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A Pen Too Far

Stephen Henighan

Atwood's LongPen harks back to a vision of the writer as an inaccessible authority figure.

On March 5, 26, a group of people gathered in a small Ontario city in the expectation of having books signed by an author who was not present. The formal inauguration of LongPen, the technology developed by Margaret Atwood and members of her family to enable a writer on one continent to sign books on other continents, had been scheduled for the Green Room, at the back of the second floor of The Bookshelf, the bookstore-cinema-café-restaurant-bar that is the epicentre of literary activity in downtown Guelph, for 11: on Sunday morning. Those of us who arrived on time found that the doors leading to the second floor were locked. The set-up was behind schedule but, we were assured, there was nothing to fear: LongPen had been tested twice, once late at night at The Bookshelf (the signing was filmed for a video on the LongPen website) and once in Ottawa. The technology would not fail.

When we entered the Green Room, a small, plush space that is a popular venue for book launches, camera lenses and computer terminals peered at us from all angles. A movie-sized projection screen covered one wall. One of the tables where students habitually drank beer was occupied by a desktop computer. Behind the computer, wired up to a laptop and other bits of technology, stood the glistening steel LongPen: an apparatus that hybridized the Canadarm used on American space shuttles with a menacing surgical instrument fitted with a nib where one might expect a blade. Customers, we were told, would sit in front of the computer. The face of Margaret Atwood, who was in England to attend the London Book Fair, would appear on the screen in “interactive form.” Our copies of The Penelopiad and The Tent, meanwhile, would be carried to the table where the LongPen stood. Like a customer providing a signature specimen to retrieve a registered letter from Canada Post, Atwood would sign her greetings on a signature pad. The LongPen would inscribe a simulacrum of Atwood’s writing on the reader’s book. After the Guelph signing, a second session of ninety minutes was scheduled at the McNally-Robinson bookstore in New York.

The event attracted substantial media attention. In the Green Room, four different television networks had their cameras aimed at the LongPen. At a charity auction, Patrick Boyer, the Toronto lawyer, writer and former Progressive Conservative Member of Parliament, had purchased the right to be the first official recipient of a book signed via LongPen. A tall, distinguished-looking man with white hair and a blue suit, Boyer paced in the wings while The Bookshelf’s owner, Doug Minett, fielded media questions. Forty numbered tickets were available to members of the public. I had ticket number one and I knew what, in interactive form, I was going to ask: “Ms. Atwood, is LongPen an attempt to extend standoffish southern Ontario WASP culture into the new millennium?”

No doubt she would have shut me up with a withering riposte. But I think the point is a serious one. As anyone who followed the news reports knows, the technology failed on March 5. After two hours of delays, we were all sent home. Atwood was unable to sign books in either Guelph or New York (although the New Yorkers, unlike the Guelphites, were treated to a video apology). In the afternoon Atwood succeeded in signing a book in the exhibition hall in London for her British publisher, who was in another part of the hall. But the problem with LongPen is not the technology, which is bound to become more reliable. The flaw is in the way in which the technology is imagined.

Virtual culture exerts a wide appeal when it brings us into contact with those who are far away. Westerners who read the blogs of young people living under the mullahs of Iran, or young Iranians tapping into Western newspapers, feel that they have broken through the boundaries that confine them. They have expanded their humanity by connecting with those whose views are normally mediated for them by authority. Atwood, it seems to me, has forgotten that literature is already a mediated form: the words written in the author’s room of her own are refined, rewritten, edited, printed, bound, packaged, fitted with an alluring cover. The reader who is intrigued by the author’s books attends a reading or signing in order to glimpse who the author is behind the screen erected by the publishing process. Watching the author’s hand moving across the page, we are privileged, for a second, to see the writer writing. We witness the act that created the book that enthralled us. It is this promise of authenticity, however fleeting, that brings crowds to readings and signings: the brief return to the oral roots of storytelling, followed by the tantalizing mirage of witnessing the instant of literary creation and carrying away a sample of “original” writing.

The proof of this can be seen in the sparse turnout for the LongPen launch in Guelph. The forty numbered tickets designated for the general public were not exhausted at the time the event was called off. If Margaret Atwood came to Guelph in person, The Bookshelf could not contain the crowd. The reading would have to be held in the church across the street and the organizers could charge admission and still fill the building. (This happened when Ann-Marie MacDonald came to Guelph.)

LongPen, by Atwood’s own admission, is the brainchild of a jet-lagged superstar who wants to spend more time at home. By enshrining the author as a remote talking head, it harks back to an older vision of the writer as inaccessible authority figure. The device’s conception is counterintuitive to the logic of virtual culture. LongPen recapitulates the yearning for distance rather than engagement, ironic detachment rather than emotional involvement, that characterizes Atwood’s fiction; it evokes the diffidence of traditional southern Ontario WASP culture. LongPen seems likely to go the way of quadraphonic sound because our ever less WASPish society craves emotion and disdains artificial barriers, and even art itself, preferring the “real story”—even if, as on reality television, the result is often ersatz emotion fuelling mediocre melodramas. Contrary to its claim to be a “democratizing force,” LongPen will be perceived as elitist and anti-democratic. The reader who seeks connection will respond to the promise of an automated signature by imitating the author and staying home.

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Stephen Henighan

Stephen Henighan’s most recent novel is The World of After. Over the winter of 2022–23, Monica Santizo’s Spanish translation of Stephen’s novel The Path of the Jaguar will be published in Guatemala, and Stephen’s English translation of the Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s novel The Country of Toó will be published in North America. Read more of his work at stephenhenighan.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHenighan.

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