September 3, 2014

Eleanor Catton wants to give you time to read


Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo of the author in a serious cardigan via Wikimedia Commons.

Eleanor Catton is a national treasure. She’s not strictly “our” national treasure… well, she was born in Canada and grew up in New Zealand.

And yet! Catton, Booker-winning author of The Luminaries (and a remarkable but rarely-mentioned debut, The Rehearsal), is planning to use her prize money from the New Zealand Post Award to nurture new writers.

With the Best Fiction Award and the People’s Choice Award, she received 15,000 New Zealand dollars (about $12,500 U.S. or £7,500). What do most people do when they receive a modest windfall? Pay off student debt; buy a nice generator before winter; this list is sounding too practical, let’s say: treat themselves to a new car.

Not if you’re a generous character in Catton’s second novel. In her acceptance speech, she said, “It seems only right to do as Emery Staines would do and start giving this fortune away.”

Alison Flood at The Guardian reports that Catton wants to give other writers “the means and opportunity not to write, but to read, and to share what they learn through their reading with their colleagues in the arts.” She’s starting a grant for writers who want time to read.

The big story yesterday could have been that The Luminaries didn’t win Best Book of the Year in New Zealand. But Catton’s thoughtful speech and grant idea hit international news instead.

The idea is deceptively simple. She says the creative process is “organic and dialectic” and that most philanthropic organizations don’t recognize writers who are ambitious about form. The emphasis is usually on the delivery of a final product, like a book’s publication date, which Catton finds “uncomfortable.” She sees writing as “enlightenment,” and reading as “the first step.”

After three months, writers who receive the grant will be expected to write a nonfiction piece about their reading and post it online “so that others can benefit from their reading too.” Catton says, “If our reading culture in New Zealand is dynamic, diverse, and informed, our writing culture will be too.”

So this grant is giving writers space to think about their work, then it will generate not only increased book sales, but more thoughtful reviews from new writers. Eleanor Catton for president.



Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.