Kay -one of those Family Compact members I mentioned earlier – in a typically starstruck passage:

Decades later, when I acted as her editor for a 2016 book about the French presence in North America, she was just as sharp and witty as I’d hoped. (In response to her complaints that my edits were too severe, I feebly protested that I’d “left the bones where they were, and just moved around some of the skin and hair.” To which she replied that “all bones look much the same. The hair and skin are what make us recognizable.” It’s always a thrill when your heroes put you in your place.)

You see, one does not edit Atwood any more than one would edit the word of God… at least, not in Canada. Critics tread carefully when she inveighs against a condo development in her neighbourhood, wades into a messy #MeToo dispute at a British Columbia university, suggests that Star Wars inspired 9/11, or reacts with righteous indignation at the suggestion that she’s not that good of a feminist.

Isn’t it remarkable? Atwood has stood at the commanding heights of a whole country’s literary scene for decades and still finds time to play the victim. She has earned the right to strike back at her critics, but her injured tone suggests that she doesn’t think those critics should exist. But this is only partially Atwood’s fault, because she’s the product of a Canadian system that allows a tiny number of writers to have enormous influence, and thus, comparatively sized egos.

And this is the grand irony of Atwood’s singular influence over Canadian literature: she criticizes the failings and petty and grand tyrannies of others and other nations, but never her own personal despotism.

Next week, we’ll introduce the humiliating case of Joseph Boyden, and we’ll explore the tightly regulated system of Canadian culture’s failure to properly promote and protect the stories of Canada’s First Nations.


Part 1 on Heroes: ‘Scott Pilgrim Vs The World’ Vs Terrance Denby and ‘Sidequest’

Part 2 on “Humour”: The Libertarian Fantasy of ‘Letterkenny’

Part 3 on Graphic Novel Nihilism: The Harsh Truths of ‘Essex County’

Part 4 on Spawn and Wolverine: Banished From The Promised Land: A Tale of Two Canadian Anti-Heroes

Part 5 on Science Fiction Dystopias: Inside Quebec’s – and Canada’s – Replicant Culture

Part 6 on Animation: The Garrison Mentality: More Than Meets The Eye

Part 7 on Pop Music: How To Build A Successful Canadian Musical Act

Part 8 on Anne of Green Gables and The Traumatized Artist: Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Treacherous Alpine Path

Part 9 on Avoiding the Serious: Mordecai Richler, Montreal, And Gritty Realism

Part 10 on Southern Ontario Gothic: The Marriage of The Mundane and the Fantastic


Photo by danxoneil