The Canadian Bookseller’s Association awarded Margaret Atwood a Lifetime Achievement Award at their national conference on June 3, 2012. We are pleased to share Atwood’s acceptance speech with you.
I’m extremely honoured to be receiving this CBA Lifetime Achievement award. And thank you to all in the community who have been part of this lifetime in books—including my family—Graeme Gibson, my political advisor, who frequently says “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” and once kept me from running for Mayor of Toronto by commenting, “That would be a Norman Mailerish kind of thing to do;” and my daughter, Jess Gibson, an early and very astute reader of my work in draft.
And my fellow writers throughout the years—I first met Michael Ondaatje when he was 18, if you can imagine that; and the many booksellers; and the publishers; and the editors, two of whom are here tonight—Louise Dennys, and Ellen Seligman, without whose reading glasses I would be unable to make this speech. Thank you to all.
Though I’m finding the term “Lifetime Achievement” increasingly ominous these days. Possibly it means, “All right, that’s enough lifetime for you—now you’ve achieved it. Time to shut up.”
As the years speed by, and as one receives awards impossible to bestow upon anyone under, say, sixty, one begins to feel more and more like the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who ordered in his will that after his death he should be stuffed by a taxidermist and wheeled out every year to attend a dinner in his own honour—which request has been annually fulfilled, though bits are now beginning to fall off Jeremy.
Bits do begin to fall off—it’s inevitable—though I hasten to assure you that it was not my foot that was sent recently to the Conservative Party of Canada. I have not yet reached that stage.
We do however live in perilous times. Perilous in many ways; but, specifically, perilous for booksellers. I’ll get to the perilousness in a minute, but first, some nostalgia:
My own bookselling activities began in 1961, when, together with a friend, I hand–set my first poetry collection and printed it on a flatbed press. It had seven poems, and we didn’t have enough a’s, so we had to disassemble each poem before we could set the next one. The cover was printed from a lino–block, and the pages were rubber–cemented in—a mistake, as the rubber cement dried out shortly thereafter and the pages fell out. We made 200 copies of this book—wish I’d kept more of them, considering the increase in value—and went around to bookstores in Toronto, which were all indies then, except for Coles, which didn’t sell many Canadian books anyway. Some of the booksellers were kind enough to let us put these little books of mine on the magazine rack, where they sold for 50¢—we wrote the price on with a pencil. So that was my first bookselling adventure.
Then came the House of Anansi poetry years. By this time it was the later 60s, and the dreaded book tour was beginning to take shape. It was mostly poets—prose readings were in the future, and would arrive with the advent of the Literary Festivals that germinated right here in Toronto, with spores from the Bohemian Embassy and cross–fertilization from Adelaide eventually sprouting as Greg Gatenby’s Harbourfront International Writers’ Festival, and then spreading all over the world. But in the later sixties it was still only poets, travelling mostly on trains and buses from event to event, like the minisingers of old, and quite frequently sleeping on one another’s floors. And eating in greasy spoons. Horrifying fact: in those days there were no lattes.
The poets carted their own books around with them and sold them in person at their readings, which were sometimes in high school gyms and sometimes at universities—not yet at bookstores; bookstore readings came in the 70s. There were no credit cards yet: we collected the actual money in brown paper envelopes and took it back and handed it to the publishers. So that was my second bookselling adventure.
My third bookselling adventure came when I published my first novel, with McClelland and Stewart. It had been finished in 1965, but Jack McClelland had misplaced the manuscript, after the firm had already said they’d publish it. I knew nothing about big–company publishing then—but did it usually take that long? However, I then—surprisingly—won the Governor General’s Award for my first book of poems, The Circle Game, and Jack McClelland read an interview about it in the paper. (The interview was done by a returning Vietnam war correspondent. There was 27–year–old me in my orange mini–dress and black fishnet stockings, there was battle–hardened him, and neither of us knew what to say. Finally he blurted out, “Say something interesting. Say you write all your poetry on drugs.”)
The article in the paper revealed that I had an unpublished novel, and Jack wrote and asked to see it. I told him the company had been seeing it for several years, at which point Jack said we should have a drink. We had one—or I had one—and Jack blamed the disappearance of the manuscript on a woman who’d got pregnant; well, you know how that addles their brains. (In reality the manuscript was sitting on the floor of Jack’s office, under a lot of other paper. I was unsympathetic when I found this out—being young—but now that I lose things in my own office under a lot of other paper, I am more indulgent.)
