Canada, CanLit, Features, Literature

Why They Hate Margaret Atwood

On March 9, a University of Alberta English professor named Julie Rak headlined a speaking event that was billed as a showdown on the issue of “bad feminism.” A promotional poster done up in a boxing motif included a picture of Rak on one side, and legendary Canadian author Margaret Atwood on the other.

The poster for Julie Rak’s speaking event held at the University of Alberta on March 9

If you live outside Canada, and recognize Atwood as the author of such renowned feminist works as Cat’s Eye, you might assume that she’d be representing the side of sound feminist doctrine in this metaphorical bout. As literary critic Carmine Starnino once noted, Atwood is the “best-known English-language novelist of contemporary sexual politics.” She more or less invented the modern Anglo Canadian feminist fiction genre, specializing in what Starnino aptly describes as “salty post-Freudian satires on gender inequalities, the oppressiveness of marriage and the historical animosity of women.”

In the 1980s, when I studied North American Literature as a high school elective, Atwood was the only writer with two books on our reading list. She also was the youngest writer on that list by a significant margin. 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.)

And yet, this being the bizarro world of 2018, Atwood’s role in Rak’s University of Alberta event wasn’t as a feminist heroine. In fact, Atwood wasn’t even in attendance. The above-described poster was just a gimmick to promote Rak’s caricature of Atwood as the Trotsky of Canadian feminism. And the fact that Rak feels comfortable signaling this posture on publicly displayed posters shows she isn’t some outlier loon. Just the opposite: In recent years, the ideological mobbing of Atwood and other well-established writers has become a mass-participation phenomenon among young Canadian literati who mobilize daily on social media.

It’s difficult to explain the strangeness of all this to a non-Canadian. Perhaps the closest comparison I can offer would come by way of imagining the late Edward Said being denounced by Palestinian-rights advocates as a febrile Zionist—or Black Lives Matter protestors savaging the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates. As magazine writer Alicia Elliott put it recently, the world of Canadian literature (“CanLit,” as it’s known within the treehouse) has become “a raging dumpster fire” of embittered identity politics and ideological tribalism—so much so that even speaking panels convened to discuss this dumpster fire now can be transformed by a few of Elliott’s own Tweets into meta-dumpster fires of their own.

Amidst all these flames and ash, the great men and women of Canadian letters increasingly have gone to ground. While none of Atwood’s critics have her level of success or name recognition, Twitter mobbing is a numbers game. Acting collectively, obscurities such as Rak have been able to crowdsource a regime of ideological enforcement that now can be used to bully even true literary legends.

*   *   *

To understand why the mob came after Atwood, it is first necessary to understand the saga of another Canadian writer—Steven Galloway, 42-year-old author of the acclaimed 2008 novel The Cellist of Sarajevo.

For much of his adult life, Galloway was a golden boy of Canadian literature—earning almost a million dollars in book advances, and becoming chair of the University of British Columbia’s prestigious creating-writing program when he was still in his 30s. But the golden era ended abruptly in 2015, when UBC suspended Galloway, following the internal circulation of allegations that he’d sexually assaulted a student.

The university’s move, announced in such a way as to suggest that Galloway might be a violent sexual predator who still terrorized the campus, made national headlines. Galloway became suicidal, and was involuntarily institutionalized by authorities in the United States, where he was traveling at the time. Back in Vancouver, UBC deputized the ringleader of the school’s anti-Galloway’s faction to recruit students who might provide yet more allegations against the former department chair. Galloway’s world seemed to be disintegrating.

Instead, it was the case that fell apart. A former British Columbia supreme court justice whom the university had commissioned to investigate the allegations determined that the worst Galloway had done was conduct a consensual affair with a middle-aged UBC creative-writing student. Much of the criticism began shifting to the university administration. The summary dismissal of Galloway (who was formally terminated in 2016) now looked like a panicky PR move by a university that recently had botched an unrelated sexual-assault controversy.

Enter Atwood, who added her signature to a web-published open letter “seeking clarity and fairness in UBC’s handling of the Steven Galloway case.” That letter did not pronounce on Galloway’s guilt or innocence, and confined itself to addressing the procedural shortcomings surrounding his treatment. Nevertheless, it immediately became an object of fury among Galloway’s critics, who cited it as proof that CanLit’s upper crust was circling the wagons in defence of a friend. Rak herself wrote a manifesto attacking the open letter, which she said left her “shocked and appalled.”

Social-media attacks on the original #UBCaccountable signatories (as they became known) were so intense and vicious that some asked to have their signatures removed, and even published groveling pleas for forgiveness. A sort of Soviet-style name-and-shame bureaucracy took form on Twitter, with one Nanaimo-based poet keeping a running tally of who had signed the open letter and who hadn’t. The date of the letter’s original publication—Nov. 14, 2016—arguably marks the day CanLit’s dumpster started burning.

Atwood made the mistake of trying to engage with her critics, which only made them sense (correctly) that she was sensitive to their views. Over time, the attacks against her have seemed almost to blur into a species of clinical derangement. Simon Fraser University professor Hannah McGregor, for instance, publicly called Atwood a “shitty white woman,” and blithely dismissed the abuse that Atwood was taking online: “If you are a white woman and you have a platform, then too fucking bad. I don’t care.”

In the eyes of detractors, Atwood’s reputation as a feminist champion doesn’t serve to mitigate her thoughtcrimes. It makes them worse. For who should know more about CanLit’s Sons of Jacob than the woman who wrote The Handmaid’s Tale?

I was editor-in-chief at a Canadian literary magazine at the time, and had a front-row seat on the entire shocking saga. Even after the 2014 Rolling Stone debacle surrounding a non-existent rape at the University of Virginia, portions of my magazine’s contributors and staff believed they had some underlying moral duty to “believe the victim” in all cases of alleged sexual assault. My own insistence on paying heed to the forms of due process was cast as apologia for rape culture.

