That’s the question Stephen Marche asks in a provocative essay at Partisan Magazine. It’s a long, thoughtful piece, with much to chew over. Here he is, for example, explaining the meaning of Margaret Atwood:
In hindsight, the central contradiction of Canadian literature is obvious. Canadian literature is anti-American literature which is also an offshoot of American literature. The pattern follows the well-established formula of the Situationists: to piss on the altar is to pay homage to it.
No one embodies this contradiction more fully than Atwood herself. Despite the fact that Munro won the Nobel Prize, Atwood will always be the iconic Canadian writer, like the Mounties or Anne of Green Gables. She is Our Mother of the Written Word, sometimes the smothering mother who covers the landscape like snow, sometimes the lecturing mother who can be a bit annoying. But she is our mother. She possesses the kind of power that writers have forgotten in other countries. The last poet in the United States with her iconic status was Walt Whitman.
And yet she is also the most American of Canadian writers; that is her secret. She provides the best Canadian example of every American literary trend of the second half of the twentieth century. It is no accident that her most successful novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, is set entirely in the United States. Mother Canada is, in the nightmare we must suppress, the American Woman. This contradiction, as Frye pointed out, represents the country itself.
She served the nascent academic field of Canadian literature perfectly; her works are utterly representative of the dominant literary modes of America—but Canadian. When the confessional poets were in fashion, she was a confessionalist—but Canadian. When Philip Roth and John Updike and Norman Mailer were writing their grand ambitious novels she was a grand ambitious novelist—but Canadian. When genre appropriations grew popular, she wrote high-low fusions—but Canadian. Every ism that rose to prominence she followed. She cheerfully joined in the tech revolution, mastering Twitter, gamely trying out a bizarre innovation for signing books, giving material to Wattpad. The ease of her technophilia startled some observers; it shouldn’t have. She had cheerfully joined in every other revolution of her lifetime.
Margaret Atwood is the literary equivalent of lichen. Where the air is good, there she can be found. Her writing is like the Canadian landscape itself: restrained and indifferent and proud and uncharitable and, above all, determined to survive no matter what. The beauty of her prose is its ferocity.