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February 22, 2011 9:49 AM   Subscribe

The anchovies are restless. Margaret Atwood, grand dame of Canadian letters, addresses the future of publishing.

Following the death of the independents, and the immanent demise of some of the major players, what is to become of the bookselling trade, and more importantly, the authors? Atwood may not have all the answers, but she has a delightful way of presenting the questions. This half hour video includes a number of great drawings by the author, and considers the options of self-publishing, collective bargaining, and the art of promotion. (Atwood, previously.)
posted by CheeseDigestsAll (44 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
She said that she doesn't usually do tech talks, as she's not a techie. I think that's part of the charm of this piece. After hearing all of the Cory Doctorow's of the world talk about content and ebooks, it's good to hear someone like her discuss it from the perspective of a user, and someone with great experience in publishing and writing.
posted by Stagger Lee at 10:07 AM on February 22, 2011


You Canadians realize that she's a national treasure, I hope?
posted by blucevalo at 10:11 AM on February 22, 2011 [8 favorites]


I like this science fiction author's drawings.
posted by interrobang at 10:12 AM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]




You Canadians realize that she's a national treasure, I hope?

I don't even particularly like her books, and I recognize it. Also our publishing industry is a disaster, though not as much so as America's, so we take what we can get.


...I like the porn cover Atwood book she showed an image of. I want a copy of that. She doesn't take herself as seriously as I always assumed she must, I like that too.
posted by Stagger Lee at 10:14 AM on February 22, 2011


You Canadians realize that she's a national treasure, I hope?

She does, at least.
posted by docgonzo at 10:20 AM on February 22, 2011 [15 favorites]


I just bought my lead-lined safe. (At least she admits you need a candle to read paper in the dark. ;)
posted by mrgrimm at 10:25 AM on February 22, 2011


From the "major players" WSJ link: "I think that there will be a 50% reduction in bricks-and-mortar shelf space for books within five years, and 90% within 10 years," says Mike Shatzkin, chief executive of Idea Logical Co., a New York consulting firm. "Book stores are going away."

Years ago, when I still worked in publishing, I met Mr. Shatzkin, and found him to be an amiable and knowledgeable guy, but these "statistics" are just made up and thus totally useless.

Also, regarding the Borders bankruptcy (though someone probably said as much on the recent thread about it, which I missed): back in the mid to late 1990s Borders and B&N were in a war of attrition, and it was obvious to many people that they had over-saturated many markets (in Albany, NY a Borders and a B&N opened literally across the street from each other around the same time, and this was typical in towns across the U.S.).

So I really think Borders closing is more a correction than a sign of immanent doom for book publishing. Yes e-book sales will continue to gnaw away at traditional book sales, and there will be other market corrections (given the overall economy and continued generational/cultural shifts to new media), but the incessant doom-ism about the future of books in general (mostly among publishing industry types) is, IMO, largely unwarranted.
posted by The Emperor of Ice Cream at 10:26 AM on February 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


She's pretty smart for a genre science fiction writer.

(Sorry, longstanding grudge against Margaret Atwood compels me to refer to her condescendingly as a science fiction writer whenever her name comes up.)
posted by Naberius at 10:29 AM on February 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


All Atwood threads must acknowledge rocket88's comment on Atwood's true vocation.
posted by suckerpunch at 10:34 AM on February 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


My favorite part was when she talked shit about TV.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:36 AM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


I love Margaret Atwood so much it may actually be illegal.

And, to her eternal credit, she probably gets to win a toaster oven for converting me from a Catholic into an atheist when I was in 10th grade. At a Catholic high school.

I can't remember why I originally picked up "The Handmaid's Tale", but it almost certainly wasn't out of any kind of feminist awakening. At that point in my life, my sense of social justice extended only to the easy targets, like "people who aren't white" and "people who like people with similar sexy bits". Women still fell into the category of "doing just fine unless they aren't white or like other women and/or both".

It may have been the cover art, which was that marvelously evocative picture of the Handmaids next to the wall. It definitely wasn't from our school library (again, Catholic school, and the head librarian was, shall we say, nothing like our own beloved jessamyn). I checked it out from the Public Library, took it home with a stack of other books, and didn't get to it until midweek.

I remember that it was midweek because it was, in some ways, the Wednesday That Changed Everything in terms of my relationship to religion. I was a Catholic on Tuesday. I read The Handmaid's Tale on Wednesday. By Thursday, I was well on my way to atheism.

