Margaret Atwood

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Tina Trigg (The King's University, Edmonton)

Internationally-acclaimed, multi-award-winning Canadian writer Margaret Atwood’s work is kaleidoscopic in diversity and effect. Since the 1960s, her work has been characterized by wide-ranging content, increasingly complex structure, and incisive social critique across genres. Atwood is a household name – both celebrated and scorned for her success by a public equally ready to applaud as to attack. While the modes and centers of reaction have changed generationally, Atwood has kept pace with her audiences not only in shifting spaces of social texts, but also in her visible presence as an engaged global citizen, professional writer, mentor, and public persona. As a writer Atwood has curated sustained immediacy and relevance across decades, continuing to provoke dialogue, debate, and disagreement – internationally and intergenerationally – through her works and highly visible presence.

Early Years

Born 18 November 1939 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada to Carl Edmund Atwood and Margaret Dorothy Killam, Margaret Eleanor Atwood had an atypical upbringing. At first glance, the family composition seems unremarkable – working father, stay-at-home mother, an older brother, Atwood herself, and a much-younger sister – until one considers that Margaret (Peggy) was born on the threshold of World War II. Her father, an entomologist, held a government research post that meant he was not enlisted; hence, the Atwoods as a family (excepting Ruth who was born post-war) had a seasonal household rhythm, spending spring, summer, and fall in Northern Ontario or Québec at a remote research site and winters first in Ottawa, later in Toronto when her father accepted a faculty position at the University of Toronto. While the geographical demands of her father’s research meant that her family had the luxury of a car even during war-time fuel rations, much of Atwood’s early life was precisely the opposite: rustic, minimalist, and reliant on hard work as befit her Nova Scotian family roots. Born into an educated family – her father had a PhD in biology and her mother was trained as a Dietician/Nutritionist – Atwood grew up surrounded by a range of books, from dog-eared comics to official biological texts including detailed illustrations. This early and indiscriminate exposure to texts is a common refrain in Atwood’s references to her childhood: in particular, Grimms’ Fairy Tales and comic books were notably influential on her developing imagination, awareness of the rich interplay of visual and printed texts, and enduring interest in transformation. Nathalie Cooke’s biography of Atwood provides a detailed account of these early influences on the emerging writer (Cooke, 1998, pp. 21-38). In short, Atwood read everything, anywhere she could. (And from all contemporary accounts, she continues to do so.)

Youth to Young Adulthood: An Emerging Writer

In addition to consistent immersion in books, Atwood’s previous experience of being “homeschooled” by her mother at their remote cabin and spending winters in elementary schools in the city seems to have fostered a high degree of curiosity and autonomy in learning. At home, Atwood learned alongside her older brother, Harold, who went on to become a distinguished neuroscientist; later, she attended a new school that had so few pupils it was akin to a one-room-schoolhouse with multiple grades in a single physical space. Hence, in both home and formal schooling, Atwood’s education had unusual breadth and encouraged creativity by crossing boundaries, opening opportunities, and cultivating interconnections. From drawing comic strips to illustrating books, creating puppet shows, crafting marionettes, writing poetry, and performing an original operetta for Home Economics class, Atwood experimented in a wide range of literary modes from an early age. Some of her juvenilia is preserved in the Margaret Atwood Papers archived at the University of Toronto. Having skipped seventh grade, Atwood’s first full year of school was in eighth grade when her family relocated to Toronto, Ontario; she continued to study in Toronto through high school and went on to take a Bachelor’s Degree of Arts in English Literature from Victoria College at the University of Toronto in 1961.

