Eleanor Catton broke new ground in literary criticism when giving the New Zealand Book Council’s Lecture, part of Writers Week and the New Zealand Festival at the Embassy Theatre on Monday night.
The importance of what she said, in my view, will reverberate through literary circles for some time, if for no other reason than she is to give the lecture at a number of other events before it is likely to be published in full (although I understand that the Monday night lecture is available behind The Listener‘s paywall). But there are more important reasons behind my contention of longevity of her thoughts than just how many times they will be repeated.
The lecture, while complex, was beautifully written and delivered with compelling, but gentle confidence, in a pristine voice.
Catton’s initial delving into the physics of time and space – the past and the future – was somewhat fuzzy and Catton described it later, in answer to a question, as a “silly idea’ on which she needed to do more work.
Real sharpness came though in her criticism of those who contend that character is more important than plot in literary fiction. “Good fiction…. requires meaning “, thus a plot.
And then Catton went into the attack. She dissected a number of Shakespeare’s works , particularly Hamlet, dismissing any thoughts that they were devoid of plot in favour of character. She was particularly critical of Harold Bloom’s view that Shakespeare was a writer of genre rather than a writer of literary fiction; dismissing his arguments as “critical hypocrisy”. Catton described “as dreary as it is wrong headed”, Bloom’s claim that “investing in plot was not a Shakespearean talent: it was one dramatic talent that nature denied him”.
And there was more on Bloom, which I am sure will fuel the debate for some time once the Catton lecture is more widely disseminated.
In thinking of this debate regarding plot and character in literary fiction, there was one insight I gained personally from the lecture in regard to The Luminaries – well, I think I have. I loved the plot and initially let slide any real understanding of the astrology within the book, as many other readers have told me they also did. Some of those other “sliders”, though, lamented the fact that there was not enough character development.
Then on Monday night I put the thoughts together and realised that what Catton may well have done was indulge the character lovers by the device of the establishing the characters of the “players” by using their astrological signatures. So to understand the characters within The Luminaries, it seems to me you have to refer to the front of the book and the astrological signatures of each person.
Look out for the published lecture.
By Lincoln Gould, CEO, Booksellers NZ