I had for the first time fully realized that if I drew a straight line from the things that the Catholic Church was telling us, it wound up deep in the same neighborhood as Atwood's book.

We were at that point being vigorously indoctrinated with the notion that abortion was murder, and that women who had abortions were to be reviled in the most absolute sense. There was no middle ground to be had. And no right-thinking Catholic could countenance anything short of total war.

The underlying message was unsubtle, and delivered by priests and nuns, along with some lay artillery. Women, or at least their reproductive functions, were the property of the majority. The womb was, in some way, a sort of Vaticanate: a Catholic property surrounded by fractious and unpredictable regions. The reasoning seemed to be that if we could not convince the woman to be less irrational and emotional and wedded to these absurd notions of independence, we could at least lay claim to the important bits.

This message had always kind of bugged me, because it didn't really square with the personalities of my female friends and relatives, but the overarching moral message trumped it. Better to be assured of Heaven than go to Hell, or something along those lines. Groupthink had me at hello, and I was well on my way to being a soldier in the God Machine.

My awakening came because of Atwood. Somehow, I'd managed to go along to get along, following the unquestioning litany along with most of my classmates. Apparently, all it takes is the right heresy at the right time, and I am forever grateful to Atwood for loaning me some enlightenment when I most needed it.
posted by scrump at 10:41 AM on February 22, 2011 [22 favorites]


interrobang: "I like this science fiction author's drawings."

Then you'd love her superhero costume designs.
posted by maudlin at 10:41 AM on February 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


I refuse to watch this until someone assures me that she sings, "Anchovies, anchovies, you're so delicious; I love you more than all the other fishes" somewhere in the middle of it.
posted by adipocere at 10:43 AM on February 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


Then you'd love her superhero costume designs.

Oh, I do.
posted by interrobang at 10:44 AM on February 22, 2011


OMG -- Peggy sings! Mostly on key, too. (Not being bitchy. I am damn proud that my country gave this guy a Juno for best male vocalist.)
posted by maudlin at 10:49 AM on February 22, 2011


A friend sends along notes from an interview w/ Atwood: Auctoresse speketh funnyliche, defyneth manye termes.
posted by grobstein at 10:53 AM on February 22, 2011


I was always really creeped out by the way she sounded as though she couldn't move her lips when she talked.

Having said that, she seems funnier and less cranky in recent years.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 11:22 AM on February 22, 2011


She does, at least.

National treasures are often funny that way, yes.
posted by blucevalo at 11:30 AM on February 22, 2011


I think a lot of people are poking fun at Atwood's aversion to being classified as a SciFi author (Naberius), but she prefers the term 'Speculative Fiction'. I really don't care one way or the other, I just remember reading about it a while ago and thought I'd bring it up... I rarely have the opportunity to add anything to a conversation.
posted by modelenoir at 11:35 AM on February 22, 2011


This is utterly AWESOME. Can't decide if the "Change is not always good" or the dead moose drawing is my favorite. Really sound talk on the subject too, without the usual rah rah or doom doom.

Is she channelling this laid-back zany side in her more recent books? Because she should. I can picture a sort of Young Jane Austen/Terry Pratchett/George Eliot mashup, it would be killer.
posted by Erasmouse at 11:36 AM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


"science fiction"

That's 'speculative fiction' if you please...
posted by PenDevil at 11:39 AM on February 22, 2011


The timing of this post is uncanny. I've been on a reading binge on my train commutes after suffering through two inglorious months of having to drive to work for scheduling reasons, and I decided to reread The Handmaid's Tale, I book I last read back in the late eighties, and finished it on the ride this morning. In my idealistic youth, with the Reagan years raging, it seemed like a pretty good statement on the times. Now...hmmm.

Sitting on the train, I've been astonished at what a hamfisted, tone deaf screed it is. I'm crazy liberal on social matters, agnostic trending atheist, a serious critic of organized religion, a difficult queer, and as feminist as you can get while in possession of a dick, and this thing just reads like a Chick tract rotated 180 degrees in four dimensional space. There's just nothing about the formation and future history of the Republic of Gilead that reads true to me, current tea party nonsense notwithstanding, and the further in I got, the more it felt like a propagandistic shock travelogue written by someone trying to describe another country solely by watching that country's TV programs. It left such a bad taste in my mouth I'm planning to refresh my palate by rereading The Female Man. Hell, even Ecotopia and Hello America presented more believable backstories for their respective utopia/dystopias, and they're both pretty transparent in their social commentary.