During her undergraduate years at the University of Toronto, Atwood met many people ranging from distinguished professors to peers who would be influential in her developing views and creative output, notably Northrop Frye, Jay MacPherson, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Dennis Lee, James Reaney, and Charles Pachter. On the threshold of 1960s hippie culture, alternate realms of mythology, dreams, and the underworld were in the zeitgeist of North American art and popular culture. Atwood recalls dressing in black and giving early poetry readings in Toronto at the Bohemian Embassy coffeehouse – thereby participating in the continuance of a literary cultural phenomenon popularized in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England. During her undergraduate years, Atwood wrote and published poetry, articles, and satirical comics in The Strand and Acta Victoriana, student publications associated with her college. Even then, she was involved in the praxis of publishing, recognizing writing as a continuum that includes the work of publication, dissemination, and reception. Through exposure to small scale publication, these undergraduate years provided opportunity for Atwood to write, draw, and experiment under her own name as well as pseudonym; all of these areas emerged as important later in her career. For example, Atwood’s interest in cartooning as sociopolitical satire became most prominent in the 1970s in This Magazine under the pseudonym Bart Gerrard. Critic Reingard Nischik details Atwood’s connection to comics and cartooning, including a range of panels: from the early Kanadian Kultchur Komix series in This Magazine which feature Survivalwoman (Atwood’s ironic Canadian counterpoint to Superman of the United States), to her Book Tour Comix of the 1990s which feature a satirical cartoon author resembling Atwood herself (Nischik, 2009, pp. 196-252). Atwood has also made a limited number of these original visuals available on her personal website (margaretatwood.com).

In addition to completing her Bachelor of Arts degree, the year 1961 held several notable events in Atwood’s developing career. She independently published a poetry chapbook titled Double Persephone which won the E.J. Pratt Award and began graduate studies in the United States at Radcliffe College, the women’s liberal arts college associated with Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Atwood completed her Master of Arts degree at Radcliffe in 1962 and began doctoral studies at Harvard University that same year, declaring English Metaphysical Romance as her dissertation topic. Despite the semblance of easy linear progress, the 1960s was an unstable period for Atwood, with struggles characteristic of young adulthood: turbulent personal relationships, precarious finances, and being unsettled in home space as well as career. This formative developmental stage is a focus of her poetry and in the fictional lives of many of her characters – a particularly close examination occurs in Moral Disorder (2006) wherein the short story sequence centers around the protagonist Nell. While Atwood fulfilled all other requirements for a doctorate at Harvard, she eventually abandoned the dissertation-in-progress as well as her sporadic residence in the United States, turning her attention instead to her creative writing in Canada. To support her writing, Atwood worked a series of contract jobs: a stint at Canadian Facts Marketing, a Toronto consumer survey firm (which provided the insider perspective of the industry for her first novel, the Edible Woman [1969]), followed by temporary teaching positions at various Canadian universities (University of British Columbia; Sir George Williams University [currently Concordia University, Montréal]; University of Alberta; York University, Toronto); thereafter she was writer-in-residence or held writing-related posts in and beyond Canadian institutions (University of Toronto; University of Alabama; New York University; Macquarie University, Australia; Trinity University, Texas). Choosing to become a full-time writer circa 1973, nearly fifty years later Atwood numbers herself among what is still only ten percent of writers who make their living by writing full-time (Atwood, “The Publishing Pie”, 16 February 2011).

While her dissertation remains incomplete, filed as remnants in the Atwood Papers archived at the University of Toronto, Harvard did grant Atwood an Honourary Doctorate in 2004 on the basis of her significant literary legacy. Harvard is one of twenty-seven international universities which have bestowed an Honourary Degree on Atwood between 1973 and 2022. (Incidentally, the first institution to have recognized Atwood with this honour is Trent University located in Peterborough, Ontario, the area north of Toronto where a young Atwood worked as camp nature counsellor alongside artist Charles Pachter who was to become a lifelong friend and collaborator.) These doctorates are among a lengthy list of distinguished awards and recognition that Atwood has consistently earned through over six decades of writing, including national and international writing awards, lifetime achievement awards, humanitarian awards, civic awards, and environmental awards, with the full list available on her website (margaretatwood.ca). Numbered among these one hundred seventy-three markers of achievement to date (2022) are the rare accolades of being presented by Queen Elizabeth II with the Order of the Companions of Honour (2018) and being featured on a Commemorative Canadian Postage Stamp (2021) – an honour typically granted posthumously, as Atwood wryly acknowledges during her speech at Canada Post’s official unveiling ceremony:

Being on a stamp is an unexpected honour – so unexpected that it has already caused a rash of stamp envy in my peer group. Indeed, the first phone call I received on this subject was from a friend of my age, a thousand and two, who exclaimed with a shocked horror that was only partly jocular, ‘But you’re not even dead yet’. To which [she deadpans] the only possible reply is, ‘How can you tell?’ (Atwood, Margaret Atwood Honoured with Commemorative Canada Post Stamp, CTV News, 25 Nov. 2021).

