Blog: Eleanor Catton wins Man Booker Prize

by Paula Morris / 15 October, 2013
News and observations from London.


Last night in London, while Eleanor Catton and the other Man Booker shortlisted writers were eating a nervous dinner in the glorious Guildhall, I was sitting at a table of British journalists, academics, judges-of-yore, people with aristocratic titles, a PR person for the Man Booker International Prize, and – most exciting for me, as some of you will understand – the Press Secretary to HRH the Duchess of Cornwall.

While we ate small-but-expensive plates of food, I tried to tweet for the Listener every five minutes without making it look as though I was a bored teenager, or someone obsessed with the England/Poland match going on at Wembley. (Though the Press Secretary did ask me more than once to check the score.)

I also did my bit for the Commonwealth by arguing with various misty-eyed dinner companions about the apparent laudable diversity and Commonwealth-loving ways of the Man Booker Prize, and batted away suggestions that tiny outposts of the once-great Empire – e.g. New Zealand – were shaking with fear at the prospect of U.S. writers crowding into the Man Booker shortlist next year.

As you may have noted from previous posts for the Listener, I’m a great fan of numbers. The writers with the most to fear from the onslaught of American books up Booker Hill, I suspect, are British. Because they’ve always been the dominant group, they have the most – or, at least, the most places – to lose. Just a glance at the last five years of shortlists (2008–2012) reveals that of the 30 shortlisted authors, there were two Indian writers, two each from Ireland, Canada, South Africa and Australia, and one Malaysian. Eighteen were British. (Scottish commentators would probably demand a recount here, because it’s quite possible all 18 were English.) Four out of the five winners were British.

So the notion of the Man Booker Prize to date as a de facto Commonwealth prize – a conclusion possibly drawn from this year’s shortlist – is quite misleading, unless it’s like a bizarre Commonwealth Games where Britain gets to send the biggest team and thereby ensure that it wins the most medals. Really, it’s not surprising that the vocal opposition to American inclusion is from British authors, because it’s always been a British prize. Through wine, chocolates and sticky-fingered tweeting, I argued that those of us already on the margins of the Man Booker will remain just that, popping in from year to year when there’s a spare chair at the tea party. And occasionally, in was the case of this year, one of us will surprise everyone by carrying off the golden teapot.

The winner of the golden teapot last night, Eleanor Catton, was – in this order – stunned, shaking, gracious, articulate, sincere, impressive, and delighted. By the time she escaped interviews and photos, and made her way to the Granta post-party, she was beaming. I hope I was the first “journalist” to ask her the most important question: who are you wearing? (Kate Sylvester, the most expensive dress EC has ever bought.)

I can’t tell you much more about the party, held in a very packed members-only club Two Brydges near St Martin’s Lane: Guy Somerset, Listener enforcer, kept emailing to demand more tweets, blog posts, interviews … all on my phone, of course. To keep him happy, I even tried to interview the two mice zooming around the crumb-spattered carpet in the upstairs dining room.

On the subject of celeb-spotting at the event itself, Ellie said she was completely over-awed to see Kazuo Ishiguro – until she saw John Hurt walk by. V.S. Naipaul toured the drinks reception before dinner in his wheelchair, pausing for photo ops. I fawned over Jhumpa Lahiri, chatted with the lovely Stephen Kelman, and kept track of a smiling, chatting, wine-sipping A.S. Byatt – perhaps she was celebrating England’s defeat of Poland?


New Zealander Eleanor Catton has won the 2013 Man Booker Prize for her novel The Luminaries

At 28 she's the youngest-ever winner of the prestigious award.

Read Catton's full acceptance speech here.

Eleanor Catton speaking to Radio NZ about her win:

Writer Paula Morris attended the prizegiving:

After lots of murmurings about a surprise winner, the room at Guildhall didn't seem too shocked or unhappy, and Ellie Catton's gracious, articulate thank you speech was appreciated. Not by Naipaul, apparently, who was muttering throughout about the quality of the wine.

I talked to a buoyant Fergus Barrowman: he was exalting in the success of a novel so defiantly uncommercial. I'll try to nab him for a longer chat soon: he's surrounded by blonde London types every time I spot him.

After the announcement I chatted with Stephen Kelman, shortlisted two years ago for Pigeon English. The Man Booker is much more enjoyable, he said, when you're not competing.

Must remember to ask Ellie what she'll do with all that prize money. A bach on the West Coast, perhaps? Hope she arrives soon at the Granta party. No champagne till she gets here.

Fergus Barrowman: "I didn't know it all along. I've been dampening down my optimism, but we knew it was in with a chance, because it's such a remarkable book. I don't think Ellie wants her life to change too much. Of all the writers I've known, I think she's best equipped psychologically to deal with this. You could hear that in her speech."

Philip Gwyn Jones, former publisher at Granta. Philip did the original two-book deal: "We could see from The Rehearsal that this was a remarkable talent." The Luminaries, he says, is a much more measured and disciplined book. "She shows such extraordinary ventriloquism."

On criticism of the novel: "To say it's only a beautiful thing is like criticising the Parthenon. It's an expression of architectural truths, but none of this matters to a reader, because there's so much else to get from the book. Pure, brilliant readability."

Steve Toussaint, Ellie's partner, on what's next: "We're going to have a real fun couple of years. I'm finishing my PhD at IIML. Ellie will keep teaching at MIT. Tonight she was prepared for all contingencies, as you could tell by the fact that she'd written that speech, but I think she was incredibly shocked when her name was called. We've spent the past few days with the other shortlisted writers, and every time she was convinced that they should win!"