At the same time, anytime I hear her interviewed, I have to she's just a great speaker and a serious thinker, with a wry sense of humor and some really thought-out and insightful points to make, so I just don't get the disconnect. Am I missing some major piece of the puzzle here, or is THT just not aging very well? Maybe it's just me.
posted by sonascope at 11:42 AM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's entirely possible that THT was well thought out for its time and made its points well at the time, but now enough of what it had to say has been incorporated into your psyche or the culture at large that it feels less fresh now than it used to.

I know there are plenty of books which struck me as deeply profound 20 years ago that feel completely ham-fisted to me now. Whether that's because I've matured, the writing was really awful and I was in the thrall of new ideas, or what... I've never really determined very well.

Or, maybe it's just you. :)
posted by hippybear at 11:46 AM on February 22, 2011


I think, sonascope, you're also seeing the difference between Atwood in her early fourties and Atwood at 71. She's mellowed at lot in the past ten years.
posted by bonehead at 11:48 AM on February 22, 2011


Well of course bookstores are doomed, as the book is doomed, as is the landline, "television" and nearly every familiar thing in our world. Anyone with an ounce of prescience can see that the internet will really -- and not figuratively or in some exaggerated sense -- change everything (not "everything" but, every thing). When the pre-internet generation and their children die off, the cultural, physical and technological world will have moved so far beyond anything we recognize now that most of us will be glad to not have lived to see it. I mean, when the culture is permitted to evolve free of our pre-internet nostalgia, all of these knobby little objects around us will disappear so fast we won't know what hit us.
posted by Faze at 11:50 AM on February 22, 2011 [5 favorites]


sonascope, I'd refer you to the Suck Fairy, but I still haven't figured out whether it's a useful critical metaphor or a pernicious slippage of agency. Great video, by the way. Giggling ever since the NOT ALL CHANGE IS GOOD slide. Thanks!
posted by kipmanley at 11:53 AM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]



At the same time, anytime I hear her interviewed, I have to she's just a great speaker and a serious thinker, with a wry sense of humor and some really thought-out and insightful points to make, so I just don't get the disconnect. Am I missing some major piece of the puzzle here, or is THT just not aging very well? Maybe it's just me.


It's not as faced paced and compelling as a lot of modern stuff. Reminds me a lot of Ursula K LeGuin. But the way it described and explained the rise of a reactionary government was just brilliant. It handled the political mechanisms and alienation of racism, sexism, etc shockingly well, without falling prey to the usual hyperbole and hollywood nonsense most works dealing with the subjects fall for.
posted by Stagger Lee at 12:02 PM on February 22, 2011


the way it described and explained the rise of a reactionary government was just brilliant.

I read the book fairly quickly a long time ago, but what resonated for me was not the speculative society, but the reactions to it by the women. (It's kinda like a zombie apocalypse that doesn't explain itself, i.e. any of them.)

I guess that the backstory to the fucked-up institutionalized society wasn't as interesting to me (i.e. I don't really care that it couldn't really happen in real life) as what the characters did within the framework.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:27 PM on February 22, 2011


Well of course bookstores are doomed, as the book is doomed, as is the landline, "television" and nearly every familiar thing in our world. Anyone with an ounce of prescience can see that the internet will really -- and not figuratively or in some exaggerated sense -- change everything (not "everything" but, every thing). When the pre-internet generation and their children die off, the cultural, physical and technological world will have moved so far beyond anything we recognize now that most of us will be glad to not have lived to see it. I mean, when the culture is permitted to evolve free of our pre-internet nostalgia, all of these knobby little objects around us will disappear so fast we won't know what hit us.

Jack Mason awoke from an especially exciting dreamgame to a quiet, empty serverspace. The mailstorm, noting the moment of fullconscious log-on, began to assail him with simulacra of his enjoyment of future purchases, but he paid the waivemoney and killed the audio so he could stumble to his kitchen and obtain the one thing he needed most: internetcoffee.
posted by clockzero at 12:47 PM on February 22, 2011 [2 favorites]



It's entirely possible that THT was well thought out for its time and made its points well at the time, but now enough of what it had to say has been incorporated into your psyche or the culture at large that it feels less fresh now than it used to.