So all was resolved, and the book came out in the fall of 1969. I was living in Edmonton at the time, and I did my first professional book signing in the men’s sock and underwear department of the Hudson’s Bay Company, thus frightening a lot of men who’d come in to have a peaceful experience with the jockey shorts and instead got ambushed by me, peddling a tome called The Edible Woman. A lot of galoshes went flapping off in the opposite direction, I can tell you. At last I was a published novelist, but was I now going to spend my life waylaying men in the socks department? I hoped not.
It was in Edmonton, too, that I discovered the bookstore as haven. Hurtig’s bookstore—run by Mel Hurtig—was a small oasis in a place and at a time that did not afford too many of them to artsy–fartsies from the distrusted Toronto. In the 70’s there were a lot of bookstore havens—in Toronto alone, for instance, the Longhouse Bookstore of glorious memory, Pages, Brittnell’s, The Book Celler. Books and Books. Many of them have gone to Bookseller Heaven, where they have been rewarded by a clientele that never asks for a book they don’t have, never pilfers, and never shouts at the booksellers or throws things at them. I burn a candle in their memory. Let us not forget that even now it is the indie bookstores who are most likely to discover and promote young, promising writers from smaller and more literary presses in Canada. They are the openers of doors.
Skip ahead ten years or so, to a time when Jack McClelland had made some kind of truce with the ornery Jack Coles, the upshot of which was that his authors were slotted into various Coles bookstores across the land to do signings. It was thus that I found myself in a Coles in a suburban mall in Winnipeg on a Tuesday afternoon. There was no one in the bookstore. There was no one in the mall. I sat at my little table piled hopefully with copies of Bodily Harm, wondering why I couldn’t give my books more appealing titles, such as How To Make Lots of Money, Have Great Sex, Be Universally Adored, and See God—playing with my rollerball or similar pen, and reciting to myself some bracing lines from Marlowe’s play, Doctor Faustus—“Why, this is Hell, nor am I out of it.” Finally the door opened and a lone man came in. Plonk, plonk, plonk, went his feet on the floor. He was walking right towards me! Brightly I smiled. He leaned over the table. “Where’s the Scotch Tape?” he inquired. “I think it’s at the back,” I said. And that was it. My forty–fourth bookselling adventure.
So much for the nostalgia—which is one thing the recipients of Lifetime Achievement Awards are supposed to deliver. They are also expected to say a few cheering and encouraging words about the future—a future at which they will most likely not be present except in a stuffed form, so they will never be held accountable for whatever predictions they make. Thus, always fun and safe for the predictor; though not always for the predictee.
Skip ahead to the present. Everything in Bookworld has changed; or enough has changed to make an always difficult business even more difficult. Gone are the days of the clay tablet, the papyrus, the scroll, and the first codex books on scraped calfskin. Gone are the days of first-blush Gutenberg, when the printer, publisher, and bookseller were the same entity, thus causing printers to be disemboweled for selling seditious pamphlets—hey, some things have improved for booksellers, at least temporarily! Gone too the advent of the first literary periodicals, once disruptive; and the rise and rise and rise of the big newspapers; and the invention of the glossy magazines; and the domination of the mass–market paperback book; and the novelty of quality trade paperbacks.
Yet more changes are predicted. Not a day passes without a new blog or online publication offering a gloomy scenario about real literature turning to confetti, or the death of the paper book, or the demise of bricks and mortar bookstores; or screeds about the all–conquering Amazon, which, having rolled the dice—Alea iacta est, as Caesar said as he crossed the Rubicon on his way to becoming a military dictator—is now bestriding “the narrow world like a colossus, and we petty authors, publishers and booksellers Walk under its huge legs and peep about To find ourselves dishonourable graves. (As Cassius says, more or less, in Julius Caesar; continuing: “The fault… is not in our stars, But in ourselves…”)
Things are in flux, to be sure. On the other hand, various shades of grey just sold five million hardbacks. On the other hand, those who buy more ebooks also seem to buy more paper books. On the third hand, large paper sales lead to large e–sales: the two seem joined at the hip. On the fourth hand, how do readers find books? How do people know what they want to read? From reviews, yes. From book clubs of various kinds, yes. From lateral recommendations via social media, yes. But the serendipity factor still comes largely from bookstore visits. It is there that you find the unknown unknowns—the books you didn’t even know you wanted. Now we are told that Amazon itself, having declared war on bookstores, may be about to open—a bookstore! What? Where? Why? My head is spinning.
And what about the much–disputed tug of war between e–forms and paper forms?