At one point, I published an article by Carmen Aguirre, a memoirist, actress and #UBCaccountable signatory. The very title of the piece, “Steven Galloway Is Innocent Till Proven Guilty,” was enough to incite a spasm of moral panic within CanLit. Aguirre instantly became persona non grata in parts of the community, and some fellow writers reportedly made a show of walking out of her events. When I would point out to Aguirre’s critics that she herself was raped at gunpoint as a teenager, and so knows a thing or two about the subject of crime and punishment, these critics would just shrug.

By this point, conspiracy theories were circulating to the effect that the former judge who’d investigated the allegations against Galloway, despite her impeccable feminist and legal credentials, had cynically exonerated Galloway at the behest of UBC. Given the vicious manner in which the university had attempted to railroad Galloway, the theory made no sense. But by this time, logic had left the building, and Galloway’s status as a predator and misogynist became a myth of Canadian feminism.

*   *   *

One of the first things that needs saying is that even if Galloway is innocent of sexual assault (as Boyd concluded), the pattern that is alleged in his case—of a powerful male professor preying on his students—does seem to be a distressing reality in Canadian creative-writing programs.

Obviously, not every Canadian creative-writing professor sleeps with his students, let alone assaults them. But during my interviews, I heard several insiders describe a Mad Men-like world in which booze flows freely, emotionally damaged men and women throw themselves into unhealthy relationships, and intimate academic conversations about literature spill over into the barroom or bedroom. After hearing these accounts, I can understand why many writers, students and professors continue to instinctively believe the worst of Galloway: The world of CanLit is a hive of hypocrisy, in which male authority figures who posture as purebred feminists during office hours are later seen buying a fourth or fifth drink for a woman half their age.

“As a student at Concordia [University in Montreal], I was witness to the abuse of power and the normalization of sexualization of students by professors, writers, editors, and publishers,” wrote Mike Spry in a lengthy 2018 blog post.

“For years, I thought it was normal—that it happened everywhere, across industries and communities. It was not. It is not. Positions of power in CanLit are abused the same way that the Harvey Weinsteins, Kevin Spaceys, Dustin Hoffmans, and Louis CKs did: to subjugate aspiring artists to their every whim… Not only did I protect these men by failing to publicly condemn their abuse out of fear of conflict and misplaced dutifulness, but I participated as well. I abused the small amount of power I had, the crumb of agency bestowed upon me in exchange for propping up ego and hierarchy. I demanded respect and relationships I felt I was owed. I dated women inappropriately younger than me. I treated them poorly.”

The comparison with Weinstein seems overwrought. And not all the bad decisions in CanLit are being made by men—even if men, on average, hold more power than their female colleagues. (As one B.C. author told me, “If you’re having sex with someone to get a poem published in a magazine, then there are bigger problems to deal with [in your life] than regret.”) But in general, the sexual harassment of women is most widespread in creative industries where a small number of gatekeepers wield career-making power over a large pool of young female aspirants—a description that fits the world of Canadian arts and letters.

Spry’s confession quickly became the subject of controversy, with his own ex-girlfriend, Julie McIsaac, weighing in to question his motives in a blog post of her own. This, too, makes for fascinating reading—as it delivers a woman’s view on the more general process of alienation, rejection and disillusionment felt by women in the CanLit milieu.

“I am a writer of talent who was treated like a waitress/babysitter,” McIsaac reports. “I felt punished and maligned for my sexual relationships as well as for the sexual offers I rebuffed. I doubt that Mike had to deal with this. He says now that he is not proud of the work he created then, published with the help of the toxic colleagues and mentors he now despises. But those books are on his website, they are included on his CV, they likely helped him get hired in his new career.”

Perhaps the most shocking part of her account comes when McIsaac describes her efforts to reject a professor (unnamed in the piece) whose romantic persistence borders on stalking. McIsaac seems to do all the right things, including calling Concordia’s Office of Rights and Responsibilities, and reporting that she’d just been asked out by her prof. The university’s response, according to McIsaac’s paraphrased account: “There was nothing wrong with that. The Concordia Code of Conduct didn’t prohibit professors from dating students.”

In her conclusion, McIsaac goes on something of a tear, attacking everyone in the university system who looks the other way at this sort of behaviour. But when she writes that “the predators seem to always find allies,” the clear suggestion is that these enablers are men—because a paragraph later, she adds: “If you want to see challenges to power in action, look to women.”

That last line sounds like praise for womankind. But it also signifies a special moral burden on women that they shirk at their peril. Which may help explain why famed writer Michael Ondaatje, who also signed the open letter, has received almost no blowback at all. “Our female signatories were by far attacked most frequently and most personally,” reports Brad Cran, one of the writers who helped publish the original letter, and who created the #UBCaccountable hashtag. And of all the women, Atwood got it worst of all.

*   *   *

In her 2017 book The Perils of Privilege, Toronto-based writer Phoebe Maltz Bovy noted that the call-out culture of Twitter metes out especially cruel treatment to successful women—a phenomenon she traces to “the fetishization of powerlessness.” In its broadest form, this ideological fetish has metastasized into the twinned ideas that (a) anyone who has attained success should defer morally to those who haven’t, and that (b) hierarchies of merit can be understood in purely political terms, which means that successful writers such as Atwood are guilty of taking up “space” that should be given over to others—even if those others are commercially obscure and possess less talent.

“Atwood’s books take up a whole shelf (or shelves) at bookstores and each title usually has multiple copies, often faced out,” Tweeted Canadian poet Dina Del Beano. “Most new writers have a single copy of their book(s) on a shelf, just the spine visible. She has many books, but this still speaks to space she occupies.”

It is mostly (though not exclusively) younger writers and obscure academics in their 20s and 30s who make up Atwood’s most aggressive critics. Anyone who is middle-aged or older, and who has even a passing knowledge of Atwood’s career, will know that she had to fight like a dog to win her success in what was once the man’s world of Canadian literature—and that she wasn’t just some privileged dilettante who swooped in to take her place on the bestseller lists. To adopt the famous line about Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire: Atwood did everything the great male writers did, but she did it backwards, and in high heels.