Establishing as a Canadian Writer

In her late twenties and early thirties, Atwood faced significant choices that enabled sharper long-term focus personally and professionally. A brief, ill-fated marriage to Jim Polk dissolved, after which she and writer Graeme Cameron Gibson became life partners. Atwood and Gibson had one daughter, Eleanor Jess Atwood Gibson, in 1976, and deeply invested in Canadian writing life, international advocacy for oppressed writers, and birding. Together, they helped found and served on the executives of major writers’ organizations (the Writers’ Union of Canada, PEN International), small presses (most prominently with House of Anansi), and non-profit birding organizations (Rare Bird Club / Birding International, Pelee Island Bird Observatory); they have also been prominently involved with Amnesty International and, more recently, Atwood has championed the environmental organization A Rocha Canada. Atwood and Gibson settled on a farm near Alliston, Ontario for several years before relocating long-term to Toronto. They also purchased a home on Pelee Island, the southern-most point of Canada, where Atwood’s writing and birding have fruitfully coincided since 1987; this alternating urban-rural residency recalls the seasonal rhythm of her childhood. Pelee Island is also home to week-long Writers’ Retreats where Atwood has regularly and without fanfare mentored emerging writers – a version of her earlier engagement as creative writing instructor or writer-in-residence, and perhaps a forerunner of her recent scaled-up twenty-three module online Masterclass (Atwood, Margaret Atwood Teaches Creative Writing). After several years of managing dementia, Gibson passed away at the age of eighty-five while accompanying Atwood to London, England for the world premiere of The Testaments (2019), her long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). A candid depiction of Atwood and Gibson’s long, devoted relationship is included in the film Margaret Atwood: A Word After a Word After a Word is Power (2019), directed by Nancy Lang and Peter Raymont. Atwood has publically honoured Gibson’s memory on her website (margaretatwood.ca), as well as through lament and elegy in her poetry collection Dearly (2020). Currently in her early eighties, Atwood continues to reside in the home she and Gibson shared in Rosedale, an upscale downtown Toronto neighbourhood.

Atwood’s years of university study and subsequent contract teaching in the 1960s and early 1970s coincided with growing unrest among Canadian writers to establish a recognizable literary tradition and shed the shadow of a colonial identity. To some extent, this generation of writers, including Atwood, was responding to the findings of The Royal Commission on the Development of Arts and Letters, released in 1951; the Massey Report (as it became known) validated and opened space for significant conversation about the necessity for Canada to intentionally develop a national culture through the arts. The Canadian Government responded to the Massey recommendations to support the arts, culture, and universities. Significant changes occurred and have been sustained, including the creation of a national broadcasting corporation (CBC radio and television), the National Library, and Canada Council for the Arts which funds and administers many artist grants – including the prestigious Governor General’s Awards in Academics, Arts, Sciences and Humanities; Atwood has received many of these grants and awards dating back to her first book-length publication, The Circle Game in 1966.  Although this nationalistic climate supported development of the arts in Canada – including the literary arts – there was a significant lag in available materials for the study of Canadian literature as a field; Atwood noted this absence keenly not only during graduate studies in the United States, but also after she returned to Canada and began teaching. While readily identified as a prominent cultural leader and prescient social critic today, Atwood already demonstrated essential leadership and civic agency in this early instance: she identified a significant problem in her sphere and proceeded (though necessarily imperfectly) to address it.