In my novel Oryx and Crake, the non–hero, Jimmy—a wordsmith who memorizes obsolete locutions—briefly has a job destroying paper books in a library. (He’s no good at it because he can’t throw anything out.) In the future, we are told, everything, but everything, will be online, and physical books will have gone the way of the dodo. But not so fast. First, who’s telling us that? Those who’d stand to profit, and have already profited. Second, the neurologists are now probing the difference between reading on the page and reading on a device or online. There is a difference for the brain, it seems, and that is one of depth and retention; and these are just the early findings. There has to be a reason why schools in Silicon Valley are not letting kids get their hands on computers before the age of eight. Third, anything in the world of e has a limited shelf life. The devices change—where are the music tape cassettes of yesteryear? In the same place the CDs of today may shortly be, once companies change the playing devices. And what did happen to all those floppy disks you once worked so hard with a hairpin to unstuck from your tiny–screened early PC? You can’t read them now. And all the rest of the seemingly–eternal devices will follow, because profits depend on planned obsolescence.
And, however it’s served up, electronic data is highly vulnerable, because it’s so easily degradable. Some are already predicting a black hole of information, wherein our entire history, having been digitized, will vanish. I ran a blog post two years ago called “Three Reasons to Keep Paper Books.” They were not the usual reasons—“I love the lush, sumptuous smell of new paper,” “I can give them as gifts,” “I hate e-reading,” “I can get paper books wet in the bath,” and all the rest. They were:
1. Solar flares—a good dose of them wipes electronic data.
2. Grid brownout and collapse—the electrical grid on this continent is fraying at the edges already, and the drain on it via computing devices is enormous; and all things e depend on massive supplies of cheap energy, reliably delivered.
3. Internet overload. As the net expands, its capacity must be increased and increased. Which in theory it can be, via more server farms, but they are still vulnerable to 1 and 2. And bandwidth itself is not unlimited. (A hazard just mentioned by David Pogue in The New York Times.).
When the power goes off, you won’t be able to read on your e–device once the battery runs out. But you can read a paper book without constant energy input. Not only that, they make great insulation, and—in a pinch—good kindling. The best choice for readers is both: e–forms, for rapidity of access, searchability, and portability; and paper forms, for in–depth reading, durability, and tangibility. Most readers want both. And the best choice for booksellers and publishers is to be able to provide both.
What both forms deliver is stories. It is not stories themselves that are in any way threatened. Storytelling—narration, whether fictional or non–fictional—will not disappear as long as there is human language. As Robert Bringhurst has said in his very suggestive book, The Tree of Meaning, “Stories are the reproductive organs of languages.” They are how language transmits itself. Narration is built into us; it’s most likely one of the evolved adaptations that were selected for in the Pleistocene because of the survival value they conferred, and it is thus very ancient, and resides at the core of our humanity. We understand our world through the stories we tell ourselves and one another about it.
One rationalization going around is that since people are natural story–tellers, they will tell stories anyway—everyone does, unless they’ve lost their short–term memory—and they will do it for nothing, so why pay? The online world swarms with websites and social networks devoted to this proposition, and very successful some of them are. In the equation A via B to R, in which A is the author and R is the reader, B stands for any mode of transmission, including the traditional publisher–distributor–bookseller chain, but also including the online site–device–connection provider chain. Two tin cans and a string, as in those walkie–talkies people of my age made as kids; and it’s the string that’s under dispute, because it’s the string that’s been making the money. Some would like the string to make more money by having the author make less, or none; others have recognized the value of “content providers”—don’t you love the idea of, say, Tolstoy, as a content provider?—and are luring authors to their own bit of string with promises of more pie. Or at least some pie. As an author, I’m not against that. But it is always R—the reader—who pays. Even if books are so–called “free,” R is paying for the device, the connection bill, and so forth. All string money comes from R. Without R there would be no string.
So what should booksellers do? Foster R, to be sure—help the spread of literacy and reading as much as they can—but also, improve their string. Show the value they add to readers and writers both, and then add more value. And we must recognize that we’re all in this together—writers, string providers, and readers. It’s a triangle, it’s always been a triangle, and without one corner—any one corner—the other two cannot stand. And the sooner we all recognize and honour that triangular situation, the better things will be for all.
I’d conclude with some words about the importance of reading, and of choice, and of the absence of censorship, and of the evils of monopolies, but I’m sure you know all that. So I will simply say: Thank you very much for this touching honour. It’s been a grand journey—the journey of the bookfolk—and it continues. Long may you all be traveling companions upon it. As for me—let me quote the great Russian content provider, Alexander Pushkin, from his Farewell to the Reader at the end of Eugene Onegin:
Whoever you are, my dearest reader,
Friend, enemy, n’importe qui,
Let me part with you equitably.
Farewell. Whatever you have sought from me…
I hope you will find a grain or two.
With that we part. And farewell to you!
Thank you, very much, again.
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