When it comes to undergrads, it may not always be easy to get them enthused about an accomplished visitor, unless the person is connected to coursework. But author Margaret Atwood seems to have a broader appeal.
“I think that people get excited when they can put a face to the words they read,” said graduate assistant Madison Mock, graphic designer and digital content and social media manager for the Penn State Institute for the Arts and Humanities. The institute will award Atwood its 2014 Medal for Distinguished Achievement on Nov. 12 at the State Theatre.
“It definitely seems like young people — undergrads — don’t always come to a lot of our events, but this is something people are talking about,” Mock said.
Book discussions of Atwood’s best-known novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale” — a story set in a theocratic state where some women are forced to bear children for elite couples — were held leading up to the event, and the buzz is growing, Mock said.
Atwood is known for her novels, such as “The Edible Woman” (1969), “The Handmaid’s Tale” (1985), “The Robber Bride” (1994), “Alias Grace” (1996) and “The Blind Assassin,” but the Canadian writer also has penned more than 40 volumes of poetry as well as children’s literature and nonfiction. She has been honored with multiple awards, including the Booker Prize for “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Blind Assassin.”
Atwood has been on a world tour, and her newest novel, “MaddAddam” (2013), is the final volume in a three-book series that began with the Man-Booker prize-nominated “Oryx and Crake” (2003) and continued with “The Year of the Flood” (2009).
The man who selected Atwood as this year’s medal winner, institute Director Michael Bérubé, said he knew Atwood’s name would draw excitement.
Bérubé knew 2014 would be the year to bring in another writer of notoriety. As a medal recipient, Atwood follows singer-songwriter Patti Smith, the 2013 winner. Before Smith was Nobel-Prize-winning author J.M. Coetzee. In 2011, the institute director chose dancer and choreographer Paul Taylor as medal recipient, and in 2010 — before Bérubé took the helm — Nobel-Prize winner Toni Morrison received the honor.
“I asked people which writer we should bring,” he said. “It was great dinner party conversation: Who is your favorite literary artist? Writers who have won Nobel Prizes or who are talked about in that conversation are top of mind, and she seemed a logical choice. On top of that, she is ridiculously prolific and as important as a literary critic as she is an author. I imagine anyone who follows contemporary literature would know her name.”
At the medal ceremony, Atwood will speak and offer a reading as well as take questions from the crowd until around 9 p.m., Bérubé said. The reading selection is up to her.
“If you look at the roster of people we’ve invited, they are really the global A-list,” Bérubé said. “If we’re talking about living writers of English literature, Atwood is among the most widely read writers in the world.”
Atwood, who was born in 1939 in Ottawa and grew up in northern Ontario, Quebec, and Toronto, received her undergraduate degree from Victoria College at the University of Toronto and her master’s degree from Radcliffe College.
“One of the things I’m curious about his how people move from being national icons to international,” Bérubé said. “For Coetzee, he was, at first, well-regarded, but it was only in 1980 that he picked up international acclaim. It’s sort of parallel to the question of what kind of music becomes world music. For a long time, (Atwood) was considered a Canadian writer only. People like Robertson Davies never broke out of being Canadian writers. Atwood has become transnational.”
The day after the ceremony, Atwood will lead a Penn State Forum talk on gender and genre. She may also delve into the question about genre of speculative fiction versus science fiction, Bérubé said.
Many of her writings, including her latest series of novels, are based in dystopian settings, but often not so unbelievable, Bérubé said, adding that her best-known work, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” places the reader in a country that objectifies and subjugates women through the guise of religion.
“With ‘Oryx and Crake,’ one of the chilling things is how not speculative it is,” he said. Bérubé said he read the 2003 novel in 2011.
“There are various dystopian things it imagines that are more or less already with us,” he said. “She is extrapolating tendencies in genomics and bioengineering. Reading that, I thought I must bring her to Penn State. I knew her by reputation before that, but it really was three years ago when I said this is one of the major works of our time.”