Canadian author Margaret Atwood with her first Italian publisher Mario Monti in 1976

Even from early years, moreover, Atwood always has been an old-fashioned scientist of the written word. As a high school student, she was picking apart Roy’s La Petite Poule d’Eau sentence by sentence, learning the ways of a master. In the essay she wrote for my 2016 book, Atwood’s analysis of Roy’s masterpiece, Bonheur d’Occasion, contains a breakdown of the symbolic importance of the characters’ names that feels like an act of Biblical exegesis. She runs through the influence of such other legends as Mavis Gallant and Marie-Claire Blais, and describes how Roy’s life as an actress helped her develop as a writer, because “a talent for mimicry can come in handy in fiction just as it does on stage.” Atwood also notes, approvingly, the “long, hard, dedicated grind” that would result in the production of Bonheur d’Occasion after five years of writing. It’s one literary workaholic writing about another.

Atwood has written 14 novels, 10 short-story collections, and a dozen collections of poetry. The essay she wrote for me, memorable as I found it, barely ranks as a footnote to her storied career. Yet to read even just that one fragment of Atwood’s oeuvre is to understand the cultural chasm that separates her from her critics. To Atwood, the act of publication is the reward for excellence and perseverance in craft, for having something new and interesting to say, for telling a story that people want to have told. It is not, in and of itself, a form of payback for the author’s disadvantages or private agonies. Nor is the fact of publication to be construed as a political act meant to make whole the suffering of the author’s sex, race, or social class—even if, as in Atwood’s oeuvre, a book’s content is deeply informed by political values and themes. Thus, to understand the CanLit feminist attack on Atwood is to understand how the very concept of literary merit came to be understood in a radically different way.

“I kind of blame the university creative-writing programs,” a prominent Canadian writer and former professor told me. “Students come out of these programs without any clue about how hard authors have to work to produce a good novel.”

“That’s because the students don’t get honest feedback. University life is now customer-focused. Hurting a person’s feelings—by telling them they’re not a good writer—now can be characterized as a form of harassment. If a prof were to tell a student, ‘This was a terrible story and you wasted the class’ time by discussing it,’ you might be doing the student a favour [in the long run]. They could do something else in life. But today’s instructors would never dream of doing that. So you tell everyone they’re great, and give them a few substantive things to work on in a supportive way, and you collect your paycheque and go home.”

The result is that an entire generation of fiction writers has come through creative-writing programs thinking that they’re skilled auteurs with important, luminous stories to tell the planet—especially in the case of female, immigrant or Indigenous writers, who constantly are being bombarded with well-practiced aphorisms about the special moral urgency of their message. When they graduate, and there’s no market for their work, these writers naturally conclude that dark forces are at work: “They feel ripped off, or they blame it on racism or sexism or something. Bitter writers are nothing new, of course. This bitterness was a thing before the first quill was dipped into ink. But now they have an outlet for the bitterness online. And they somehow have this weird idea that if they get some famous author ‘canceled’ by shaming him [on Twitter], then that author’s spot [on bookshelves] will open up in the market for their own book. But of course, it doesn’t work that way.”

Even putting aside the issue of pedagogy and culture, the arithmetic of the job market is enough to embitter many writers. For dedicated CanLit yeomen, a soft professional landing traditionally could be had as a college professor. But that gig has dried up because universities increasingly are turning to adjunct and part-time teachers who might be paid as little as $5,000 per semester per course. Forty years ago, about 35% of Canadian professors aged 35 or younger held a full-time tenured or tenure-track position. The last time the same data was collected, the corresponding figure was just 12%.

In all of Canada, there are perhaps two or three tenured creative-writing positions that open up every year—about a hundredth the number of creative-writing students who graduate. In summing up his career prospects after UBC, writer Will Johnson offered this somewhat typical assessment: “UBC had proved to be a giant disappointment, especially because I wasn’t successful with my [government] grant. I’d also applied for a position at PRISM International [an NGO], but didn’t make the cut. My mountainous debt was looming, and I couldn’t figure out any reliable way to come up with cash.”

The combination of broken dreams, professional embitterment, and low job security has produced a climate in which the very purpose of literature has been brought into question. As Atwood noted, the brilliance of Bonheur d’Occasion lay in the way it threw open the world of impoverished Québecois society to ordinary middle-class readers. And much as with George Orwell and Down and Out in Paris and London, Roy could not have written it if she hadn’t worked as a journalist beforehand, exploring the mysteries of the outside world. But the ideological enforcers of CanLit aren’t interested at all in the outside world. Just the opposite. They have made an obsession of their own parochialism: When one of their kind focuses on an ethnic group that doesn’t match his or her own skin hue, he or she often is accused of racism or cultural appropriation. So everyone “stays in their lane.” For the most part, their only real subject of daily concern is the purported injustices within their own tiny professional subculture.

“It is increasingly common for academics to see and teach literature as fundamentally a kind of activism, and their role as critics as an activist one as well,” a successful Ontario-based novelist told me. “And there is really a very easy way of determining [a book’s value]. It is not by its content or form. It is in the identity of its author. The author’s privilege or lack of it is calculated using a simple points system, and the book’s worth is then established according to the total. A book by a straight white female author [such as Atwood] is unlikely to be considered useful to social progress, unless that author is seen to have another disadvantage such as a physical disability—and so on.”

Writers and artists typically cast themselves as rebels and heretics who always will champion their own truths over public dogmas. But as numerous examples from history show, there are periods, such as during the Red Scare, when the creative class is actually held to a higher standard of ideological conformity than other sectors of society. CanLit appears to be going through just such a period. And the penalties for bucking the industry’s dogmas are potentially career-ending. In the current economic climate, few writers can sustain themselves with the low piecework fees paid by magazine editors and book publishers. So if a government grant application gets rejected, or a sessional teaching appointment isn’t renewed, a writer might be out of the game permanently. (Atwood is one of the few writers with the wealth and stature to buck this pressure—which, in fact, is one of the reasons she is resented so bitterly by the industry’s ideological enforcers.)

