There are various theories as to why Margaret Atwood was crowned as a co-winner of the most prestigious prize in English-language literature, the Booker, this week, and scrupulously snubbed by all the major Canadian awards. Her new book, The Testaments, made the Giller Prize long list and not the shortlist, and was ignored by the Governor General’s Award and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.
The most popular of these theories is the simple, old-fashioned tall poppy syndrome – the Canadian literary establishment is a bit sick of her pre-eminence and wants to move on to other heroes.
There are also those who would say that her involvement in an academic controversy a couple of years ago – her stand, on principle, for due process for dismissed University of British Columbia creative writing professor Steven Galloway – made her too politically risky. She is quite simply out of fashion in academic circles here.
It is true that the outpouring of hatred for Margaret Atwood that I have seen on CanLit Twitter in the past week is head-spinning. The feminist icon was denounced as a traitor to women and the #Metoo movement. Since then she has been showered with insults of every sort, most of them personal, but some of them seeking to show misogyny and even racism in her work, even in her most famously feminist work.
This week I have read on social media, from writers and academics, derision toward Ms. Atwood so juvenile and so crass, provoked by her international success, that one might indeed think there was some bitterness involved that isn’t exactly rational. She has been called a bootlicker of the patriarchy. There are people demanding that Canadian media not report on her win at all. New evaluations of her past work have started to surface – including the accusation that The Handmaid’s Tale “appropriates Black pain and slave narratives” (presumably because there is an underground railway for escaped handmaids in the imagined future). Was it perhaps deference toward – or fear of – this vocal group that scared the prize juries off?
It is also possible that the juries of all our major prizes have very highbrow tastes and found this fast-paced adventure novel – a book that incorporates elements of the spy novel and the thriller and includes some action escape scenes that are a little Hollywood – struck them as too commercial.
That would also, I think, be a backward attitude to take, as it would be discounting the role as popular entertainment that the novel has had since its invention, and dismissing the widespread yearnings for a return to popularity that novelists all share. And furthermore, it was just last year that a Giller jury crowned the fanciful adventure story Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan, also a novel with some action sequences that stretched the limits of plausibility. The Giller is not, in principle, opposed to the commercial.
Look, I have no idea what blend of politics and aesthetics and personal allegiances caused our various juries to interact in the way they did. The variables are too many. I have been on prize juries and I have always been surprised by what compromises are made and for what reasons.
Frequently novels that are passionately supported by just one juror – and harshly disparaged by others – make the shortlist; frequently it is everybody’s second choice that ends up the winner, as the first choices are too disparate. If one is determined to get one’s favourite horse into the race, one can easily sacrifice an extremely worthy opponent just to make room. Since the deliberations are always secret, no one will ever know the reasons.
I do not want to think that it was the Galloway controversy alone that made The Testaments too hot to handle for Canadian juries. I don’t want to believe that these things are as simply tribal as that. And after all, there were two foreign jurors on the Giller panel (Aminatta Forna and Aleksandar Hemon) who probably didn’t care about Canadian university HR regulations quite as much as our literary insiders do.
It seems likely that the Booker decision was political though: In Europe, Atwood’s Republic of Gilead setting is seen as pointed commentary on Trumpian conservatism, and so rewarding this critique is anti-American defiance. (The choice of Ms. Atwood’s co-winner, Bernardine Evaristo, the first woman of colour to win the award, is also proudly progressive.) But then again who knows – juries are volatile compounds and their reactions are fundamentally chemical.
It is just worth noticing, though, that once again we have a Canadian who is more successful outside the country than in it. That outside the country, her astounding imagination, political relevance and capacity for suspense and entertainment are seen as masterly – and the opposite of the status quo.
Here they are seen, increasingly, merely as representing a generational, ideological or social camp. From the outside, that probably looks a little odd. Maybe a little provincial.
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