This scarcity context was the genesis of Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972) through which Atwood sought to create a reader-friendly tool both for a general audience and for inadequately-equipped instructors in the emerging field of CanLit studies. In Survival Atwood tackled the lack of a recognizable literary tradition in Canada, concluding that it is shackled by a colonial inferiority complex, self-identifies with victimhood, is limited by its harsh environment and “garrison” populations (demonstrating the influence of her instruction under Northrop Frye), and hence survival (“to refuse to be a victim”) emerges as the collective aim. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Atwood’s stark critique was widely disputed and her loose methodology attacked, but the publication of Survival undeniably contributed to increased visibility and furthered debate about Canadian Literature as a discrete entity. Notably, Survival was published in the same year as her second novel, Surfacing (1972), which overtly represents a clash of Canadian and American cultures, gender politics, environmental issues, and questions the ideological assumptions and consequences of progress-driven societies. Together, these texts positioned Canadian nationalism and the arts in a highly public dialogue, resulting in forceful support and equal opposition to the conclusions, selections or exclusions, and to Atwood as an individual writer. Rosemary Sullivan’s biography The Red Shoes: Margaret Atwood Starting Out (1998) offers helpful context about these early years, focusing on Atwood in the cultural period up to the late 1970s.

Atwood as Poet

While Surfacing and Survival attest to Atwood’s importance in the formative period of 1970s Canadian nationalism, her initial disruption of the cultural landscape did not occur through fiction or non-fiction, but through the sudden eruption of her iconic poetry in the 1960s. After self-publishing a chapbook, Double Persephone (1961), Atwood officially published her first book-length poetry collection, The Circle Game (1966), while still a graduate student at Harvard, winning the prestigious Governor General’s Award and catapulting her to fame. Her stark, ironic tone, sharp (at times startling) imagery, spare diction and careful organization of content are present from this first poetry volume and have become features that might now be considered “trademark Atwood”. As Lorraine York reflectively demonstrates in Margaret Atwood and the Labour of Literary Celebrity (2013), Atwood is not an incidental cultural icon, but has consistently engaged with a “nuanced and strategic approach to literary production – and the consequent production of literary celebrity” (York, 2013, p. 24). Since 1984 there has been a formal society of international scholars who study her works, Margaret Atwood Society (atwoodsociety.org), which publishes a peer-reviewed journal, Margaret Atwood Studies; by 2021 the first international conference organized exclusively on Atwood’s work was held as a virtual gathering hosted in Germany (ArtPolitical: Margaret Atwood's Aesthetics, 14-16 Oct. 2021). Atwood has become a highly recognized international writer with substantial social capital.

The first critic to compose a literary monograph on Atwood’s writing was Sherrill Grace of University of British Columbia who set the stage for serious study of Atwood as a significant Canadian writer. An accessible, prescient, and honest appraisal, Violent Duality: A Study of Margaret Atwood (1980) focuses on eleven of Atwood’s publications (six poetry volumes, three novels, one short story collection, and one book of criticism) which Grace terms “the central Atwood canon” of the period, concluding with preliminary remarks on her fourth novel, Life Before Man (1979) (Grace, 1980, pp. xii). While carefully situating her study as preliminary, partial, and necessarily limited (due to Atwood’s already prolific output), many of Grace’s critical observations at this early stage remain remarkably accurate decades later – these include Atwood’s use and subversion of binaries, the importance of seeing (perspective) and seeing beyond appearances, and the pervasive existence of violent duality in art and life. Since Grace contends that “discovery of voice is Atwood’s great strength” in The Circle Game (Grace, 1980, pp. 13), perhaps it is unsurprising that many of these early themes and focal points recur in various forms and facets through Atwood’s subsequent writing.