“A writer can work for years on a book that earns them less than a couple thousand dollars in revenue,” says Cran, who served as Vancouver’s Poet Laureate from 2009 to 2011. “But through the Canada Council for the Arts and provincial funding bodies, they can secure grants for tens of thousands of dollars via peer-reviewed juries. The effect this creates in many Canadian writers is a guarded sense of self, where being ‘liked’ can matter to their career and their wallet.”

There is only one Margaret Atwood. But as CanLit’s Twitter wars show, there are hundreds of Julie Raks and Dina Del Beanos. Indeed, they sprout naturally in Canada’s intellectual soil: Our country has long been vulnerable to “tall-poppy syndrome,” by which mediocrities in a particular métier will work together to cut down the reputation of an outlier who has achieved success beyond Canada’s borders. And thanks to the modern fixation on gender and race, these poppy cutters can now cynically present their scythes as tools of social justice.

“Through social media, the minor [writer] can dominate discussions now out of all proportion to their talent or accomplishments or any other kind of influence,” says the aforementioned Ontarian writer. “They can surveil all statements made by anyone and comment on them in the most cutting and threatening way. What they are usually subtly threatening is some kind of ostracism. And so more prominent people become quite afraid of their wrath. They create a career out of their outrage and remarkably this actually works—their stature in the whole community does actually rise.”

*   *   *

In late 2016, when my then-magazine published a lengthy investigative article about Steven Galloway by Kerry Gold, I picked a title—L’Affaire Galloway—that would suggest a comparison to The Dreyfus Affair. Thanks to Émile Zola, Alfred Dreyfus eventually was vindicated and reinstated to his old job as a major in the French Army. It’s not clear whether Galloway will be so lucky.

Catholic anti-Dreyfusards continued to demonize Dreyfus even after the charges against him were shown to be baseless, because his case represented a psychologically precious validation of their belief that French society was being rotted out by “foreign” elements. They preferred to believe a convenient lie than an inconvenient truth.

L’Affaire Galloway, though obviously of much smaller historical significance, may be seen in an analogous light. Steven Galloway was a successful, internationally fêted, well-paid white male writer who also had been appointed to lead the most prestigious creative-writing program in Canada. When a woman came forward to claim that he’d done monstrous things, the claim instantly was seized on as confirmation of a wider emotional narrative that a generation of frustrated young writers had internalized (and whose contours seemed to be confirmed, in the broadcast industry, by the scandal of Jian Ghomeshi). Even if it’s a lie, it’s a precious lie. And so no one should be allowed to say that the lie isn’t true—not even Margaret Atwood.

I am not a novelist, or a short-story writer, or a poet. So no one in CanLit cares much what I think. But for what little it matters, my admiration for Atwood has only grown thanks to L’Affiare Galloway. And many years from now, when her obituary is being written, I hope she will not only be remembered as the grand dame of Canadian letters, but also as an important voice of sanity standing up to the mob.

 

Correction: March 16, 2018
An earlier version of this article misidentified Mike Spry as a writing professor and mischaracterised the relationship between Spry and Julie McIsaac as between mentor and mentee. Both Spry and McIsaac were students at the time of their relationship.

 

Jonathan Kay is a Toronto-based author, columnist and reporter whose articles have appeared recently in The AtlanticForeign AffairsNational Post and the Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @jonkay

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73 Comments

  1. Nunya Business says

    I’ve always wondered how poets make enough money to pay rent, fix their cars and buy school clothes for their kids.

    It appears they don’t. They live off the largess of others.

    What a sad existence.

    • Steven says

      Maybe in Canada, in the US for most people it’s a hobby: you do it because it’s fun and you have a job that pays the bills.

      Which should not be considered degrading, having a hobby that makes you even a few hundred a year is a nice thing to have. Being paid to do something you like should be a point of pride.

    • Felix says

      Blanch DuBoi would disagree .
      There is no sin in such arrangements .
      It give fresh doors a chance to open
      and unpleasant friends needed estrangements .

    • “They live off the largess of others.”

      Mmm, no. They mostly teach, often in low-paid adjunct positions, or teach workshops, or translate, or have other day jobs. I don’t know how the availability of grant and fellowship money in the US compares to the situation in Canada; it’s not my professional world, but most poets are not just out begging for money to write poetry.

  2. Alys Williams says

    Excellent article. I have read several of Attwood’s books. She is a superb story teller.

    • John Webster says

      I think a lot of them just have a day jobs. And if that’s what it takes for them to be able to produce works of art in their spare time, thank God they do.

      Recently, my wife introduced me to the work of A. E Stallings. I believe Stallings is a translator of Ancient Greek literature during the day and a poet by night. However she finances her creative work, I’m very glad she does.

      https://www.newcriterion.com/issues/2006/6/accident-waiting-to-happen

      I wish we could arrange our tastes and our society in such a way that poets were amply rewarded and encouraged while groping movie producers and sleazy professors were, in equal measure, discouraged. Futile, I’m sure, but we can dream.

      Anyway, I know this doesn’t have anything, or at least much, to do with the subject of the article. I just felt moved to stick up for contemporary poets.

  3. Allyson says

    Thank-you so much for writing such an honest, truthful, validated, thorough, and well researched article. You have said it all….what needs to said. Atwood is an icon, and we are lucky to have her. We are also fortunate to have other Can-Lit authors such as Ondaatje, Bowering, and the late Timothy Findley. Of course there are others, but you are right. People like Julie Raks and Dina Del Beanos appear in the dozens, and only because of the greats, not because of their own works.

