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Interrogating literature … and the language of who we are

My research is largely in the field of poetry and poetics, so not surprisingly poetry frequently makes its way into The Mind Field. I’m particularly interested in times that poetry hits not the literary pages but the political pages: when a poem by Günter Grass, for instance, made international news for its allegation that Israel poses a greater threat to world security than does Iran.

I’m also interested in moments when poetry – perennially undervalued in western nations – asserts its public worth: when an autographed manuscript of Laurence Binyon’s Ode of Remembrance fetched $15,000 – twice the anticipated price – at an auction at Bonhams; or a poet upturns a literary truism to become a bestseller.

More broadly I’m also interested in interrogating literature’s standing in public space.

Literary prizes, as one measure of literature’s standing, offer one of the few opportunities outside of the classroom for a shared-reading experience that allows us to engage in a conversation about literature, language and our lives.

Beyond being a high-profile marketing exercise – and no lover of literature should deny it that – the chief value of literary prizes is to curate a year’s worth of books. With around 8,000 titles published each year in Australia alone, this is an important if thankless task that literary judges perform on our behalf.

Literary prizes tell us a lot about of culture: not simply what they says about books, but what we say about prizes. The Stella Prize, for instance, was created in indignant response to the all-male shortlists the Miles Franklin served up in 2009 and 2011. The Miles returned rally with its first ever all-female shortlist in 2013, leading some to question whether women had suddenly become better writers or if judges were suddenly better at recognising them.

Sometimes science tells us what readers already suspect: that reading great literature can makes us better people. Recently, scientists have shown how fiction has the power to change future behaviour. Similarly, an article in Science, Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind, has offered experimental evidence that reading literary fiction – as distinct from reading popular fiction or nonfiction – enhances empathy and makes us better at managing complex human relationships.

I’m interested in investigating the many ways that language – our most quintessentially human of arts – makes us who we are. I’m also interested in examining times when language fails us, which is another way of saying I’m looking forward to the next traumatising round-up of The Bad Sex Awards – alongside less excruciating dispatches – coming soon to The Mind Field.

Booker-Prize-winner Eleanor Catton and male critics aging badly

Eleanor Catton wins the 2013 Man Booker Prize. AAP Image/Tal Cohen

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.

Eleanor Catton is awarded the 2013 Man Booker Prize

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.

Floodtide in the heart: vale Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney. Photograph: Felix Clay

The world of letters is in shock to learn that Seamus Heaney, Ireland’s best-loved poet, died on Friday at age 74.

“The death has taken place of Seamus Heaney,” publisher Faber and Faber said on behalf of the family. “The poet and Nobel Laureate died in hospital in Dublin this morning after a short illness.”

Heaney was awarded the Nobel prize in literature in 1995 “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”

In his Nobel lecture he described his “journey into wideness of language, a journey where each point of arrival - whether in one’s poetry or one’s life - turned out to be a stepping stone rather than a destination.”

A lifelong advocate for poetry, Heaney credited his art “for making possible a fluid and restorative relationship between the mind’s centre and its circumference.”

Heaney was born a Catholic in Northern Ireland in 1939 and raised in a thatch-roofed farmhouse called Mossbawn. Drawing heavily on his rural beginnings - which would remain his spiritual home long after he left - he published his first book of poems, Death of a Naturalist, in 1966 at the age of 27.

The opening poem, “Digging,” introduces the spade-pen metaphor that would become definitive for Heaney. In its concluding lines the poet, who has been watching his father dig potatoes in the garden, rejects the life of toil known to his forefathers and announces his vocation as a poet:

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

Heaney’s early books “wanted to be texture,” he reflected in an interview in The Paris Review, “to be all consonants, vowels and voicings, they wanted the sheer materiality of words.”

There is a sense, in reading these poems, that Heaney would prefer to write language-driven poems of love, inward reflection and deep wonderment at natural beauty: “I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells / Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss,” he recalled in “Personal Helicon.”

But Heaney was a poet afflicted with a sense of history, and soon his country had him writing with a knife.

As Northern Ireland descended into violence - “a quarter century of life waste and spirit waste” - Heaney was forced to become a poet of public as well as private life. Not infrequently his state of being was at odds with the political state.

Dublin, 1996. Photograph: Bobbie Hanvey
“In his writing, the public and the private compete for space,” critic Helen Vendler observes, “and the tragic and the quotidian contest each other’s dominance.” The pressures of Heaney’s public role found grim expression in works such as North and Station Island.

His later works reveal a desire to write a kind of poem that could not be ensnared in cultural debate. “This has become one of the binds as well as one of the bonuses for poets in Ireland. Every poem is either enlisted or unmasked for its clandestine political affiliations.”

Alongside his work as a poet, essayist and translator, Heaney enjoyed a distinguished career as a teacher and professor. From 1985 until 2005 he spent part of each year at Harvard as a visiting professor, and from 1989 to 1994 he was professor of poetry at Oxford.

In addition to the Nobel prize his many honours included the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the EM Forster Award, the Commandeur, de l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres, the Saoi of Aosdána, the Golden Wreath of Poetry, the TS Eliot Prize, and The Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry Lifetime Recognition Award.

Heaney’s thirteenth and final book of poems, Human Chain, was written in the aftermath of a stroke he suffered in Donegal in 2006. Forward Prize judge Ruth Padel described the winning collection as “painful, honest and delicately weighted.”

Steeped in memory, the poems are marked by loss and a sense of an impending end. In a poem called “A Herbal” the poet has stepped into the future to witness himself in past tense:

I had my existence. I was there.
Me in place and the place in me.

The place inside Heaney that granted him a sense of home - even if at times it was a troubled home - was the wild beauty of Ireland. At a poetry reading at Silkeborg Museum in 1996 Heaney shared a childhood memory of the peat bog, which for him was the source of all Irish memory and ancestry:

I loved the mystery and silence of the place when the work was done at the end of the day and I would stand there alone while the larks became quiet and the lapwings started calling, while a snipe would suddenly take off and disappear.

Seamus Heaney is survived by his wife, Marie, and children, Christopher, Michael and Catherine Ann.