In the decade following The Circle Game, Atwood published five poetry volumes leading to her first Selected Poems, 1965-1975 (1976). These include: The Animals in That Country (1968), The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), Procedures for Underground (1970), Power Politics (1971), and You Are Happy (1974). These volumes received significant critical attention for a young writer and established Atwood as an uncompromising voice in Canadian poetry – a field not without its hostilities and territorialism. A trained Victorianist, Atwood ironically seems to embrace the tenets of modern Imagistic style combined with seventeenth-century satire: her poetry was and remains spare, colloquial, and sociopolitically engaged. In this first period of poetry, The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970) and Power Politics (1971) emerge as particularly significant, with widely anthologized selections. In The Journals of Susanna Moodie, Atwood engages colonialism, immigration, gender issues, human relationship to nature, and reimagines Moodie, a pioneering writer, as emblematic of a deep divide that characterizes Canada. The original edition (with Atwood’s own illustrations) was re-issued as a new collaboration with accompanying art by Charles Pachter – first as a limited edition in 1980, then reprinted in 1997. Notably, of the nine poetry volumes represented in Selected Poems, The Journals of Susanna Moodie is the only one included in toto. The contentious male-female romantic relationship and ego-struggle that dominate Power Politics coalesced with Second Wave Feminism in North America, marking Atwood as a voice of social change. Her advocacy against violence and oppression is not only apparent in her artistic content, but also in her decades-long formal association with Amnesty International and PEN International of which she is currently Vice-President. Although Atwood remains careful to define her values and beliefs rather than to self-identify by labels (including an uneasy relationship with – and even distancing from – the designation of “feminist”), throughout her career Atwood has clearly spoken out against violence and oppression – including that based on gender.

The period between Atwood’s two volumes of Selected Poems include a total of three poetry volumes: Two-Headed Poems (1978), True Stories (1981), and Interlunar (1984). A particularly resonant representation of advocacy through art and its reproductions is found in True Stories (1981). The section titled Notes Towards a Poem that Can Never Be Written originated from Atwood’s visit to El Salvador and the gender violence she witnessed there; it was also published separately as a small press edition with Salamander Press (1981). The poems “Torture”, “A Women’s Issue”, and “Notes Towards a Poem that Can Never Be Written” in this section are notably piercing. The latter poem dedicated to professor, poet, and human rights activist Carolyn Forché (who writes self-described “poetry of witness”) demonstrates the reproductive power of art across time, space, and genres. A generation later, Atwood’s poem “Notes Towards a Poem that Can Never Be Written” inspired Canadian composer Timothy Corlis to create a twenty-five minute musical score of “simultaneous grief and hope” for multiple choirs with the text of Atwood’s poem forming its lyrics (Corlis, Notes Towards a Poem that Can Never Be Written, 2006). Experiencing the poem as a haunting movement from stark brutal reality “gradually towards what is possible to imagine – towards potential and hope”, Corlis sought “to offer a reading of Atwood's poem that immerses the senses in sound, so that we might become entangled in her words…. involved and vulnerable” rather than being overwhelmed by information and bleak statistics (Corlis et al., NotesTowards, 2008). Corlis’s adaptation then became the centering piece of an expanded collaborative musical CD, NotesTowards (2008), which was nominated for a JUNO award as Best Classical Composition of the Year. The echoes of Atwood’s poetic refusal to look away from brutality continue to resonate in artistic responses.

Following Selected Poems II: Poems Selected and New 1976-1986 (1986), Atwood’s writing focus shifted towards fiction and her remaining three poetry volumes appeared at intervals of a decade or more: Morning in the Burned House (1995), The Door (2007), and Dearly (2020). All three collections continue Atwood’s piercing imagery and longstanding interest in time and perspective but are differentiated by a sharper focus on mortality and aging. Of particular note in these respective volumes are the elegies written for her father (Carl Edmund Atwood, 1906 – 1993), mother (Margaret Dorothy Killam Atwood, 1909 – 2006), and partner (Graeme Gibson, 1934 – 2019). For such a recognized author, one might expect expansive critical interest following a lengthy gap between published poetry collections, but Atwood’s recent poetry has arguably been overshadowed by adjacent publications of fiction: Morning in the Burned House (1995) appeared just before her Giller Prize-winning historiographic novel Alias Grace (1996); The Door (2007) was preceded by two short fiction publications, The Tent (2006) and Moral Disorder (2006); and, perhaps most significantly, Dearly (2020) emerged in the aftermath of Booker Prize-winning The Testaments (2019), the long-awaited sequel to her Governor General’s Award-winning and internationally-acclaimed dystopic novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). While Morning in the Burned House earned a provincial award and The Door was a finalist for a Governor General’s Literary Award, overall critical response to the three recent poetry collections, though positive, has been limited. Ironically for an author who began her career as an award-winning poet, many reviews presumed audiences were familiar with Atwood only (or at least primarily) as a novelist; however, this may reveal more about reading audiences, genre hierarchies, and contemporary literary publishing trends than anything else.