  4. stephen buhner says

    Very well written and reasoned article, thank you. It took me 15 years of 6-10 hour days, 7 days a week, to make a living as a writer. I was paid $500 for my first book, which was never published as a newly hired editor, six months after the contract was signed, hated it. It takes focused and unwavering work for most writers to make it as a writer and very few become full time writers, as i am, who can live on their royalties. I have watched the shameful exploitation of university MFA programs grow more pronounced for decades. The only reason for it is the making of money, for the universities. I suspect a great deal of the rage on the part of graduates is that they bought the lie that such a program can make one a writer. The students do learn technique but very few of them can tell a decent story. In fact, never in the history of human beings have so many been so able to write well-crafted stories that no one in their right mind would ever want to read. Reading such a story is like attending a party and seeing an attractive person (male or female) across the room and discovering after two minutes of conversation that there is no internal self there, just a well dressed outside. Though some young writers do achieve riches and fame with a single book (none of the rest of us particularly like them for it) most writers have to spend a minimum of ten years before anything like success even begins to occur. I believe in the sacredness and necessity of the craft which is, at its root, a calling not a profession. Identity politics has no place in that craft, it destroys what is central to its nature. One of the great things that books do, and every writer called to the craft knows it, is to bring into intimate contact the depths of another human being. In times of despair, loneliness, being lost, confused, or uncertain, the words of strangers – long dead or still alive – have been there for each of us. They bring companionship, connection, guidance, and new ways of seeing the world and each other. They have no color or ethnicity or gender. They help in ways nothing else seems to do in the long journey to becoming human, to surmounting the difficulties of our ignorant youthfulness, to becoming something more than what we were when we began. The co-opting of the craft, of story itself, for the kinds of disgraceful political ends that are now occurring will lead no place good. And everyone of us should resist it.

    • Chester Draws says

      As a writer, I would expect use of paragraphs.

      I got tl;dr syndrome.

      • stephen buhner says

        as a writer with a million books in print, i would expect the use of whatever structure i feel like using.

      • Anthony says

        You’re not alone. Made it about two thirds of the way.

      • Yup. But HE has a million books in print! I wonder how many have been read?
        But then, I’m just a reader with a mllion words having been read. Some folks just don’t get the tl;dr syndrome.

    • There is still a few boxes of your million books in my garage. They do provide extra warmth in the woodstove on a cold winter’s night.
      They could have been donated to a third-world charity, but for what purpose?

  5. Nick says

    For anyone interested, here’s a short story Margaret Atwood wrote about censorship, ideology, and storytelling. It’s brilliant, couldn’t be more relevant: ouallinator.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/There-Was-Once.pdf

  6. An observation: Much of the literary Twitter-storming in Canada is coming from young poets and memoirists. These genres have a couple of common salient features. They are a vastly disproportionate presence in university creative writing programs, relative to their presence on the bedside tables of readers. And they are criticism-proof. A young writer learning to write novels needs to learn skills that are, if not quite measurable in a scientific sense, quite clearly present or absent in the work. It takes years of practice (and reading) to learn how to create characters that make sense, build plots that that work and that hold reader interest and then put together 100,000 words that demonstrate these skills. Not so much with memoir and poetry. Memoir has become essentially a matter of telling the story of your suffering, ideally your suffering at the hands of society. To criticize somebody’s suffering memoir then is to criticize that person. And poetry is… well, who the hell knows? Can anybody pick up a literary journal and read the published poetry and see what makes these poems better than any other poems?

    So with little or nothing to distinguish good poets or memoirists from bad ones, with no concept of literary merit as something to be earned through the acquisition of writing skill, the only way to rise in these genres is through politics. Make allies. Use Twitter. Strategically befriend other memoirists and poets and get them to support you. Become the leader of a pack of poets or mob of memoirists. Be the first and the angriest in any campaign against a perceived injustice. Organize your allies to pressure journals and festivals and universities to publish, promote or hire you. Take down people above you and rise through the literary world over the bodies of those you’ve pulled down.

    Then, as literature is seen by people outside this small subculture as nothing more than angry self affirmation and denunciation, accompanied by references to impenetrable jargon, watch as readers turn increasingly to binge-watching Neflix.

    • Johan says

      You reason like me. A very good thing…I think.
      I’ve been a compulsive reader for 40 years. Now almost given up on books. Not so much Netflix for me. Instead a constant search for podcasts. Podcasts are optimal. Walking, drivning, cooking, going to sleep…A well narrated story is always there for you.
      Skip university and creative writing…Go straight to “the web” and start your own podcast. If you’re any good you’ll make enough money. That’s the future.
      Advice to young people…Don’t go to university if absolutely have to…Doctor, lawyer etc. Waste of time and money.

    • Just so. Politics supplants talent, while “the leader of the pack” bargains in favors, creating a perpetual cycle of favor, umbrage and outrage.

  7. Anonymous says

    To the new left Atwood is one of the pigs who walks upright at the end of Animal Farm. A counter-revolutionary.

  8. People will still be reading Atwood in 100 years time – much as they still read Oscar Wilde despite all the shit thrown at him in his lifetime.

    24 hours from now most of us would have to reread this article to remember Rak’s name.

  9. Anonymous says

    Margaret Atwood is getting a taste of her own medicine. After years of criticizing the Old Boys Club etc. she has been forced to join them, cast out by her own children.

    • Steven says

      No, she is speaking her mind to those in power, just as she has always done.

      Like JK Rowling or the dozens of other “counter revolutionaries”, she is actually quite consistent. She tells people her views, and if people have a problem with that: tough.

    • Scott Rosenthal says

      With respect, I do not believe you are being entirely fair. I don’t care for much of Ms. Atwood’s work, and find her politics distinctly off-putting, but she is being castigated for an act of principle that I must say that I admire. She is standing up against mob rule and political witch hunting of the worst sort, and this is something that we should applaud. That she is doing this at no small personal cost to herself is an act that deserves our respect.

  10. Brian says

    Mr Kay produces yet another insipid criticism of the crazies seeking to erase the past. Justin Trudeau, in a previous post, and Atwood both get high praise. Atwood may write well, but she is more than a little l a little responsible for the mess she finds herself in. Praising Trudeau instantly discredits his correlary opinions. Consider the way Jordan Peterson, or Barbara Kay for that matter, would address the lunacy of Julie Raks. J Kay sounds like the main issue is Atwood’s reputation.

