Publishing

Queen of the Booker

On her fourth try, Margaret Atwood wins the big prize

Brian Bethune November 20 2000
Publishing

Queen of the Booker

On her fourth try, Margaret Atwood wins the big prize

Brian Bethune November 20 2000

Queen of the Booker

Publishing

Margaret Atwood was delighted, but so unprepared she was without a thank-you speech. Most of Canada just seemed delighted, “floating on air,” as Atwood’s longtime editor Ellen Seligman described the atmosphere at publisher McClelland & Stewart on Nov. 7. After three previous tries, the nation’s most prominent novelist finally won the world’s most prominent Englishlanguage literary award, Britain’s $47,000 Booker Prize. “I was truly, truly surprised,” Atwood told Macleans. “That made it all the sweeter. It’s a great relief I’m not in headlines again with Atwood fails to win Booker.’ ” Self-deprecating and composed as the author was in public, Atwood’s elation was obvious to friends. “She phoned me late that night,” says Seligman, “and if you could see someone glow over a transatlantic line...”

For all the acclaim, though, Atwood’s win for The Blind Assassin—following fruitless nominations for The Handmaid’s Tale (1986), Cat’s Eye (1988) and Alias Grace (1996)—also set off an undercurrent of grumbles. While the Booker jury praised The Blind Assassin, an epic tale about a once-wealthy family in fictional Port Ticonderoga, Ont., as “far-reaching, dramatic and structurally superb,” the book is not most critics’ favourite among the author’s 10 novels. A review in the influential New York Times, in fact, was scathingly negative. So on both sides of the Atlantic, observers murmured that the award was more of a lifetime-achievement gesture than a justified homage to a single novel. Atwood, who turns 61 on Nov. 18, was amused enough by the suggestion to respond: “I think they’re relieved they did this before I toppled into the grave.” But later, she returned to the idea in all seriousness. “Prizes are apples of discord—one wins, others lose—but it was clear from the judges that the prize was for the novel itself. Besides, I’m not about to die yet.”

In the glare of the Booker, it was easy to miss that the nod to The Blind Assassin merely capped a season of international success for Canadian writers. The day before, Anil’s Ghostby Michael Ondaatje, the only other Canadian to win the Booker (he shared the 1992 prize with British writer Barry Unsworth) took the Prix Médicis, France’s highest award for a foreign novel. (Ondaatje also won a Governor-General’s Award last week for the book.) In late October, the Toronto author’s tale of a Westerneducated anthropologist caught up in her native Sri Lanka’s murderous civil war won the fiction half of the $47,000 Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize. In a first for the five-year-old award, the nonfiction choice was also a Canadian. Michael David Kwan of Vancouver won for his exquisite childhood memoir of war-torn China, Things that Must Not Be Forgotten.

On her fourth try, Margaret Atwood wins the big prize

But the highly competitive Booker was naturally the main event. Open to authors from across the British Commonwealth and Ireland, it has a huge worldwide profile. “Winning it is an important step for Canadian writers,” said Seligman, “and one more step in the globalization of literature, where we all read books from everywhere.” The Booker is also a renowned sales generator, and in Britain, where The Blind Assassin has already sold an impressive 93,000 copies, Atwood’s publisher expects that number to double. In Canada, the effect will be more muted for a book that is already the No. 1 national best-seller. But recognition for Canadian literature and chiming cash registers are the big picture. For Atwood, who plans to donate the prize money to environmental and literary causes, the Booker’s real meaning is more personal: “For an author, it’s a certain validation of your writing.”

Brian Bethune