Atwood as Novelist

In the 1960s postmodern writers – including Atwood – were working in multiple genres and experimenting with blurring boundaries; however, following the popularity of Canadian prairie novels of the 1940s, the novel increasingly dominated the English-Canadian market. Similarly, Atwood continued to write across genres, but there was a significant turn to fiction – particularly to writing novels – early in her career; fourteen of her seventeen novels to date have been published since 1980. Her first novel, The Edible Woman (1969), was mislaid by the publisher and delayed in hitting markets; while simple in structure, its emphasis on social constructions of gender, career disparity, and eating disorders aligned with feminist concerns of the 1970s. Undeniably, Atwood’s most important early novel is her dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) which won her second Governor General’s Award and received international recognition, including being shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The novel’s enduring influence is evident in its adaptation to film (directed by Volker Schlondorff, 1990), acclaimed television series (Hulu and MGM, 2017-2022), and even ballet (premiered by Royal Winnipeg Ballet, 2013). With a misogynistic theocracy seeming more than a fictional possibility, The Handmaid’s Tale surged in popularity during the American presidency of Donald Trump (2016-2020) and increased anticipation of its long-awaited sequel, The Testaments (2019). In addition to an international book launch of unprecedented scale, Atwood her novel The Testaments made controversial headlines when the Booker Prize was co-awarded to her and Bernadine Evaristo (Girl, Woman, Other) – both are historical winners with Atwood as the oldest recipient to date and Evaristo as the first black woman and first black British recipient (Flood, 15 Oct. 2019).

Over time, Atwood’s novels have developed increasingly complex narrative layers, played with perspective, and resisted any singular subtype. Notable of the earlier novels, Lady Oracle (1976) is a parody of gothic romance and Cat’s Eye (1988) is a retrospective bildungsroman of a painter traumatized by female childhood bullying; while less often cited, The Robber Bride (1993) is arguably the first of Atwood’s polyphonic novels, refracting the narrative through multiple voices. This multivocality contributes to the later success of her historiographic novel Alias Grace (1996) which won the Giller Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Based on a true, sensational 1843 murder in the vicinity of Toronto, Atwood spins the tale of Grace Marks, a poor young Irish female servant who has been convicted of conspiring to murder her wealthy unmarried Scottish employer and his housekeeper-mistress. Meticulously researched, the novel showcases Atwood’s familiarity with Victorian gender roles, classism, religious moralism, and pre-Freudian psychotherapy while sustaining the palpable sexual frisson between Grace and Dr Simon Jordan, through whose perspectives the narrative largely alternates. A coalescence of her Victorian-Canadian and sociopolitical interests, Atwood wrote about the character of Grace Marks in an earlier television script for national broadcaster CBC (“The Servant Girl”, 1974); later, her highly-acclaimed novel Alias Grace (1996) was adapted into an internationally award-winning television series (Netflix, 2017). Although The Blind Assassin (2000) is an even more complex layering of narrative and temporality than Alias Grace – including an embedded metafictive narrative of science fiction – and it won the Booker Prize, popular critical reception of this lengthy, demanding novel has been decidedly more muted.