    • Nick says

      Jordan Peterson is a hack fraud who believes his own lies. He’s read a bit of Nietzsche, who strokes the reader’s ego, some Solzhenitsyn and some Jung, who was a hack mystic. He has already run scared from non-SJW Marxists such as Zero Books and Zizek who have asked him to debate. Why? Because he never read a word of Marx or Derrida or any of the people he blames for the kind of twattery seen on North American campuses – and neither have the SJWs that made him famous and whom he affects to despise. Maybe he does despise them – but only through the narcissism of minor differences.

      • Johan says

        And who are you, Nick, that knows what books Jordan B Peterson has read?
        Are you the “right” kind of marxist (communist?) wich there seems to be so few of?
        Why not do the same as Jordan… Show us your own view of the world om Youtube and put Jordan out of business…

        • Nick says

          I’m someone who’s read Marx, Derrida, Nietzsche, Solzhenitsyn etc and it’s painfully obvious he’s never read the first two. I’d lay a couple of grand on it. He keeps saying “the Marxists don’t want to debate him”. They do. And he’s backing away fast…. To appear on “tough” podcasts like Rebel Media and Joe Rogan … He read The Gulag Archipelago and said to himself: “Well, that’s my Marx reading done.” Consider also how Marx catches hell from him for the gulag. I disagree, but OK. But Nietzsche’s influence on Germany etc is never mentioned. Is this a rigorous academic at work? Like hell it is.
          I am neither a Marxist or a communist, and certainly not the right kind of anything. So, my YouTube career would be over before it started.

      • Big Al says

        First, no one reads Derrida. Second, Zero Books? Why would Peterson do them the favor of his attention? A little below his weight no? Third, it’s not clear what Zizek has to add – he seems like the typical past-his-prime butthurt public intellectual.

        I don’t think anyone argues that Peterson is an intellectual heavyweight. He is however a very well read clinical psychologist who has an unique handle on how political ideology affects people in the real world.

        I think Peterson is right to focus on the Marxist-flavored postmodern petty authoritarians – they’re everywhere and they ruin everyone’s fun.

        As far as true believing Marxists go – that there are still such things is both perverse and wondrous. It turns out there is no limit to the number of people that must be murdered, sent to the gulag, and immiserated before bad ideas can be disproved.

        • Nick says

          He agreed to an interview with Zero Books and then backed off. I suspect because he realised they know their onions and could have him for breakfast.
          Oh. You used the phrase butt hurt….
          Peterson tweeted at a fake Zizek account after the real Zizek wrote a small article about him and the sjw left. Peterson has legged it after Z agreed in print to the former’s suggestion of a debate.
          No one likes busybodies, left or right. But, if you’re really concerned about free speech and fun, maybe turn your ire to the end of net neutrality which, with one stroke of the pen by the right’s outrageous presidential darling, is a greater threat to those things than a million squealing sjw twerps.
          No one thinks he’s an intellectual heavyweight? You haven’t been reading the spectator et al. Or even the nyt… As for his being well read, gimme a break.
          And finally, true believing Marxists … Does Peterson’s reading of Nietzsche make him a true believing Nietzschean? And if so, can we pin the blame for WW2 on him and other such believers? No, of course not. That would be absurd – Like his complete dismissal of Marx. Ever read Plato’s Republic? How it loves dictatorship. Should we chuck out Plato? Peterson wants people to stop reading and thinking. He is only the other side of the same coin from the Atwood hating “feminists” as described in the excellent article above.
          Btw, anyone who would… identify – love that word! – as true believing Marxists loathe Derrida, Foucault and all the other “neo-Marxists”, as Peterson quaintly calls them. His ignorance of this is indicative of his general ignorance. Especially in regard to Canadian law. But we live in an age of kitsch and ignorance.

          • Wow you're so smart says

            Ah, what an intellectual we have on our hands here. Maybe instead of being bitter about the fact that no one else thinks you’re as smart as you think you are, and that JP has helped more people than you ever will, you should clean your room. You have the tone of someone who thinks that all the world’s problems are caused by other people, and none by you. Precisely the type of arrogant, small person who has an axe to grind when they see someone else doing much more than they could.

      • Jason says

        @Nick
        Jordan Peterson’s paraphrasing 2000 years of Western and Confucian thought for contemporary audiences, and declaiming post-modern sociopathy. Nothing fraudulent there.
        Speaking of frauds, “Derrida”, “Zizek”, lol.

      • Mongo says

        You’re drooling again.
        Peterson simply points out that stupid liberal ideas end in tears.

  11. Carm Hofen says

    Whatever the case may be in the Galloway matter, Margaret Atwood would appear to be acting hypocritically in other arenas. An “environmental activist,” she’s listed as a co-president of the Rare Bird Club of BirdLife International (“widely recognised as the world leader in bird conservation”) which does not seem to be the least bit troubled about the annual and ongoing slaughter of millions of birds by environmentally destructive industrial wind turbines. She’s also an honourary director of Ecojustice, a “charity” dedicated to environmental protection, which in late 2015 launched a complaint with Canada’s Competition Bureau, smearing Friends of Science, the International Climate Science Coalition, and the Heartland Institute for supposedly making false and misleading claims about climate change, asking the Commissioner of Competition to pressure the Attorney-General of Canada to lay “criminal charges against the denier groups.” Freedom of speech, anyone?

    • Ben says

      There’s the problem of tradeoffs here, unless we are willing to give up the modern world we are going to need electricity, and wind turbines are a good replacement for coal plants, even if they are displaced in the future by more cost effective solar panels or (pie in the sky) fusion.

      While it would be nice to hear her be more consistent in her stance on free speech that doesn’t invalidate her opinion here. Additionally, as an ‘honorary director’ I doubt she has any input into the day to day operation of the Ecojustice charity since she doesn’t seem to actually write any articles for them or post to their blog, but I can’t speak to that with certainty.

      Speaking of hypocrisy the friends of science seems to be a nice name for an organization that is quite focussed on cherry picking science.

    • Steven says

      Lying has consequences. If someone wrote a book claiming you were a pedophile, you would likely sue them (assuming the claim is false). The groups you mention are paid shills for the fossil fuel industry who make money misleading the public on scientific consensus.

