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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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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