If subdued in response to The Blind Assassin, the popular imagination was captivated by Atwood’s highly-acclaimed dystopian trilogy – Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009), and MaddAddam (2013). The series is written as what Atwood terms “speculative fiction” – that is, fiction including only what has already happened somewhere in the world or could happen today. (For Atwood’s distinctions between science fiction and speculative fiction see Moving Targets [2004] or, more expansively, In Other Worlds: Science Fiction and the Human Imagination [2011] – a work with limited critical engagement to date). Biogenetic engineering, environmental collapse, and biochemical genocide are among the series’ unflinching concerns along with her longstanding interest in power and the complexities of interdependencies – human and otherwise. Of the three novels, Oryx and Crake has received the most critical accolades being short-listed for four major literary prizes: the Giller Award, Man Booker Prize, Governor General’s Award, and Orange Prize. However, being widely short-listed (without being selected), along with Atwood’s careful parsing of textual category (“speculative fiction”) appear to support Ursula K. LeGuin’s contention of a pervasive literary prejudice against science fiction as “a genre still shunned by hidebound readers, reviewers and prize-awarders. [Atwood] doesn't want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto. Who can blame her?” (LeGuin, 2009). It’s a suggestive question. As though in resistance to genre ghettoing, Atwood’s dystopic novels have been adapted into ironically dichotomous forms and retain significant contemporary interest in the arts community: MaddAddam – The Ballet is premiering in Toronto by National Ballet of Canada (McGregor, 2022) and a lightly revised form of Poul Ruder’s adaptation of Atwood’s earliest dystopia, The Handmaid’s Tale – The Opera (2000) is being performed by the English National Opera (Cross, 2022). It is arguable that, like Atwood as artist, her works are not readily contained and tend not to play by the rules.

Experimental Atwood

While working in both poetry and fiction early in her career was perhaps unexceptional, the range of genres within which Atwood has published and continuously experiments is certainly atypical. Parallel to her voracious reading, she seems interested in virtually every genre as an arena for play, testing the elasticity of boundaries and the inexhaustibility of language through constant experimentation and across media. Moreover, many of her works seem to belong in, arise from, and translate across genres and temporalities. For example, Atwood’s novel Hag-Seed (2016) reimagines Shakespeare’s comedic play The Tempest (1901) in a contemporary penitentiary; in The Penelopiad (2005) Atwood retells Homer’s classical epic The Odyssey (circa 700 BCE) from Penelope’s perspective and has subsequently converted her novel into a play script premiered by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-on-Avon (Atwood, The Penelopiad – The Play, 2007). In fact, Atwood attributes the ability of her work to translate across media directly to episodic storytelling: “here’s the secret. I’m a Victorianist. Charles Dickens wrote like a TV series…. That cutting back and forth goes all the way back to The Odyssey. It’s one of the fundamentals of storytelling” (interview in Lang, 2019).

Atwood’s recognition of the narrative power of arranging fragments is evident in her careful structuring of collections across genres and across career, and may well contribute to her ability to work in varied lengths and media. Despite the cultural dominance of novels and her success in long fiction, Atwood has also been a consistent presence in the short fiction market – including experimentation in the hybrid category of prose poetry such as Good Bones (1992) and The Tent (2006). Beginning with Dancing Girls (1977), she has published one or two short story collections each decade. Notable among these first eight volumes are: award-winning Wilderness Tips (1991), with its frequently anthologized selections and emphasis on Canadiana, as well as Moral Disorder (2006), which is Atwood’s only short story cycle (or linked story sequence) to date. Over time, Atwood has also edited several volumes, including two significant short fiction anthologies together with Robert Weaver – The Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in English (1986) and The New Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in English (1995); these co-edited anthologies demonstrate ongoing commitment to supporting an important genre that has garnered Canada international recognition. Indeed, the value of the short story is highlighted by Atwood’s long-time friend Alice Munro who has stalwartly committed herself to the form; sole Canadian winner to date, Munro was granted the Nobel Prize in Literature (2013) on the basis of being recognized as “master of the contemporary short story”, underscoring its quiet significance (“Alice Munro – Facts”, NobelPrize.org, 2013). Atwood’s forthcoming publication, Old Babes in the Woods (2023), will mark her ninth collection of short fiction and ongoing interest in the genre.