  12. Gregory Benford says

    ATWOOD is a mountain; these are stumble-stones. “Students come out of these programs without any clue about how hard authors have to work to produce a good novel.”
    Yep!

  13. Les says

    With a nod to Dr. Jordan Peterson I am reminded of an old lobster story. A fisherman was carrying his catch of lobsters from the boat in an open bucket. When questioned on the wisdom of the practice he replied, “Don’t worry, they are Canadian lobsters. If one gets too high the others will pull him down.”

  14. This is quick observation, more a mark for further discussion as I haven’t thought this through:

    There has been a severe negative downward turn against the “legal system” [name any other cause these days, they are all being spoken of negatively]. But in terms of the legal system and how Court cases are reported in the media and generally discussed online, is that the system is fatally flawed. Recent examples include Gomeshi, Gerald Stanley (Sask), or Raymond Cormier (also Sask but could have just as easily been Anytown, Canada). These examples are fresh, but I think it is hard to argue with this point that the public at large oftentimes doubts the efficacy of the Judicial system. Even the Judicial system itself is undergoing reviews to find reform.

    It seems to me that the constant online attacks is somehow a sociological reaction to over-compensate for the flaws in our legal system. The global thought pattern may be: “Gomeshi was clearly guilty but ‘got off’, so the next time I hear of similar circumstances [Galloway?], I will make it my personal crusade to obliterate them publicly rather than give them the chance to exonerate themselves in Court.”

    Thoughts?

  15. Shannon says

    Great piece Jon. It’s astonishing how many domains, artistic and otherwise, have been co-opted by activists – where allegiance to ‘the cause’ is paramount. I suggest attending a poetry slam to have the chasm of talent separating contemporary poets from their forbears depressingly illuminated.
    It’s the least life-affirming art I’ve ever witnessed: the grievance competition that plays out over bars of a rhyme, the jockeying for position in their hierarchy of oppressions- It’s nauseous making. Good to see a sturdy diagnosis of the types trying to stain Atwood.

  16. Buzz Lightyear says

    Honestly, I think I fell asleep half a dozen times reading this.

    If you’ve got a point to make, just make it.

    Brevity, soul of wit, etc.

    This quite literally should have been one half to one third the length. Any editor worth their salt would’ve said as much.

  17. Excellent. It’s like I’ve been saying, an admission into a creative writing program engenders a misguided sense of validation. And the fact that students are paying for that validation (and universities know that there’s no shortage of those who want it) is a fact that’s become unsayable.

    I’m no expert, but I suspect this is the result of an over-active ethos of multiculturalism and too many participation ribbons being handed out in primary and secondary schools..

    These writing programs should be scrapped, or at least modified to be short, post-grad programs. A postgrad program would at least give young writers (with bachelor’s degrees) skill enough to help them write compelling stories.

    Getting over ourselves and writing about the money involved in this business might be a start; returning to a system based on merit wouldn’t hurt either.

  18. An excellent article, balanced, informative and well written. Well done Mr. Kay and Quillette for continuing to shine the light of reason on the dark and dangerous world of “ideological tribalism” and identity politics.

  19. Steve Smith says

    I now how “Due Process” is in scare quotes on the poster. We’re also seeing the words “Free Speech” bracketed by the same scare quotes more and more as we continue down the path of this intersectional dystopia. How do we bring these people back into the fold of the social contract that they’re so badly wanting to tear up?

    • Steve Smith says

      The above sentence should begin, “I *note” how…”

  20. nicky says

    Rak debating Atwood? Atwood could use the classical: “Would look good on your CV, not so much on mine.”
    However, if that debate had taken place, and was not just a make believe poster (kind of unbelievable itself), I’m quite sure that Rak would -let us keep it mild- have come second best.

  21. Jamie K. says

    Wonderful essay. Thank you.

    There’s a quality to Julie Rak’s thinking and the thinking of the group that attacks Atwood (and others) that, I have to say, is sadomasochistic to the point of being psychotic. When I saw that Dr. Lucia Lorenzi’s twitter handle was “@empathywarrior” I was reminded of a little book by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor called On Kindness which contains a section on a kind of “kindness hysteria” in, I think it was, the 19th century. People were swept up in a mass, hysterical, kindness frenzy and behaving “kind” to others in ways that were plainly destructive and sadomasochistic.

    This paragraph reflecting on Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s book The Perils of Privilege: Why Injustice Can’t be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage, gets at the core of the bad thinking (psychosis / out of touch with reality):

    “In her 2017 book The Perils of Privilege, Toronto-based writer Phoebe Maltz Bovy noted that the call-out culture of Twitter metes out especially cruel treatment to successful women—a phenomenon she traces to “the fetishization of powerlessness.” In its broadest form, this ideological fetish has metastasized into the twinned ideas that (a) anyone who has attained success should defer morally to those who haven’t, and that (b) hierarchies of merit can be understood in purely political terms, which means that successful writers such as Atwood are guilty of taking up “space” that should be given over to others—even if those others are commercially obscure and possess less talent.”

    The “fetishization of powerlessness” seems to me an astute diagnostic observation and that fetishization is one of the kernels at the core of the snowballing sadomasochism.

    This paragraph really frightens me:

    “’It is increasingly common for academics to see and teach literature as fundamentally a kind of activism, and their role as critics as an activist one as well,’ a successful Ontario-based novelist told me. ‘And there is really a very easy way of determining [a book’s value]. It is not by its content or form. It is in the identity of its author. The author’s privilege or lack of it is calculated using a simple points system, and the book’s worth is then established according to the total. A book by a straight white female author [such as Atwood] is unlikely to be considered useful to social progress, unless that author is seen to have another disadvantage such as a physical disability—and so on.’”

    It frightens me because it points to the way that good literature is at risk of being hijacked by politics at a great cost to society. Perhaps that’s always been in play though. There does often seem to be something political about a lot of great literature but I want to say that’s never been “all” that it’s been about.

