Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Non-Fiction Review: Margaret Atwood and the Labour of Literary Celebrity

For every famous author there is a score of individuals working behind the scenes to promote and maintain her celebrity status.

Margaret Atwood and the Labour of Literary Celebrity

York, L. (2013). Margaret Atwood and the Labour of Literary Celebrity. Canada: University of Toronto Press.

[Genre: Sociology, Literature]

Thanks to Netgalley and University of Toronto Press for an advanced reader copy of this title.

Margaret Atwood and the Labour of Literary Celebrity is an in-depth examination of what it takes for an author to gain and maintain celebrity status, a rarity not only in the genre of literature, but in book-writing in general. Margaret Atwood, whose work has been renowned for over three decades in both her home Canada and the wider world is an example of the 'literary celebrity.' Using unpublished material from the Margaret Atwood papers archived at the University of Toronto, York dissects Atwood's status from her support team to her use of technology.

One of my undergrad majors was sociology and I specialised in modern technology and social networking. Unfortunately, I don't get to apply the sociological side of my brain very often in my current day job, so it was so much fun to dive back into the world of Bourdieu and the rest. That being said, Margaret Atwood and the Labour of Literary Celebrity is not what I would consider a 'high academia' work. It's completely accessible to the masses and an interesting read on more than one count - I would recommend some familiarity with the works of the books subject however.

York's breaking down of Atwood's celebrity status is fascinating. She provides plenty of both historical and sociological background to her assertions; for example, a discussion of the role of Atwood's literary agents is prefaced by a lengthy analysis of the existence of the literary agent in itself and their changing role over time in the publication process. I particularly enjoyed the chapter York devotes to exploring the topic of literary celebrity in Atwood's own work. It's certainly common for writers to put some of their own experiences and thoughts into their characters and Atwood provides a particularly good example for York's study, having written multiple works that feature characters that write (such as The Blind Assassin) and works that show Atwood's own changing perspectives over time (such as Oryx and Crake in contrast to its sequel, The Year of the Flood, published nine years later).

On the other hand it sometimes felt like York was simply telling me something rather than persuading me of anything in particular. Her breakdown of Atwood's literary celebrity is interesting, accessible and well-written, but even for someone such as myself, who only has a beginner-intermediate level knowledge of both Atwood and the inner workings of the publishing industry, none of York's findings seemed to bring anything particularly new to the table. I felt like I already knew that celebrated writers rely heavily on an intricate support team and that their management or mismanagement of modern technology can have interesting consequences. I'm not particularly sure if she's achieved just a particularly subtle academic work, or something that lacks a little substance. As I'm not York's equal in academia, I feel unable to judge, but I'll be interested to read more scholarly reviews as they emerge.

Overall, 3.5 stars for an interesting, informative read, but one where I'm just not entirely sure of its worth.

Margaret Atwood and the Labour of Literary Celebrity is released on May 28th

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