Attuned to diverse audiences, Atwood’s storytelling at all levels revels in both imagery and textual word play – from metaphor to illustrations and ambiguity to alliteration – making her works both accessible and incisive. Alliteration abounds in four of her eight colourful children’s picture books which contain sociopolitical critique alongside deceptively happy endings: Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut (1995), Rude Ramsay and the Roaring Radishes (2003), Bashful Bob and Doleful Dorinda (2004), and Wandering Wenda and the Widow Wallop’s Wunderground Washery (2011). Even these texts for young readers contain Atwood’s trademark suspicion of surfaces as ironic illusions and her insistence on looking past appearances. However, Atwood’s long-standing interests in transformation and the interplay of text and image are perhaps most visible in her recent graphic novel collaborations. Each a three-volume series, Angel Catbird (2016-2017) and War Bears (2018) target different audiences and social issues; the former is linked to Atwood’s environmental interests and the latter to her advocacy for artists under political oppression. Dubbing War Bears “[c]omics history”, Atwood is currently collaborating to develop the graphic novels into an animated series (Drum, 2022).

While Atwood’s literary contributions target audiences from childhood through adulthood and have translated across multiple media, it is important to note that she has also addressed sociopolitical issues more directly. Beyond her early, controversial volume Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972), Atwood has consistently delivered and published essays, speeches, newspaper op-eds, and a substantial body of non-fiction. The volumes comprised of collected non-fiction provide a curated overview of Atwood’s interests and civic engagement over her career – Second Words: Selected Critical Prose (1982), Moving Targets: Writing with Intent 1982-2004 (2004), and Burning Questions: Essays and Occasional Pieces 2004-2021 (2022). Others are longer meditations or responses to cultural issues; particularly notable volumes of non-fiction include: Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (1995), a reassessment of myth; Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (2002), a metafictive meditation on literary art; and Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (2008). Payback was conceived as the 2008 CBC Massey Lectures, a prestigious annual commissioned series in which the speaker travels across Canada, delivering each lecture to a live audience in a different city; CBC national broadcasting archives the original lectures from their inception in 1961 and many (including Atwood’s) are subsequently published as monographs (Archives: CBC Massey Lectures, 2020). Atwood’s selection of topic for her Payback lectures – a literary exploration of debt, including those that cannot be repaid – eerily coincided with the ensuing major economic recession of 2008; the resonances did not go unremarked. Her lectures have since been adapted into the documentary film Payback (2011), available through the National Film Board of Canada (Baichwal, 2011). Atwood remains a formidably prolific writer as evidenced by the full bibliography and list of awards and recognition found on her personal website (margaretatwood.ca). In 1980, critic Sherrill Grace remarked that “[k]eeping up with, let alone discussing, such a versatile and evolving writer presents a formidable challenge” and “it will be some time yet before a so-called ‘definitive’ Atwood study can be initiated” (Grace, 1980, p. xiii). More than forty years later, that time has still not yet come.

Like all innovators and risk-takers, Atwood has experienced varying degrees of success and censure – including having her books regularly banned. The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) remains one of the most frequently banned books in the United States and in response to the anti-abortion laws, Atwood’s publisher issued a symbolic, one-of-a-kind unburnable edition for auction to support PEN America, featuring a video of Atwood wielding a flame-thrower (Pengelly, 2022). In less metaphoric ways, Atwood’s reach literally extends beyond the borders of time and space: in 2004 she invented the LongPen, a device to enable remote book signings (Kruger, 2010); a prolific social commentator, she currently has over two million followers on the social media platform Twitter (@MargaretAtwood); her work is widely available internationally and has been translated into well over twenty languages. Perhaps most uniquely, in 2014 Atwood was chosen as the first author for the global Future Library project located in Norway (https://www.futurelibrary.no/); of the one hundred contemporary authors to be included, Atwood has contributed a one hundred-year time capsule work, Scribbler Moon (2014), to be unveiled in the year 2114 (The Future Library by Margaret Atwood, 2014). In short, as consummate experimenter, storyteller, and innovator, Margaret Atwood is always at work on multiple projects and tinkering with newly imaginable possibilities.

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Citation: Trigg, Tina. "Margaret Atwood". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 15 December 2022 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=175, accessed 06 February 2023.]

175 Margaret Atwood 1 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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