Margaret Atwood and the Labour of Literary Celebrity
by Lorraine York
University of Toronto Press, 2013
232 pp.; $29.95
McMaster University English professor Lorraine York focuses her latest work on CanLit darling: the venerable Margaret Atwood, in Margaret Atwood and the Labour of the Literary Celebrity. Following York’s previously published book, Literary Celebrity in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2007), she explores the publishing professionals who work behind-the-scenes on Atwood’s career. York’s thesis seems to be that “agents of literary celebrity go beyond the individual and personal,” and include “literary agents, editors, publishers, researchers, online platforms and communities, assistants and office staff.”
York uses unpublished documentation from the Margaret Atwood Papers at the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library to illustrate her case study. Each chapter is roughly thematic: the literary agent; the editor(s); the office of O.W. Toad (an anagram of Atwood); Atwood’s interaction with new media; and finally an analysis of the labour of publishing and authorship present in Atwood’s own writing. The chapters are able to stand alone as well as a collection, increasing their potential to be excerpted for academic purposes. Unfortunately I found this resulted in repetition of language, examples, and explanations, as well as a scattered progression of the argument.
The writing is clearly intended for an academic audience, but frequently caters to uninformed readers. Although the focus is on Atwood, the essays detour into the history of the Canadian publishing industry, summarizing the rise of agents, the transformation of editors’ roles, and even the increase of Twitter in marketing. The first two chapters are on Atwood and her literary agent and the relationship with her editors, but they read more like a general discussion of the role of the agent and editor in developing and sustaining a literary celebrity. Atwood’s affairs are frequently used as example, but York also discusses Michael Ondaatje, Ursula K. Le Guin, and other international figures.
Where York is at her best is analyzing the activities and actions of Atwood and her staff, and not summarizing history or sketching a brief overview of the industry. Most discussions throughout the book are prefaced by lengthy (and mostly unnecessary) overviews of the publication process and the shifting roles of publishing professionals in the past decades. Academic audiences interested in a work on literary celebrity will undoubtedly already be familiar with the publishing industry and non-academic readers may lose focus with these frequent asides.
The third chapter provided the strongest analysis of the work behind Atwood’s career, exploring the inner workings of O.W. Toad through archived correspondence and media attention. Atwood’s assistants are the front line in balancing the necessary privacy to write and the need for promotion. They juggle countless roles including event planning, research, international correspondence, and fielding requests from media, readers, academics, and publishers.
York uses sociological theories to base her discussion, and her analysis of Atwood’s literary celebrity is strongest when applying entertainment celebrity discourse. However, the thesis of literary celebrity being a “web of industrial relations; a pie with many pieces” (142) was not particularly groundbreaking, nor did York tackle any serious oppositions besides the amount of work Atwood’s assistants actually perform. Overall, the thesis felt rather predictable and the application of the case study left me underwhelmed. »
From subTerrain #66