Last week Canadian author Margaret Atwood came to London to collect one of the highest awards Britain can give a writer. Becoming a Companion of The Royal Society of Literature, an honour bestowed on only ten writers at any one time, brought Atwood’s collection of awards to 99 – a recognition of a lifetime of writing which, so far, has resulted in over 50 works of fiction, poetry and essays.
Atwood was, of course, suitably enlightening on the usual writer’s subjects, such as how she started, her writing routine (or lack of ), and the current state of western society. But where she is especially interesting is in her role as insider-observer of more than half a century of publishing, at at time of enormous change.
In that same period, Atwood went from being a six-year-old who stitched together her own paper books in the Canadian backwoods to a world-famous seventy-something author with a passion for things digital. She has chosen to sign up to Twitter at a time when her fame could easily have freed her from all such digi-drudgery. She even devised, a few years ago, LongPen, a signature device that enables authors to sign fans’ books remotely.
In a piece for the Guardian earlier this year, she defended writing-sharing website Wattpad as a place where new writers can try their wings. Then, in what seems like a supreme act of authorial generosity, she collaborated with a younger, less established author in writing a Zombie series for the site. Launched in October, each author is contributing a chapter until the story concludes in January 2013.
Wattpad ‘can enable writing in other places where it doesn’t exist or are two expensive,’ she told her RSL audience adding that, along with other online platforms for writers, ‘Byliner fills the role that was filled by magazines in the 1960s and 1970s’.
Doubtless, her enthusiasm for innovations that can bring writers and readers together stems from her early experiences as a writer. Despite, or perhaps because of a rather isolated childhood in the woods surrounded by books, Atwood determined, at the age of sixteen, to embark on a professional writing career. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time – there was no national literature in 1960s Canada and few places for a writer to publish, on any terms. But over the decades Atwood made her way, writing a significant part of a national literature in the process.
Her own lived experience of the transformation of publishing has, it seems, allowed her to adopt a sanguine view of the digital revolution: ‘A tree falls in the forest. Other trees grow,’ she told us serenely, adding: ‘Is paper going to go away anytime soon? Actually not.’
At the same time, in other forums, Atwood has kept her acute eye on the vexed question of how writers are to earn a crust, asking: ‘Who’s going to pay for the cheese sandwiches?’