Why we should all cheer for Eleanor Catton
I was on Twitter when news broke that Eleanor Catton's second novel, the as-yet-to-be-released The Luminaries, had been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize - the literary world's equivalent of the Oscars.
I had first heard of Catton years ago when her debut novel, The Rehearsal, was being touted as one of the finest works to have ever come out of Bill Manhire's IIML down at Victoria University. I was a fresh-faced baby journo at the time, barely out of journalism school and an aspiring novelist... albeit one who had only ever written a few frightfully average short stories and nothing resembling a novel.
While I have always been an admirer of Catton, she seems so earnest yet serene at the same time, and awfully gifted - I won't even insult her by bringing up age because in the world of writing, that is almost irrelevant except as a marketing tool - I have to admit to feeling twinges of jealousy, which also haunted me on the night I heard of her win. You see, I had been accepted for the same Master of Creative Writing as Catton, at almost exactly the same year. I could nearly have been her classmate (imagine!), if I hadn't instead chosen to take a different path and go to journalism school instead.
Not saying, of course, that I would have anywhere near touched her success, as I rather suspect I would not, but to have been afforded the same opportunity and not taken it up...
Still, as Edith Piaf famously crooned, "je ne regrette rien". I've done things with my career and life, met people I wouldn't otherwise have met, and had experiences I otherwise wouldn't have had because I chose the path I did. But I regretted that decision for a long time. Until last year, when I decided to take the year off to do the MCW at AUT instead, which turned out to be one of the best things I did. Not least of all because it gave me permission to do nothing but think and write creatively for a whole year and be around other people who wanted to do the same.
The point I'm getting at, in a rather roundabout way, is that Catton's achievement is one that should be celebrated and lauded by all of us who love books and literature. Not because she is the youngest writer to be longlisted this year, not because she's a woman (though I definitely have a feeling of sisterly pride), but because she worked damn hard for her success and deserves to bask in every bit of glory.
We live in the kind of society where people like to say "pride goeth before a fall", but I want her to be the tallest of poppies, to reach for the Sun. Because damn it, girl, this is a big effin' deal!
Writing is bloody hard. It's sweaty, dirty work and as Margaret Atwood points out, it's toiling in the paper mines for life, most of the time without ever achieving anything approaching success. While it's perhaps slightly easier to "make it" as an author than say, as an actress or catwalk model, it is still one of those careers where you have to depend on that elusive convergence of luck, talent and hard work to get somewhere.
And Catton has made it. The Man Booker longlist sells books, and I think any author would be lying, if not to others than to themselves, if they say they don't care one whit about making money off their writing or having lots of people read their books. Because if that's the case, then why do it?
Obviously art and commerce don't mix well a lot of the time, but the only way one can be free to create art is to have money. So if you can make it doing what you essentially feel is your life's calling, then why not?
So I say we all, readers and writers alike, should all congratulate Catton and join her in toasting her success with good bottles of pinot noir. It's a wonderful achievement and, as someone else said on Twitter the evening when the news broke, the equivalent for literary New Zealanders of the All Blacks making it to the Rugby World Cup Finals.
Good luck, Eleanor, and we're all cheering you on to the shortlist.
Feel free to leave messages for Catton in the comments!