In which I attend a reading by Margaret Atwood, and come away dazzled.

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.

(Pic from the Toronto Star)

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.

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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).

Some thoughts on self-publishing

Till quite recently, I regarded self-published work with Wodehouse-like scorn; it was synonymous with slim volumes of verse (never chunky novels) printed at a rich aunt’s expense and then pressed into the indignant hands of friends and family on Christmas morning. Of course there were exceptions (Leaves of Grass!), but like most readers, I made two assumptions about the practice: one, that authors resorted to self-publication when rejected by more ‘legitimate’ presses, and two, that the rejectors–the agents and editors and publishers and store owners who act as the gatekeepers of publishing–knew what they were doing. Over the past five years, though, my second assumption has been repeatedly challenged, thanks to the trash that many mainstream publishing houses shove our way, and, more importantly, because so much self-published work comes from the margins; as a resident of these margins, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to believe that rejection is based solely on the marketability and/or quality of a manuscript. While I do think the chaff currently overshadows  the grain in self-publishing, I also view it as an organic, technology-enabled response to the systemic exclusion of certain types of writing (and writers) by mainstream publishing.

It was in this spirit that I attended a talk on self-publishing last Thursday at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore. The event featured three authors. Neesha Meminger‘s first YA novel Shine, Coconut Moon was published by Simon and Schuster; she then self-published her second YA novel, Jazz in Love (links go to my reviews on this site). Musician-writer Vivek Shraya self-published a  collection of illustrated short stories titled God Loves Hair, which was recently nominated for a Lambda Award.  Zetta Elliott is a traditionally published poet and playwright who self-published a YA novel A Wish After Midnight. I’ve read work by two of the three and had very fruitful interactions with them in the virtual world (check out Zetta’s great essay on Women Doing Literary Things here), and I was keen to hear them in person.

Zetta, Neesha, Vivek, and host Annemarie (Pic credit: Victoria Moreno of TWB)

The talk, titled Changing the Face of Publishing, was excellent; I have no plans to publish a book but found myself intensely invested in the authors’ journeys to publication. I was particularly struck by two issues. First, the past proven successes of these writers meant little to the publishers they queried. Zetta, for instance, has a PhD from NYU, teaches African American literature at Hunter College, and is a very successful playwright and poet, and yet, she couldn’t get a foot into the door when it came to mainstream publishing (I was truly chilled to hear of her ten-year long rejection period). You really have to wonder what’s going on with the publishing industry here. And second, publishing and writing books wasn’t an end in itself for these writers. All of them had a bigger vision, an agenda if you will, and they believed it was important for younger readers to have access to their (sort of) work–Neesha’s writing deals with South Asian immigrants, Zetta’s with African American narratives, and Vivek’s with queerness and immigrant identity. In the greater scheme of things, the method of publishing did not matter to these writers as much as their writing being  available to those seeking, and, in a sense, needing such alternative stories.

So, knowing what sort of place you’re writing from seems to be critical when evaluating whether or not to self-publish. I also think self-publishing seems ideally suited to foster two sorts of writing in particular–genre fiction, where markets are very crowded and competitive and pricing is key, and writing dealing with historically marginalized topics/groups. It makes perfect sense that these extremes met in self-publishing; these are the two areas where the obvious penalties of non-traditional publishing–mainstream reviewers ignoring such books, and the ineligibility of such books for many awards–do not have as much significance.

The audience questions at the event came from aspiring writers, and consisted of hard-edged queries about the business–e-books versus hard copies, profit margins, print run sizes, returnability clauses and the like. If you are interested in self-publishing, you must check out the video of the talk. And even if you aren’t, do spend a few minutes watching some intelligent, informed, articulate, and um, very good-looking writers talk with passion and generosity about their work.  You can view the video of the talk and the subsequent Q&A here (link credit: Facing Out).