Life is tweet: Margaret Atwood on her passion for new technology

Xandra Bingley

Filed under: Fiction

Xandra Bingley quizzes Margaret Atwood about her passion for new technology

Your 400,000 Twitter followers are a bit of a mystery to some writers. What’s it all for? Who are they? Is it for publicity/fame/money/fun/sharing information?

I don’t know why short-form writing is considered odd. People have been doing it ever since writing, often on walls. (See the recent Pompeii exhibition at the British Museum.) Any form of writing can be done well or badly. I have always participated in every form of writing that came my way. I used to write the Home and School notes for my high school (so handy for The Blind Assassin), and the Reindeer Romp singing commercials, and, later, the questionnaires at a market-research company (so handy for The Edible Woman). And many doggerel birthday-card poems, wedding speeches ­– usually for the shy best man, poor tongue-tied lump – and college skits. James Joyce was fascinated by all forms of writing, including advertisements. He’d be on Twitter like a shot. So would Marshall McLuhan, a deck of whose aphoristic, epigrammatic cards – ‘Distant Early Warning’ (1969) – I possess. Samples: ‘A man wrapped up in himself makes a small package’; ‘Is there life before death?’; and, more enigmatically, ‘Since the invention of elastic, the space occupied by women has been reduced one third.’

I fell into it by accident, through building a website for The Year of the Flood, in 2009, a year of some disarray for the publishing industry due to the Big Financial Meltdown the year before. I wanted to launch this book as a combination musical, dramatic and bird- conservation awareness event, which, with the help of dedicated crews of actors, singers, and directors in 23 different cities, was in fact accomplished, but to do that I needed a site where the events could be announced and then blogged. As part of it, the web designers said, I needed a Twitter feed. What on earth was that, I wondered? So now I know. (See my posts for the New York Review of Books on this experience: Atwood in the Twittersphere and Deeper into the Twungle.)

So, sharing information, yes; how do you think I know about the old Finnish people with things on their heads? As soon as lab meat made its hamburger début, my faithful Twitterfolk were on it like a shot: they know what I like. Fame? Being good at Twitter is not especially what I want to be famous for, but it can sometimes help a good cause, such as libraries.

Publicity? Let it be said (and I have said it, quite a lot) that Twitter is more like a party than a billboard. You would not plug your own doubtless wonderful and unique book at a party without being considered a boor, but you might well plug somebody else’s. Or it’s like having your own little radio show. You can invite guests on. You can Tweet – for instance – the RSL’s spring programme. Which I just did. @RSLiterature. Like that.

If the man from the Moon arrived and asked you if the new technology had been good to you, would you say yes?

Short-form answer: mixed blessing. The jury’s out.

Long-form answer: by ‘good’, does he mean morally good – has it improved my inner soulfibre – or financially good ­– has it improved my bottom line? Or even physically good – has it improved my bottom? The answer to the last is no. We all sit way more than we used to, and sitting too much, we are told, will kill us. Nor do I think it has been especially morally good for me. Reading complex novels, we are told, makes us more empathetic, but does reading newspapers online? Judging from the comment sections, possibly not. But the new technology has sometimes informed me of unfolding catastrophes, engaged me in petition-writing on behalf of, say, bees, birds, and libraries, which has – perhaps delusionally – made me feel helpful. And sometimes it has made me laugh a lot. If you doubt my word on that, search Geoffrey Chaucer’s blog – try The Aeneid and Zombyes or Old Finnish People With Things on Their Heads.

Financially? Let’s assume ‘me’ means ‘me, the writer of longer-form fictions’, rather than ‘me, the composer of sometimes silly Tweets, such as a re-write of Good King Wenceslas in honour of Stephen King’ (‘Brightly shone the eyeballs white…’). Which brings us to your next question.

You’ve said new tech is a good mode of transition of information from one brain to another. Is the new-tech change good for writers? 

