Will The Luminaries Be the Last 'Hidden-Gem' Booker Prize Contender?

Written by 27-year-old relative newcomer Eleanor Catton, the novel is just the type that could get overlooked when the contest opens up to American authors next year.

Eleanor Catton, 27, is the youngest author ever to be nominated for a Man Booker Prize. She deserves the distinction: The Luminaries, her second novel in five years, is excellent and a likely frontrunner for the grand prize. And if there was any concern that Catton’s prose might betray her as a mere beginner, The Luminaries has proven quite the opposite. She writes with the fluid and artful precision of a much older writer—more than a century older, in fact.

Set in 19th-century New Zealand, at the height of the West Coast Gold Rush, The Luminaries recalls the literary style of the time with impressive accuracy: It’s a massive tome, weighing in at 832 pages, but contains sentence after sentence of quietly observed detail. For example:

The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met. From the variety of their comportment and dress—frock coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric, and twill—they might have been twelve strangers on a railway car, each bound for a separate quarter of the city that possessed fog and tides enough to divide them.

The story itself, an intricately woven murder mystery with an expansive cast of colorful characters, is the type of elegant page-turner you might have found serialized in the earliest editions of The Atlantic. Catton maintains multiple storylines with Dickensian dexterity—hapless protagonist Alistair Lauderback stumbles on a string of grisly murders while a cabal of local men convene in secret to discuss them. These intertwined plots unfold against the backdrop of a frontier town that runs on vice: sex, drugs, and murder.

As much as I enjoyed The Luminaries and the experience of literary time travel it offered, I have to wonder whether I would have picked it up at all had it not been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. In all probability, no. On occasion, a British or Canadian novel, or even a Japanese translation might slip into the stack of to-reads on my bedside table, but by and large, my literary diet consists of American writing. And the same holds true for most Americans: The New York Times' best-selling fiction list for the week of October 13 included 15 authors, only four of whom were from outside the U.S. Of those four, two (Jhumpa Lahiri and Lee Child) have made permanent homes in New York.

News broke last month that the 2014 Man Booker Prize will welcome any nominations originally written in English and published in the U.K., American novels included. There are those who hope the Booker’s new inclusiveness will raise awareness of how widespread inventive writing in English now is. But the revised rules also raise the perhaps more realistic fear of U.S. hegemony: The vast wave of American literary talent might wash away future contenders from farther corners of the English-speaking world. Like those from, say, New Zealand. And that would be a shame.

Catton’s fellow nominee Jim Crace (who seems to be the other most likely frontrunner) told The Telegraph, “As soon as you get a couple of years running in which the majority of people on that shortlist are Americans, it will seem less essential in England, and therefore they will have succeeded in turning something which is really focused and important into something that is semi-failing in two places.” It’s an argument worth considering. American authors already have a number of platforms for recognition: the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the various awards and occasions sponsored by PEN. The globalization of the Booker, which may very well turn out to be the Americanization of the Booker, could eliminate one very important diversifying influence on the average American’s reading habits.

It goes without saying that Americans will continue to read British writing even after the Booker goes global. After all, of the six single-volume books ever to sell more than 100 million copies, four were written by British authors (Dickens and Agatha Christie account for two of those, and J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the other two). And it’s likely Canadian and Australian fiction will maintain a strong presence on American shelves, too, judging by how well authors like Liane Moriarty and Margaret Atwood sell stateside. But the brilliance of the Booker Prize lies in its inclusion of otherwise lesser-known treasures, like this year’s Zimbabwean coming-of-age story and Catton’s transportive New Zealander mystery of Victorian vintage.

The Booker archives offer numerous other examples of young upstarts making it onto the lists, both long and short, and some who have gotten all the way to the prize. The Nigerian writer Ben Okri, then 32, won in 1991 for The Famished Road—a novel The New York Review of Books described as “a dazzling achievement for any writer in any language.” Five years ago, the award went to 33-year-old Indian novelist Aravind Adiga for his elegantly devastating first novel, The White Tiger, which was at that point the fourth debut to make it onto the list. Should Eleanor Catton win tomorrow, she will be the youngest Booker laureate to date. Who knows, of course, whether any of these writers would have made it into the running if they’d been competing against a bigger, American-stocked field. Here's the question: Is the risk of stacking the odds against less established talents a gamble worth taking? I, for one, would hate to see future Cattons miss a moment in the spotlight.

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Jake Flanagin is a writer for The New York Times's Op-Talk.

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