Alongside my Atwood reading I have been following the acres of criticism and theory that is now written about her work. All of it appreciates to the full what a goldmine of writing she has given us and it strikes me that by now it would be a brave reviewer indeed who offered a less than enthusiastic review so great is the respect for her writing.
Go back 20 years and you feel distinctly uncomfortable as you read the venom that was dispatched in her direction.
Martin Seymour-Smith's Guide to Modern World Literature (London:Macmillan Press, 1985) is a particularly lethal example. This book is 3" (8cms) thick and weighs in at a good sized new born baby with 1400 pages of which just 9 are devoted to Canadian Literature, Dutch Literature (?) gets 15. I'd like to report this as a well thumbed book from my library but must confess I had never opened it until today though it has done good service as a doorstop for several years.
I knew trouble was afoot when I read this first on another icon of my youth
"Little need be said of Leonard Cohen who long ago smothered his small talents in whimsical, sickly lushness"...but Martin,we loved grizzly, growly, tuneless Leonard. Follow the link and remind yourself just how growly.
However he saves the best for Peggy
"The ascendancy of Margaret Atwood described irreverantly as the current 'queen of Canadian literature' has been a depressing phenomenon"
he then quotes some lines of poetry and comments as follows
" this arhythmical, pretentious and insipid magma of cut price lingusitics, anthropology and philosophy"
It gets worse and you'd best sit down,
"Canadian novels in English in this century have been poor, and Atwood's novels and stories certainly do not improve on those...The Edible Woman was a negligible exercise in comic Gothic which entirely failed to come off....Bodily Harm is the synthetic novel of a self-satisfied writer, and has neither feeling nor style...Life Before Man is strangely repellent" and so it goes on and on.
I'm almost embarrassed to be displaying it for public edification other than to say if Peggy ever read this then hats off to her for getting back on the horse and carrying on and thank heavens she did. I might have been tempted to take a hit out on someone who wrote that about me, stamp on my laptop and go and stack shelves but we know she is made of much sterner stuff. It's more likely that we have Martin and his ilk to thank for all that followed.
A little googling reveals that the late Seymour- Smith was a British critic with something of a frighteningly rottweiler approach to his craft and you may be interested to scan his list of the 100 most influential books ever written . One shouldn't speak ill of the dead so I will leave you to draw your own conclusions about this list.
It also emphasises just how the nature of criticism has changed. You'd be hard pushed to find this degree of invective in a book such as this today. Nowadays a mild disagreement makes publishing world headlines, thinking of John Banville's balloon pricking review of Ian McEwan's Saturday. We'd be worried in case they turned up at the same awards dinner for a start but to see it cast in words of stone in a reference book...well.