So, I saw the legendary and very formidable Margaret Atwood read last night. The weather was foul– wet and windy and, needless to say, cold–but 400 people turned up to hear her, and I believe not one was disappointed. My impressions? First off, I was struck (rather like a gong) by her off-the-charts intelligence–she is fearsomely smart and well-informed. Second, she’s enormously witty, pee-in-your-pants funny, and she does this deadpan sarcasm thing that had me chortling while fervently hoping never to be at the receiving end of that cool assessing gaze. Third, she’s a superb performer–she had the audience cemented to their chairs for every second of the event. Atwood is mistress of the telling pause, and really, I never understood the dramatic potential of the air-quote till last night.
After the reading, she took questions from the audience, and here are a few things she said.
1. Recalling the texts she read at high school, she mentioned Tess of the d’urbervilles with a shudder. Mill on the Floss earned its fair share of ire as well.
2. When she began writing in the 1960s, five Canadian books were published every year. Publication was conditional upon approval from partner publishers in the US/UK, and books were sometimes rejected for being “too Canadian”.
3. Like many authors, she self-published her work before finding a “legit” publisher. She views the current trends in self-publishing positively–she was enthusiastic about Lulu, blogging, e-books, Amazon etc., which all of which she likened to the string connecting two tin cans (the writer and the reader).
4. She said the conditions that have engendered the Occupy Wall Street movement are akin to the situation leading to the French Revolution–an undue concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few elites who manipulate laws to protect them. Also noteworthy: 72 % of the OWS protestors are, in fact, employed (they protest after work hours).
5. She talked about social media with a sort of fond incredulity that had the audience cracking up. Apparently, she found the cover image for her latest book via a ‘Twitter’ ‘follower’, who ‘tweeted’ “We think Margaret Atwood will like these pictures. ” And she clicked on the attached ‘URL’ and found a photoshopped picture she liked. (All quotes correspond to her air-quotes during the talk.)
She added that “digital manipulation meant something else entirely back in 1955.”
In sum: if there’s an event within a 1000-mile radius that features Margaret Atwood, you should go. Move mountains if you must.
Updated to add that The Penelopiad by Atwood has been adapted into a show by Nightwood Theatre, Toronto. Do check out their site for more details (including tickets and dates).