Reading as a creative act: Eleanor Catton’s bold new grant

Man Booker winner Eleanor Catton has funded a grant to let readers write. EPA/TAL COHEN

Booker Prize-winner Eleanor Catton announced last week she would use her NZ$15,000 winnings from the New Zealand Post best fiction and people’s choice prizes to set up a new grant for writers, dedicated to giving them time to read. Successful applicants will be given NZ$3,000 and asked to write a short article describing their reading with no further strings attached.

Establishing this grant, on those terms, makes a powerful statement about the value of reading and its connection with writing. It is a provocative act.

In some ways, it’s odd to think the grant is at all controversial. Catton is entitled to spend her money any way she chooses: on bread, rent, holidays or whatever. The fact that she has chosen to donate her money to other writers is unequivocally a good thing. We know that writers’ incomes have dropped dramatically over recent years, and any support for this financially precarious profession should be welcomed by those who care about books and writing. And, in theory, reading is a socially approved activity. We certainly encourage kids to read.

But the reaction to Catton’s grant shows that not everyone views reading as work, as a serious activity worthy of funding. An article about Catton’s grant in The Guardian has so far attracted 17 comments, many of which trivialise her initiative by describing it as “naive”, “faintly ridiculous” “a bit of a joke” or “silly”. Some of the condescension may well be linked to her gender and age – one commenter calls her a “cuteypie” – and some of it is explicitly targeted at recreational reading. One commenter writes:

Hmmm, if I wanted to write suspense thrillers, I need to take a month to read John Le Carre, then. Or is that called a summer holiday at the beach? Yes, writers need to read, those that don’t are obvious and more like glorified or failed PR hacks. But an education in what’s been written worth reading comes first. Should everyone read Proust, Dostoievsky [sic] and Kafka, or what reading criteria?

On this view, reading is a lightweight leisure activity unless it is regulated, its value established by some sort of educational institution according to pre-determined criteria. This kind of concern about unsupervised, time-wasting reading has a long history. Just think of Flaubert’s treatment of poor Madame Bovary, whose addiction to reading romantic novels led her to kill herself with poison.

We are conditioned to see reading by adults as idle consumption, not active production. If we don’t have time to read, it’s because we are far too important and busy with our real work. Catton disrupts this mentality with her grant. Her proposal legitimates the writer-as-reader. Describing her grant, Catton said that many other grants:

generally require the writer to have a good idea about what they want to write, and how, before they apply. I think that this often doesn’t understand or serve the creative process, which is organic and dialectic; I also think it tends to reward people who are good at writing applications rather than, necessarily, people who are curious about and ambitious for the form in which they are writing.

I’m also uncomfortable with the focus that it places on writing as production, with publication as the end goal, rather than on writing as enlightenment, with the reading as the first step.

Catton has used the establishment of this grant to offer a self-definition of her profession. She sees her work as a writer as creative, and fundamentally opposed to the logics of instrumentalism, pragmatism and measurable outputs. But this rhetorical opposition perhaps conceals a practical harmony. Catton’s grant makes a logical complement to other government and industry schemes.

It is a seeding fund to support the very early stages of writing – pre-start-ups, the incubation of creative work – and in some cases this may lead to projects that can secure funding in other ways.

Catton’s proposal is an intervention in our idea of what support writers need, and what kind of work they should do.

Funding “time to read” elevates self-chosen, leisurely reading as a valuable part of the creative process. There may be writers for whom this grant is not appropriate, who are at a different point with their work and are not currently yearning for time to read. That’s fine.

The ideal, here, is a society which supports its writers in diverse, multiple ways, and a philanthropic scheme that supports the gestation of creativity is to be cherished as a complement to existing government and industry grants.

The value of Catton’s grant goes beyond supporting writers. She also challenges stereotypes about passive readers and active writers, honouring and recognising the richness of cultural participation.

Her grant says that our reading is valuable too.