Margaret Atwood's exploration of what makes Canadian literature "Canadian" made waves when it was released in 1972.

Margaret Atwood

When it was first published in 1972, Survival was considered the most startling book ever written about Canadian literature. Since then, it has continued to be read and taught, and it continues to shape the way Canadians look at themselves. Distinguished, provocative and written in effervescent, compulsively readable prose, Survival is simultaneously a book of criticism, a manifesto, and a collection of personal and subversive remarks. Margaret Atwood begins by asking: "What have been the central preoccupations of our poetry and fiction?" Her answer is "survival and victims."

Atwood applies this thesis in twelve brilliant, witty and impassioned chapters; from Moodie to MacLennan to Blais, from Pratt to Purdy to Gibson, she lights up familiar books in wholly new perspectives. (From McClelland & Stewart)

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From the book

I started reading Canadian literature when I was young, though I didn't know it was that; in fact I wasn't aware that I lived in a country with any distinct existence of its own. At school we were being taught to sing 'Rule, Britannia' and to draw the Union Jack; after hours we read stacks of Captain Marvel, Plastic Man and Batman comic books, an activity delightfully enhanced by the disapproval of our elders. However, someone had given us Charles C. D. Roberts' Kings in Exile for Christmas, and I snivelled my way quickly through these heart wrenching stories of animals caged, trapped and tormented. That was followed by Ernest Thompson Seton's Wild Animals I Have Known, if anything more upsetting because the animals were more actual — they lived in forests, not circuses — and their deaths more mundane: the deaths, not of tigers, but of rabbits.

No one called these stories Canadian literature, and I wouldn't have paid any attention if they had; as far as I was concerned they were just something else to read, along with Walter Scott, Edgar Allan Poe and Donald Duck. I wasn't discriminating in my reading, and I'm still not. I read then primarily to be entertained, as I do now. And I'm not saying that apologetically: I feel that if you remove the initial gut response from reading — the delight or excitement or simply the enjoyment of being told a story — and try to concentrate on the meaning or the shape or the 'message' first, you might as well give up, it's too much like all work and no play.

From Survival by Margaret Atwood ©1972. Published by McClelland & Stewart.

Author interviews 

Featured VideoSurvival is hailed as a monumental achievement in Canadian literature. This is the audio of a TV report for which video is unavailable.