Margaret Atwood on Wattpad
By CATHARINE MORRIS
This week, The Times ran an article about Beth Reeks, who has secured a three-book deal at the age of seventeen. The article mentioned that she had built up a readership via Wattpad, a free online novel-sharing platform for amateur writers that “Margaret Atwood has hailed as the future of the form”.
If only Atwood had had access to it when she was a teenager: at a recent RSL event in Canada House in Trafalgar Square, she told us that her first step in becoming a writer was buying a publication called Writers’ Markets, which said that the money was in true romance stories. She told us: “I thought, I‘ll do that during the day and write my deathless masterpieces at night”. There was a certain formula to these stories, she said. “There would be a choice between two men – one would have a motorcycle and one would work in a shoe store. The woman would get involved with the unreliable one . . . . There were various ways of ending the story. The best way was patching things up with the shoe store guy . . . . But there would always be a scene on the sofa: ‘and then they were one’. I couldn’t bring myself to do that. That wasn’t going to happen.”
Her next idea was journalism school. Her parents, “biting their tongues”, “dredged up” a journalist second cousin, who told her that, as a woman, she would end up doing “nothing but obituaries and the ladies’ fashion pages”. She decided to go to university and write in the summer holidays. At the time she graduated, teachers were in great demand, so she taught grammar to engineers at the University of British Columbia. “At 8.30 in the morning. They were asleep. I was also asleep.”
Becoming a professional writer in Canada wasn’t easy for anyone. Atwood told us that in the 1950s and 1960s there were only about five literary magazines. In 1960, only five novels by Canadians were published in Canada. In bookshops, Canadian poetry and fiction would appear in the “Canadiana” section. Many aspiring writers left for England or the US. One important champion of Canadian literature was Robert Weaver, who helped to establish the reputations of a number of now well-known writers via his Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio show. “He paid you. He paid money – it was a big thing”. Gradually, “a space was made”. Still, Atwood “never expected to make any money. Even the magazine market was drying up” – but she was eventually able to start writing full-time in 1972.
Atwood might not need Wattpad now, but she does have a page on it; and she has shared two works there – Speeches For Doctor Frankenstein, a poem cycle originally printed in 1966 in an edition of fifteen copies illustrated by her friend Charles Pachter; and "Thriller Suite", a new collection of poems “inspired by her long history as a reader of strange tales, from 19th century gothic classics to ghost stories to crime fiction and thrillers”. She has also shared a link to The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home, a serialized novel written with Naomi Alderman. But her presence has more to do with other people's work than her own. When she joined the site in June she said to one journalist:
“How do young people get their practice in? We did it through the high school magazine, but it was an embarrassing thing because your real name was on it. On Wattpad you can put your real name or have a pseudonym, which a huge number do. Then you can get out there, get feedback, but not have that horrible expectation of people jeering at school. It's actually a pretty pure way of getting a readership that's not going to look at anything but your writing”.
Atwood's new novel MaddAddam will be reviewed in a future issue of the TLS.
Photograph by George Whiteside