Again and again Margaret Atwood told us that we didn’t have to take the bad with the good. “The accuracies and fine points in this book,” she said in her prefatory note to Survival, “were for the most part contributed by others: the sloppy generalizations are my own.” Addressing the Empire Club in Toronto recently, she called her book “. . . a rather modest literary ) endeavor . . . Published 10 years ago, no one would have noticed it.”
But as it happened Survival was published in 1972 and everybody noticed it. Nationalists greeted its appearance with joy. Globe and Mail critic William French called it the In book of the year. Others who like In things, the young and the old-enoughto-know-better alike, seemed ecstatic. There were dissenters such as poet Peter Stevens writing in the Windsor Star. In Toronto novelist Morley Callaghan permitted himself a few words of irony. Margaret Atwood herself appeared pleasantly amused. “I have continued on page 14
become a Thing,” she told her audience at the Empire Club.
What actually happened was that Margaret Atwood, 33, poet, novelist, winner of the Governor General’s Award for poetry in 1966, an editor of the small Canadian publishing house Anansi, decided to write a thematic guide to Canadian literature. She advanced the thesis that writers, especially novelists, are somewhat influenced by the country and cultural environment in which they work, and that their works in turn tend to reflect this influence. We all accept the proposition that certain works of art are Very English or Very Russian. The Canadianness of Canadian art, according to Ms. Atwood, consists of Victims being concerned with Survival. Our enemies may be nature or colonialism, but we are all victims trying to survive. This is the key pattern.
So far, so good. It may not be true, but surely this has never been a main criterion in literary criticism. Irving Layton has recently advanced the theory that all poets in Canada can be more or less put into one of the following four groups: the Loyalists, the disciples of critic Northrop Frye, the Indians and the Jews. As far as can be detected by the casual reader, he was being quite serious. (Why not? I myself have long held that there are five groups of Canadian writers: the Tall, the Short, the Corpulent, the Lean and the Ones with Dandruff. I am quite serious too.) According to Commissar Zhdanov (Stalin’s pet literary theoretician), all prerevolutionary writers could be classified as either “formalists” or “critical realists,” establishing a stronger bond between Dickens and Dostoevski than either would have presumably hoped for. Why should Margaret Atwood’s theory excite such hue and cry?
Survival is in tune with the times. This is hardly a discovery: indeed,
George Jonas is a poet and author of The Happy Hungry Man
Ms. Atwood goes to some lengths to point it out herself. Every nation has a theory of its own literature: some of the biggest nations have several. (These nations also have many warplanes and advanced systems of nuclear striking power.) The times say that if there are American, French, Russian, and for all we know Danish, Armenian and Ostyak theories of national literature, there ought to be a Canadian theory as well. Now, thanks to Survival, we have one.
The first group, then, that greeted the appearance of the book with cries of orgasmic joy were those for whom “Canadian” is a term of value judgement rather than description. They were closely followed by those who can recognize a bandwagon when they see one, and though they may require much instruction in literature, need none in the trends and fashions of the day. Survival was clearly the In book of the season, and they could be trusted to cherish whatever was In. This group noted that, apart from literary theories, Ms. Atwood seemed to be talking about many other In things, from colonialism to Women’s Lib, and even allowed the odd word of In jargon — such as “overview” — to slip into her otherwise lean and muscular prose. They concluded that she talked their language and was therefore both Safe and Good.
The next group much taken with Survival were those who actually found merit in its argument. As is often the case, this group turned out to be the least important for the notoriety of the book. In a small and admittedly unscientific survey I talked to 10 people about Survival. Seven admired the book, three hated it. Actually only two of the 10 had read it. These two, incidentally, were among the admirers.
Those who hated the book seemed to fall in two categories: the ones who are simply Out of It (as opposed to With It) and the ones who, on reflection, found it sadly wanting. These people noted that Ms. Atwood’s system seemed dogmatic and artificial, full of unforgivable omissions even for a frankly subjective study. Those given to dark and classical metaphors said it was bloodied by the torn limbs and dead bodies of those Canadian writers who couldn’t fit Ms. Atwood’s Procrustean bed. They called the most conspicuous victim of Survival Robertson Davies, whose name did not even appear in a work containing 11 references to Roch Carrier and 16 to Graeme Gibson. (This is a fascinating game: Marian Engel makes it five times, Sheila Watson six, Mordecai Richler six, and Malcolm Lowry once,
by the skin of his teeth.)
Immaterial, cry the admirers: Margaret Atwood is concerned with her particular pattern and naturally writes about those who fit it, omitting those who do not. She does not suggest that they ought, for that reason, to be omitted from the existing body of Canadian literature. “Please do not take any of my oversimplifications, etc.,” she says. (For my part I can promise that easily.)
The practical reader will now ask me to express an Opinion, not so much about the book as the controversy. Opinions have to do with Values withstanding the Test of Time. Now as Somerset Maugham pointed out (not a fashionable name, these days), posterity is maddeningly unfair in that it generally extends its grace to those who were already appreciated in their lifetime. It may not be enough to be known, but it is useful because the unknown seldom survive. And if survival is what it’s all about, for a victim to become a Thing may be a step in the right direction.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.