You could forgive a reader for thinking that journalists were writing about 16 year-old Lorde who topped the US charts last week with her song Royals, not a 28-year-old writer who already has an award-winning book under her belt, as well as a degree in English from the University of Canterbury, a Masters from Victoria University’s Institute of Modern Letters, and an MFA from the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop.
That’s the extent to which journalists around the world made a fuss of Eleanor Catton’s “tender age” – which anyone reading the book pages must know by now is 28 (I can even quote her birthday without Googling: 24 September, which makes her a Libran) – when her 832-page novel, The Luminaries, won the 2013 Man Booker Prize.
Until Catton displaced him, Ben Okri held the record for youngest Booker winner when he won for The Famished Road (1991) at age 32. Before him it was Kazuo Ishiguro and Salman Rushdie, who were both 34 at the time of their respective wins for Remains of the Day (1989) and Midnight’s Children (1981).
Yet not one of these authors were framed by their youth. Nor were they described as looking “remarkably self-possessed”, as Nick Clark kindly but nonetheless patronizingly described Catton’s demeanor “the morning after the night that changed her life.”
There are a number of reasons why Catton’s age might have become the headline: the Booker is Britain’s most prestigious literary prize and to win at all is a colossal achievement. And she did break the decade barrier. The profiles of Booker Prize winners shows that most of them have their first success at around 30, peak in their 40s, then die twenty-odd years later.
Historically, some literary giants are late bloomers, yet many others burn bright from an early age. Alexander Pope wrote his much-anthologised “Ode on Solitude” when he was 12 and published The Rape of the Lock (1712) when he was 24. By 24 Shakespeare had written Henry VI (1591).
By age 20 Jane Austen had written Sense and Sensibility, Mary Shelley had written Frankenstein – both books were published a few years later in 1811 and 1818 respectively – and Rimbaud had retired from writing.
Goethe published The Sorrows of Young Werther (1786) when he was 25 and Emily Brontë published Wuthering Heights (1847) when she was 28 – by that age John Keates was already three-years buried.
Hemingway published The Sun Also Rises (1926) at age 27, but F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t publish The Great Gatsby (1925) until he was 29 – in fairness he already had published two books before he composed his Jazz Age classic. Likewise Bret Easton Ellis published two novels before American Psycho (1991) appeared when he was 27.
But authorial precocity is not quarantined to centuries past: Zadie Smith published White Teeth (2000) when she was 25 – the same age Jonathan Safran Foer was when Everything Is Illuminated (2002) came out.
Of course none of these writers won the Booker: it didn’t exist until 1969; and American authors, until last month, have been barred from entering.
Though The Luminaries was generally well-received in Britain, Catton said in an interview in the Guardian that it was “subject to a ‘bullying’ reception from certain male reviewers of an older generation – particularly in New Zealand.”
“People whose negative reaction has been most vehement have all been men over about 45,” she says.
London-based, New Zealand author and critic CK Stead got stuck on what he called the novel’s “chintzy upholstered tone”. He also became an antagonist in a particularly apoplectic review by Michael Morrissey, a 71-year old novelist and poet from Auckland, who writes:
“Eleanor Catton, it seems, can do no wrong, but is she doing anything right – apart from selling well?”
Catton’s first novel, The Rehearsal, so Morrissey informs us, was “written when the author was virtually a child of 21 (or so)” and “set a new hallmark in schoolgirlish bitchiness, as well as including flashes of purple writing – understandable in one so young. Femmes were impressed; chaps less so.”
The Rehearsal, Morrissey concedes – published in 17 territories and 12 languages – was “an impressive achievement for one barely out of school uniform.”
But before he can find his way to the text, Morrissey has more to say about Catton’s person: “The pensive-featured, marginally beautiful Ms Catton was made an adjunct professor at Iowa University.”
[At this point in the review, I scrolled to the masthead to see if I had stumbled onto The Onion or some other satirical site.]
He also offered Catton some grandfatherly advice, inside which is a wonderfully wrong prediction: “she must not let potential Man Booker (which will probably go to Jhumpa Lahiri) go to her thought-crowded head.”
O, these damned scribbling women!
At least Nicholas Lezard had the grace to wrap his envy in humour: “Failure is good for the soul,” he writes. “At least that’s what I tell myself as I contemplate the successful young.”
But Catton has better things to do than to contemplate the not-as-successful-as-they’d-like-to-be old.
“One of those things that you learn in school about any kind of bullying is that it’s always more to do with them than it is to do with you,” she says. “I don’t see that my age has anything to do with what is between the covers of my book, any more than the fact that I am right-handed. It’s a fact of my biography, but it’s uninteresting.”
Eleanor Catton has already sold the rights to The Luminaries, which she hopes will become a boxed set television show, rather than film. If she succeeds, which I’m betting she will, it will be a bucket of water in the face for “select male reviewers over 45”.
“I’m melting,” they will cry as they fall in a puddle, but no one will be listening.
Bronwyn Lea does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.