No, she completely failed to comprehend evangelical/fundamentalist christianity in the U.S. I don't think she was really trying: the point was to give a chilling portrait of patriarchy. The Republic of Gilead was more like what if the original massachusetts bay colony puritans took over crossed with Khomeini's Iran.

I always thought this was a shame because there's a lot to be learned by speculating on what a real Christian States of America would look like. I've always felt that fundamentalist christianity in the US has a real reverence for power built into it's sermons. victories of faith are also victories of the will (over the weaknesses of sin and sinners) and the gospel of salvation has shifted from eschatology to power in this world: by making yourself a slave to an all-powerful god you obtain the power to remake your life in this world. plus, i'm not sure what place there is for sinners/unbelievers when you are building the kingdom of heaven.

but that's a bigger story than just patriarchy and it's discontents. a Christian States of America would probably not look like a theocratic republic. more like "Triumph of the Will" as reimagined by Mike Judge.
posted by ennui.bz at 1:12 PM on February 22, 2011 [4 favorites]


a Christian States of America would probably not look like a theocratic republic. more like "Triumph of the Will" as reimagined by Mike Judge.

Or will look a lot like Year Zero, as imagined by Trent Reznor. Actually a pretty terrifying vision all around.
posted by hippybear at 1:29 PM on February 22, 2011


There's just nothing about the formation and future history of the Republic of Gilead that reads true to me, current tea party nonsense notwithstanding,

So, current realities notwithstanding, she did a poor job of predicting a dystopic future 25 years ago? That's a pretty damn huge "notwithstanding" clause. Is that a subtle Trudeau joke, or am I just a little too Canadian?
posted by mek at 1:37 PM on February 22, 2011


So, current realities notwithstanding, she did a poor job of predicting a dystopic future 25 years ago? That's a pretty damn huge "notwithstanding" clause. Is that a subtle Trudeau joke, or am I just a little too Canadian?

Are you trying to argue that THT's predictions should be credited because the present Tea Party movement somehow resembles the historical roots sketched for the Republic of Gilead? Because it doesn't, at all, except that both are right-wing and have populist elements.
posted by grobstein at 1:50 PM on February 22, 2011


Are you trying to argue that THT's predictions should be credited...

I think what some (at least I) are arguing that the success or failure of the predictions about the future of society has very little to do with the success of the novel. I'm not Atwood, but I would certainly bet that she was not trying to predict the future with that novel.

See also: Infinite Jest.
posted by mrgrimm at 1:55 PM on February 22, 2011 [3 favorites]


It seems like a stretch to read that sentiment into mek's comment, mrgrimm, but I sort of agree with you. Nonetheless The Handmaid's Tale seemed pretty heavy-handed to me.

(I do think a speculative dystopian future trades to some extent on a feeling of plausibility. Post-nuclear stories became popular when the threat of nuclear war seemed relevant, for example. Science fiction is generally set in a future that we understand could evolve from our time, sometimes with conscious or unconscious fudging. But I certainly agree that this sort of verisimilitude is not always important.)
posted by grobstein at 2:02 PM on February 22, 2011


I guess the thing that gets me with visions of a theocratic America is that there will never, ever be a collection of fundamentalist/traditionalist/atavist American christians large enough to run the place without disintegrating into savage sectarian infighting, and the people that entertain that dystopian fantasy really don't understand the cultures they're extrapolating. The Tea Party exists in a sort of weird limbo where they're led by a mormon, whose religion is the satanic anathema to fundamentalism, boosted by catholics, whose religion is the satanic anathema to fundamentalism, and organized by Calvinist adherents to atheist philosophers, whose lack of religion is the satanic anathema to fundamentalism. Believing that, somehow, the liberal nightmare of fundamentalist unification is just going to overwhelm the insurmountable ideological boundaries between competing backward systems indicates a lack of understanding of how these boundaries work.

I think she misread the pathologies of extreme American faith communities because she isn't writing about the America that actually existed under Reagan, even in the worst of that mess—she seems to have believed the Moral Majority's official PR, and taken it at face value that Americans were just steps away from a single common belief system. We weren't there then, we're even less so now, despite the Tea Party's bullshit PR that they're the true face of most Americans.

