Feeling the pinch

A renowned writer, a mad scramble, and the making of this year’s Massey Lecture

Despite all the planning and the forward strategies, despite two years’ advance notice, despite a crack team of eager broadcasters, publishers and editors, and academics, the 2008 Massey Lecture with Margaret Atwood turned out to be a heroic scramble thanks primarily to the U.S. election and the bizarre strategies of American publishers.


Less than a year ago, Ms. Atwood handed the manuscript of her latest novel to her agent and scored off her appointment book for the ensuing fall (i.e., right now) to handle international promotional trips. Her fame has spread to so many countries, and her audiences for readings and guest appearances are so fevered, she is pretty close to being the reigning rock star of contemporary literature.

Then Barack Obama made his historic announcement that he would run for the presidency of the United States, along with Hillary Clinton, and the U.S. publishers decided politics would so dominate the fall of 2008 that they didn’t want to spoil the chances of hitting the big time with one of their most successful authors. Atwood’s book was put off for a year and the organizers of the Massey Lectures—a triumvirate of CBC Radio’s Ideas, House of Anansi publishers, and Massey College in the University of Toronto—were suddenly left in something of a panic.

Atwood had been contracted to do the 2009 Massey Lecture and now there was a conflict with the publication date of her new novel. The Masseys, as they are more familiarly known, are not just a romp in the garden. They are five connected lectures presented sequentially on five university campuses on a two-week author tour across the country. There’s a simultaneous book publication by Anansi, and the senior partner in this trio—CBC Radio—broadcasts the recorded lectures shortly afterwards over the national network.

No one quite knew what to do. That’s because something very special was at stake. When the Massey Lectures were first created in 1961, they were conceived as a focus on important contemporary issues by leading thinkers that would also be honouring the first Canadian-born governor general, Vincent Massey. From the beginning, the lectures were meant to be an extended intellectual conversation with the Canadian listening audience, and some of them became international hits, right from the first one (Rich Nations, Poor Nations by Barbara Ward Jackson) to some of the most recent (Jean Vanier’s Becoming Human and Richard Wright’s The Short History of Progress). Some Massey Lectures remain standard-bearers, both in Canada and internationally: Northrop Frye’s The Educated Imagination, for example, and Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Myth and Meaning.

In the beginning, the lecturer wrote the book-length series and was stuck inside a radio studio in Toronto for days as the producers recorded the words. These earliest efforts sometimes sounded as dead as if they were coming from the land of Lethe. It wasn’t really until the current team at CBC’s Ideas, headed by executive producer Bernie Lucht, started pushing away at renewal that the Masseys took on a vibrant, contemporary feel.

By this time, the lecture series had changed publishers to Anansi and had also invited Massey College—which is also named after Vincent Massey—to become an academic partner. Then in 2002, the decision was taken to tour the Masseys across the country and record the lectures live for later broadcast, complete with laughter, sneezes and the occasional cellphone ring.

As the current head of Massey College, I get to set up the academic partners across the country, and this year the tour includes Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s (Oct. 12), the University of British Columbia in Vancouver (Oct. 15), the University of Winnipeg (Oct. 17), McGill University in Montreal (Oct. 25), and, at the end, the University of Toronto (Nov. 1).

This enormously complicated schedule had to be dovetailed into Anansi’s own publishing schedule and is part of the reason the organizers were looking at each other in dismay when “the Atwood novel complication” arose. The distinguished anthropologist Wade Davis had been contracted to do the 2008 series. The CBC checked with Wade Davis and it turned out he (like most writers!) was happy enough to have an extended deadline. I was delegated to approach the Great Writer, perhaps because she was a friend as well as a senior fellow of Massey College, perhaps because I am the sort of cannon fodder generals in the First World War ordered out of the trenches.

Whatever, I know the Great Writer well enough to know she speaks directly and to the point. I was also pretty sure she would be feeling the pinch as much as we were. Could she manage to write the lecture series a year early, I asked. All of the Massey team waited for the answer with held breath. “I might,” she said, “if I could have a little help with some research.”

I don’t run a graduate student college with the brightest young people in Canada for nothing: two of the brightest and best were served up in short order. Within days, the race was on and the most professional and organized writer in Canada cancelled all her party dates and trips hither and yon and sat down to write an extraordinarily vibrant Massey Lecture on debt, how it plays a motor force in much literature, in our own lives and in the machinations of the crowd we elect to govern us.

In my experience working with the Masseys for 14 years, they are a real tour de force and will have people discussing them and debating them for years to come. “And what does a highly successful author like Margaret Atwood know about debt?” I have been asked more than once. I give them all the same answer: “Listen in.”

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