Paula Morris spoke to Radio NZ about Catton's win:

Reaction from around the world:

BBC News

The Guardian

The Independent

The Sydney Morning Herald

The New Zealand Herald

Canadian media already claiming Catton as one of their own.

Read the Listener's October 2013 interview with Eleanor Catton here.

Below is a brief interview with Catton and reading of selected passages from The Luminaries:

Paula Morris is fiction writer-in-residence at the University of Sheffield in the UK. Her novel Rangatira was fiction winner in the 2012 New Zealand Post Book Awards.

POST #1 - MON 14 OCT

The Man Booker Prize looms: on Wednesday morning (NZ time), London’s lit-biz luminaries will gather at Guildhall, hand over their invitations and photo ID, send their carriages away for a few hours, and settle in to see which book takes the prize this year.

Newspapers in Britain are a little distracted by the recent announcement that, from next year, American novelists published in the UK will be eligible for the Man Booker. General verdict: the sky is falling down. Lady Antonia Fraser resigned; past winner Howard Jacobson called it “the wrong decision.”

Jeanette Winterson complained that the British were “lap dogs” to Americans, and insisted that it wasn’t “nationalistic for us to have our own prize.”

Eleanor Catton The Luminaries“Our” means British and Irish. From a New Zealand perspective, it’s hard to get too gloomy over the news. Only a handful of NZ novels are eligible every year, because most NZ novels are not published in the UK, and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries is only the third New Zealand novel to be shortlisted in forty-six years. Let’s run those numbers again: three New Zealand novels in forty-six years.

So we may just slip past the waving swords of the approaching cavalry; they’ll be too busy fighting off British and Irish novelists, used to dominating Booker shortlists. In the last decade, five of the winning novels were by English novelists, two by Irish novelists, two by Indian novelists, and one by DBC Pierre, who is officially Australian, grew up in Mexico, wrote a book largely set in the US, and lives in Ireland.

According to a recent attempt in the Guardian to map the Man Booker Prize, London is the most popular setting in Booker-shortlisted books over the decades, followed – at some distance – by Dublin. Unsurprising to learn, then, that twenty-nine of forty-six Booker winners to date have been British or Irish novels.

When Jeanette Winterson issues her dire warnings for “our own prize,” she clearly thinks the Americans will mount a more organised offensive on than the scattered denizens of the Commonwealth, most of whom aren’t published in the UK anyway.

At least one American commentator, Jake Flanigan in The Atlantic, is worried as well, fearing that novels like The Luminaries might never have made the Man Booker shortlist if American novelists were already in contention. “The vast wave of American literary talent might wash away future contenders from farther corners of the English-speaking world,” he suggests. “Like those from, say, New Zealand.”

Eleanor Catton. Photo/David White

But isn’t the battle already lost – or, at least, a near-impossible struggle – if we can’t even get our novels published in the UK in the first place? That’s the real reason British novelists are worried that the Yankees are coming: British book shops are floor-to-ceiling with new American novels, dutifully published in London after anointment in New York, all soon to be eligible, brazenly, for the Man Booker Prize.

Jim Crace is the only British author on this year’s list, in that he was born in the UK and lives there still. (Most of the other writers on the list tend to move around.) In this weekend’s Observer, Robert McCrum waspishly complained that “with the exception of Crace, every author on the shortlist has strong North American connections, and all six have explicit links to US creative writing schools.” Perhaps the sky has already fallen down.

POST #2 - MON 14 OCT

This year’s Man Booker shortlist boasts various firsts, as Global Comment points out  – for example, NoViolet Bulawayo is the first black African woman (and the first writer from Zimbabwe) ever to be shortlisted. If she were to win the Man Booker tomorrow night, she would be just the fourth African writer – after J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, and Ben Okri – to do this. Coetzee and Gordimer are South Africans; Okri is from Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country.

A win from Bulawayo would be an upset, according to British bookies. Apparently, “highbrow betting” is fashionable in the UK these days – William Hill is the “official” bookmakers for the Mercury Music Prize – so all the big bookies have odds on the Man Booker shortlist.

Jim Crace.

To maintain perspective: the total amount of bets placed to date this year is £15,000, nothing like the amount laid down every week on football matches, let alone horse races, though the figure on cultural betting is going up every year.

Jim Crace is still the favourite for this year’s Man Booker, with Colm Toibin and Eleanor Catton nipping at his heels. But bookies’ favourites don’t mean much in the judging room. If there’s a squabble over two favourites, a third title can overtake them both. This worked for Keri Hulme, an outsider in 1985, but not for Lloyd Jones, the favourite in 2007. Might it work for Catton this year?

When you’re tired of totting up odds, there’s fun and games over at the Bluffer’s Guide to the Man Booker Prize. One note to the bluffers: they’re wrong on (at least) one count: Hilary Mantel and J.G. Farrell aren’t the only two-time winners. Peter Carey won for Oscar and Lucinda in 1988, and for True History of the Kelly Gang in 2001. The only other Australians to win: Thomas Keneally in 1982 and, controversially, DBC Pierre in 2003.

I’ll be live-tweeting from the Man Booker ceremony on Wednesday morning from around 7am, NZ time. Make sure you check the Listener on Twitter for the latest news.
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