It may well be that the book doesn't need to seem real to tell a good story, but for me, the jarring parallel universe of Atwood's America just breaks the fictional dream. Your mileage may vary and I'll readily admit that I probably need to read more of her work, but this revisiting didn't end well for me.

That said, I don't mean to derail, so I'll point out that on the other hand, I found the video itself to be fun and insightful. I wish Mr. Doctorow and more of his ilk would take the time to present these ideas in a way as nuanced and accessible as this.
posted by sonascope at 2:03 PM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, don't mistake theological nit picking for political power grabbing. I don't think the tea party is necessarily the correct vessel to carry out a theocratic revolution, but I don't doubt that it could happen. It would probably parallel the rise of fascism in Europe in the early part of the 20th century, with a minority person getting elected to a minor position of power and then leveraging it into national dominance through a combination of manufactured crisis and opportunistic power grabbing afforded via outside events. There's enough of a common base amongst the religious about what is actually going wrong with our country that plenty of them would welcome things like strict government controls over television, movies, arts in general, abortion, expression by the general public and the like.

It would the resulting division of the populace into Us and Them which would result in the greatest harm to society. Tools such as social networking could easily be used to determine who should be on the in-crowd and who not, and then great societal pressures would be applied to get as many of the Them to defect to join the Us as possible, and then the rest would be sidelined to the point of obscurity by laws which establish the Us as being the only true citizens and establish the Them as outlaws.

Think of it as how America currently works with corporations and the top 5% of the income earners, only applied based on whether you're willing to join the official belief system when it's something other than capitalism.

It's entirely possible. Probably not conforming to Atwood's vision, but certainly could be right around the corner.
posted by hippybear at 2:26 PM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


And, to her eternal credit, she probably gets to win a toaster oven for converting me from a Catholic into an atheist when I was in 10th grade. At a Catholic high school.

That's pretty funny. The Handmaid's Tale was required reading at my Catholic high school.
posted by emeiji at 3:25 PM on February 22, 2011


If I remember correctly, Gilead was just one part of a larger USA that we don't get any info about. I could totally see that happening. See that New Hampshire project, but after a global catastrophic reproductive event.
posted by mrgrimm at 3:38 PM on February 22, 2011


Well of course bookstores are doomed, as the book is doomed, as is the landline, "television" and nearly every familiar thing in our world.

"television" is doomed kinda like "movies" were thought to be doomed half a century or so ago when television came along. Doomed to not remain in a static form forever.

Actually, in loose theory everything which has ever existed or will exist is doomed. Just a matter of time.
posted by ovvl at 4:17 PM on February 22, 2011


I'll reiterate: I think Atwood deserves a Nobel prize for her mastery of diverse literary forms. Many people may dislike her Ms. Smartypants attitude, but she has the power to express ideas in words which are concise and darkly funny, to perfectly deadly effect.

The Handmaid's Tale is not my favourite book of hers, I actually came down with an awful flu while reading it, which made it seem to me a bit too overwhelming, (though I did like the film version with Natasha Richardson). It reminded me a bit of Heinlein's American Theocracy stories, but better-crafted.

Also, I really liked Oryx and Crake.
posted by ovvl at 4:49 PM on February 22, 2011


The Handmaid's Tale was required reading at my Catholic high school
Mine too. I think of Serena Joy whenever I read about women who are trying to preach themselves out of a job: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/14/magazine/14evangelicals-t.html
posted by betweenthebars at 4:54 PM on February 22, 2011


That's pretty funny. The Handmaid's Tale was required reading at my Catholic high school.
To be clear, I should say that the narrow-band, blinkered Catholics I encountered in my high school were later in my life offset (and very much so) by many other Catholics.

It wasn't my intention to tar all Catholics with a loose brush. I apologize to anyone I may have offended: anyone with even a remedial understanding of Liberation Theology knows that Catholicism is neither simple nor monolithic.
posted by scrump at 5:07 PM on February 22, 2011


I saw this talk in person and she absolutely killed. It's unfortunately rare that fiction authors are invited to speak at publishing events. The few authors who keynote are usually of the self-promoting marketing/self-help kind, and her nuanced view of technology and its effect on authorship was very welcome.

She also attended Book Camp, an "unconference" that preceded the Tools of Change keynote. She was an active participant in the sessions and wrote about the experience in her blog.

Atwood also wrote a follow-up post about the actual Tools of Change event: The Publishing Pie.
posted by nev at 6:01 PM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


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