LOS ANGELES — If you want a sense of how Margaret Atwood operates, you could do a lot worse than to watch her keynote address at the 2011 O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing Conference in New York.
“This is not the kind of thing I usually do,” the author begins, speaking in a quiet deadpan, before stepping from behind a podium and moving to the lip of the stage. It’s a simple shift, but it reminds us that she’s out of her comfort zone, a writer speaking to a tech conference about both the consolations and the limitations of technology.
Atwood, of course, has made a career out of stepping beyond her comfort zone, and that of the culture at large.
Her early novels, such as “The Edible Woman” and “Surfacing,” staked a claim for women’s fiction, even as she resisted the label of feminist writer, because, she argues, her first objective was to write a story rather than to make a political point.
With 1985’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” — a dystopian epic that takes place in an America turned Christian theocracy — she made a very public argument for erasing the line between speculative and literary fiction, although she subsequently distanced herself from that intent as well.
“I grew up in the 1950s, reading Orwell and Bradbury as they were happening,” Atwood, 73, says by phone from her Toronto office, voice soft with the accents of her native Canada. “I’m a child of the comic book generation. I never bought those divisions between forms.”
Indeed, her next novel, “MaddAddam,” which comes out in September, completes the apocalyptic future trilogy begun by “Oryx and Crake” (2003) and “The Year of the Flood” (2009).
In addition, Atwood has embraced electronic publishing and new media, releasing three installments of a serial novel, “Positron,” with the digital imprint Byliner. (A fourth is in the works.) She’s also collaborating with Naomi Alderman on another serial, “Happy Zombie Sunrise Home,” for the Canadian website Wattpad.
Still, if Atwood remains an active user of new media, she remains aware of its discontents. “Tools are tools,” she says. “Humans invent them to do things, like communicate, and that impulse is the same whether we’re talking about papyrus, the telephone or the Web.” Atwood could be talking about anything, but what’s on her mind is the complex relationship between technology and literature.
“Think about it this way,” she continues. “There are two tin cans. One is the originator of content, and the other is the recipient. The people making all the money are the string. But string is only valuable if the cans want to connect. There’s a lot of fighting about string, and people do a lot of thinking about it, measuring traffic and so on, and also about the recipient of the content, Tin Can B. But they disregard Tin Can A, the creator — even though without that content, there’s no string or Tin Can B.”
As for what to do about it, Atwood counsels, as she always has, for writers to be aware of what’s at their disposal and how they can use it for purposes of their own.
“Marshall McLuhan,” she says, referencing the late cultural critic (and her old Toronto neighbor), “once said that every time you invent a new tool, you need to spin out what you can do with it. That’s where we are with digital. We’re in what I’d call the early automobile stage of the Internet, and we’re seeing some truly odd permutations. Eventually, a Henry Ford will come along.”
For Atwood, these are hardly new concerns. “I was an early website putter-upper,” she jokes, “going back to the 1990s” — a decision inspired by the realization that she could connect with readers more directly by offering a virtual clearinghouse of information about her work.
A different set of issues led to her invention, in 2006, of the Long Pen, an electronic device that allows users to sign books or documents remotely and in real time, “a one-time unique signature,” she says. Atwood was looking for a way to cut down on travel, and her carbon footprint, while still being able to interact with distant bookstores — and their customers.
What connects these endeavors is a sense of technology as practical, not theoretical, as a strategy rather than an end.
“I’m curious, not adroit,” she admits, adding that when it was first suggested she get a Twitter feed — during the “Year of the Flood” book tour, itself a multimedia event — her response was, “What’s that?”
In the years since, Atwood has acquired nearly 400,000 followers, and she maintains an active, conversational presence. “It started snowballing,” she says with a laugh. “There’s some sort of fractal rule that sets in over a certain number, like plant life.”
Then there’s “Positron” — which, like “The Handmaid’s Tale” and the “MaddAddam” trilogy, takes place in a treacherous future — a project she sees as looking forward and back. Atwood was especially intrigued by the Byliner model, “to sell these single-sized pieces digitally for $2.99 and revenue-share with the writers,” which offers an alternative to the idea that content should be devalued, that writers don’t need to be paid for what they do.
At the same time, she was also stirred by the idea of “taking a 19th century form, the serial novel, and adapting it for our times.”
It’s a process no different, in many ways, from that of Charles Dickens in “The Pickwick Papers” or “The Old Curiosity Shop”: to let the book unfold in public, with no way to go back and revise.
If that sounds like something of a tightrope, that’s the point: to challenge herself, to blur another set of boundaries, to see how far she can go. In that regard, Atwood stresses, we are trying to preserve not just the ability of writers now to work and make a living but also a larger sensibility, in which writing as a collective force continues not only to exist but also to thrive.
“I’m encouraged by all this online activity,” Atwood says, calling it an incubator in which writers and readers can find new pathways to each other. “Writing and reading are learned skills, and they have to be taught. You can write a wonderful masterpiece, but if no one reads it, it’s an unplayed score.”
This brings us back to the issue of string, and the tin cans on which literature relies. It’s a difficult moment to be a writer, with content going for less and less, even as “no one is suggesting anyone give away string for free.” Still, Atwood remains hopeful about the possibilities.
“Why else would I get up in the morning?” she asks with a laugh, which rumbles in a low murmur over the telephone. “All writers are optimists. We have to be. In order to be a writer, you need to believe in four things. First, I have a book to write. Second, I can write it. Third, I can get it published. And fourth, that someone will read it. That’s about as optimistic as it gets.”