    Your essay really documents well a kind of hysteria that exists on both the far left and far right. Both ends are leveraging their victimization for all they can get. The revenge of the injured on the injurer. And the S&M dance goes on. If only it were just sex play.

    • Jake Barnes says

      I regret to inform you that literature is not at risk of being hijacked for ideological purposes in the classroom; rather, this has been happening for at least 10 years. Moreover, one’s grades depend more on their politics than they do their ability to reason and form a coherent argument–especially in classes offered by “scholars” like Julie Rak.

  22. Alex Greene says

    There is definitely a market for exciting immigrant or Indigenous stories especially if you remove racist gatekeepers like Kay or his mommy.

    • Kim Kim Kim says

      Racist gatekeepers? How so? Anyway, indeed, there are Canadian writers like Joseph Boyden who sell a lot of books, and the books are interesting.

  23. Alex says

    Good article, on a very difficult topic. The mob is rarely an interesting character, even in journalism.

    It is shapeless, without leaders, and even if a guy stands out in the background, he’s a nobody with boring dreams.

    No great crime however, has ever been committed without his approval.

  24. Wayne says

    It’s interesting to see the cancer of Robespierre’s Terror infect yet another sphere.

    The guillotine is always hungry, and there is always someone behind you ready to push your head in the clamp, as you gloat about the monster you invented and slew.

  25. Winston Smith says

    This chain of events is like another GamerGate and it would not be long until the press start lumping everyone and everything under LiteratureGate as people fight back against being accused of and slandered with all the usual buzzwords.

  26. Big Al says

    I blame the academy.

    Too many useless advanced degrees handed out to mediocrities.

    The result is a class of unemployables who excel only in rock throwing.

    • Alex says

      Roaming the streets, a molotov cocktail in one hand, asking for spare change with the other.

  27. Excellent article but I think Kay overstates the importance of Canada’s professional literati. Side by side with this world of University Creative Writing graduates who understand literature as activism and a continual genuflection to the social justice gods by almost everyone in the industry, there exists an actual publishing industry primarily interested in publishing books that people actually want to read, plus of course thousands of writers who want to write those books – and are willing to put in the years or decades of work required.

  28. Heard about you from the interview with Jordan B. Peterson. After reading this article, you are now on my bookmarks for news sites – at the top. This is top-drawer writing, in an non-ideological intellectual tradition I had thought all but dead. Thank you!

  29. Pingback: An overproduction of Canadian elites featuring Scott Greenfield, a mildly canucksploitative JD-level Anglo-American elite | Murica Derp

  30. Hmm. I hate her for her anti-Americanism and for that stupid Handmaid book that wont seem to die but feeds the paranoia of idiots everywhere.

  31. You’re not doing your cause much good by condescendingly referring to Alicia Elliott as a “magazine writer” (she’s a writer, Jon, like you’re a writer) and deliberately misspelling Dina Del Bucchia’s name (Del Beano might be her play name, but it’s not yours to play with). Didn’t you learn anything from last year’s CBC conversation with Jesse Wente?

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/cultural-appropriation-media-1.4114158

    You appeared contrite then. How about now?

  32. Jennifer Bakody says

    Appreciate this well-crafted, thoughtful thread to the conversation. To Ms. Atwood, credit where credit is due – frankly, could anyone dispute her literary achievement? Achievement, however, does not make one beyond question or reproach, and not all persons who raise points that you, the author of this piece, judge to be dissenting ought to be lumped into the same basket you’ve created here – tall poppies you call it. For it is not Ms. Atwood against all others (as if all others were one monolithic unit). This is a fact. My opinion is that, at its heart, this controversy represents a shift: the overarching societal thinking of a new generation replacing the last. If so, this is called progress. For better or worse. And societal progress is – is it not – a call to action underpinning Ms. Atwood’s vast, varied and widely revered body of work? The opinions expressed in this thought-piece are well-presented. But please in so doing do not swat all others like a common housefly. We won’t kill any flies, we’ll smother the debate.

    • Jamella Hagen says

      Thank you, Michael Turner and Jennifer Bakody. I agree. I have a great deal of respect for Atwood, Ondaatje, and the greats of Canlit. I also have a deep respect for the younger writers who are speaking publicly to expand the conversation, at great personal cost. Their goal is not to take anyone down or seek attention. It’s to point out an important cultural shift in how we write and how we speak. The brilliant Dina Del Bucchia is a hardworking and generous writer…could you at least correct her name in this piece? I do appreciate this article’s calls for nuance and fair representation of facts. Similarly, let’s not lump trolling and name-calling together with legitimate and respectful debate and discussion that take place on social media.

  33. markbul says

    In The Handmaiden’s Tale, Margaret Atwood describes men as monsters – because they’re men. So now she’s tasting a bit of her own medicine and she doesn’t like it? Tough tittie.

  34. Joseph King says

    If it takes you till you’ve spent thousands on a literature degree – and a failed creative writing course – to realize that your employment opportunities are terrible, you’ve got more problems to concern yourself with than Atwoods’ opinion.

  35. Fantastic article. Thank you, Jonathan Kay, for being another voice of sanity and reason in a world that seems to be going mad.

  36. Les says

    I think Orson Welles said it best in his film “Lady From Shanghai”

    Once, off the hump of Brazil I saw the ocean so darkened with blood it was black and the sun fainting away over the lip of the sky.We’d put in at Fortaleza, and a few of us had lines out for a bit of idle fishing. It was me had the first strike. A shark it was. Then there was another, and another shark again, ’till all about, the sea was made of sharks and more sharks still, and no water at all. My shark had torn himself from the hook, and the scent, or maybe the stain it was, and him bleeding his life away drove the rest of them mad. Then the beasts took to eating each other. In their frenzy, they ate at themselves.You could feel the lust of murder like a wind stinging your eyes, and you could smell the death, reeking up out of the sea. I never saw anything worse… until this little picnic tonight. And you know, there wasn’t one of them sharks in the whole crazy pack that survived.

    Ultimately, that’s the spectacle that will unfold before our eyes.

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