Mixed blessing, as above. The good:

  1. Many out-of-print books have found a new life as e-books.
  2. Just to use the internet, you have to be able to read and write, at the most basic level.
  3. Online sites such as Wattpad are involving new generations of readers and writers.
  4. Reader forums are flourishing – see, for instance, Riffle and Goodreads.
  5. Blogs and online mags devoted to books are numerous, see for instance Book Riot and Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, and many, many more.
  6. Serial publishing, as in the days of Dickens, has been reborn – see, for instance, Byliner.
  7. Some writers have built careers beginning with self-publishing online, though the paper book brought out by a publisher still seems to be the desired goal, and will probably remain so.
  8. Online writing courses and advice columns proliferate. Good or bad? Depends. Try Story is a State of Mind, for instance.

The bad:

  1. Writers are badgered by their publishers to do their own on-line promoting, which some find painful.
  2. Do you really have to have a website?
  3. You can waste a lot of time fooling around on the Internet.
  4. Some forms of writerly activity have been knocked off the table by the internet.
  5. Many forms of theft can occur on it, including book theft and copyright infringement. Some of this is actively encouraged by, for instance, advocates of open source for everything, Google and its We Can Digitise Anything policy, and many universities, who make good cash out of teaching ‘creative writing’ to students while at the same time providing material in ‘course packs’, which they charge for without paying the authors. So, like making kids pay to learn garage mechanics while at the same time abolishing cars.
  6. Online snoops of all kinds are tracking your every online read, eyeball, and write. Not all of their motives are benign. As the God’s Gardeners say in The Year of the Flood, ‘If you can see it, it can see you.’ Reading a paper book is still private, unless they do a 1984 on you and barge in on you mid-read.
    And by the way: the brain folk are telling us that we read long-form things such as novels more retentively on paper, and that students who study with pencil in hand and do their own annotating thereby get better marks. It’s a Pleistocene thing. What with the bows and arrows.
  7. The verdict: the most important thing for a writer is still the task of writing your book as well as you can. To quote a Tweet-sized excerpt from G. Chaucer (one of my OMG! I HEART GEOFF! WHY DON’T HE TWEET ME BACK! fan-girl faves): ‘The lyfe so short the craft so long to lerne.’ Or, in even fewer characters: ‘Ars longa vita brevis.’

Are books still ‘a cheap date’?

Yes, very cheap, and sometimes free: a physical book can have many, many readers, as can e-books. Compare it to a steak, which can have only one human user. (You see, I have not disregarded your intestinal fauna.) You can’t eat the same Brussels sprout twice. Or so we sincerely hope. There is of course your own time investment. How do you value that?

Has new-tech publishing you use like (for your Thriller Suite poems) and (for your Positron series) led to new kinds of readers’ responses/reader numbers/reader profiles?

I have no idea, but I could find out by going onto my dashboard. Aha, lo: that series has had @ 800K readers. We’ve been asked to continue it. It’s a caper, like group campfire tellings. We had a lot of fun, and boy, it keeps the old brain nimble, because it was improv all the way.

Do you write more now by using new tech?

Counting emails and such: way more. And students are writing way more via online platforms. See Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds For The Better by Clive Thompson. I still handwrite the first part of a first draft, but I don’t handwrite long letters any more – people could never read them anyway.

You’ve said that in your head is ‘a large collection of curios, shiny objects I’ve collected, but who knows where! It’s such a jumble in there. It’s hard to find anything.’ Do you file and find things in your head with help from new-tech systems now?

No. Though sometimes I bookmark things and put them on the MaddAddam Flipboard [at].

Do you think people’s dreams changed since new tech? E.g. in Clothing Dreams (from The Tent) the story couldn’t have happened before clothes existed.

Let’s ask Them! Some people on Twitter are dreaming about – er – me. I am usually benevolent, I’m told.

Margaret Atwood and Xandra Bingley have been friends for 30 years.

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Margaret Atwood 2010