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 for one of these authors was success framed by youth. Nor were they described as looking “remarkably self-possessed”, as Nick Clark kindly but nonetheless patronisingly 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 show 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 Keats 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.