Tag Archives: Eleanor Catton

The improvised word leaves space for you

Improvisation is a powerful part of art. Dancers, musicians and actors – those things we name the performing arts – all learn to improvise as part of their craft. Their work is temporal and transient. Once the move or note is performed it is gone forever.  A recording of Miles Davis playing Kind of Blue is only a representation. To experience the real thing you need to see the artist live.

The great Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami owned and ran a jazz bar before he began to write. Murakami’s books have an improvised feel, and it’s something he often touches on when interviewed. 1Q84 – Murakami’s recent three volume novel – has the structure of a thriller. There’s an assassination, a private detective, a stake out. But it’s a thriller written by Murakami (who happens to also make it a homage to Marcel Proust) so like no other thriller ever written.

Eleanor Catton is my favourite new writer for a long time. We need many more people in this world willing to say that creation is divine. In this interview for The Guardian she talks about the process of writing The Luminaries. It’s a mystery, that Catton made up scene by scene, by asking at each point what a reader might enjoy reading. That’s the heart of improvisation – being open to what comes in the moment.

Improvising doesn’t mean just making up anything. Neither is it an excuse for poor quality art. To improvise you need great expertise. You need to have internalised the structures of your art to such an extent that you can work them without conscious thought. That’s hard. It takes time and practice but also immense openness and trust. Because yes, you might fail.

When you plan, what is it you want? And which part of you wants it? Planning is an intellectual exercise. It pleases your mind to plan things out, because then your mind can be satisfied that everything is going to go as planned. Your mind doesn’t like uncertainty. It doesn’t like the possibility of failure. But without that possibility, there is no chance of success. You have to be wary of your minds motives. “I have to pay the rent this month” isn’t a thought that is going to help you create, however true it may be.

This isn’t an entry in the debate between outlining vs. not outlining a book. I don’t care, whichever is better for you. But be aware that both can be done either from grace or from fear. A fearful outline will try and fill in all the space that your imagination needs to improvise in. A graceful outline will focus much more on establishing narrative dynamics than plotting. Refusing to outline can be it’s own kind of fear, rejecting the mind’s technical knowledge, without which the imagination can create nothing tangible. “I don’t need to learn anything to be creative” is one of the first barriers hopeful creators will need to get over.

The beauty of improvisation in any creative act is that it allows us to experience the world as YOU see it. Write a thriller, that’s a great structure. But write YOUR thriller. Write a space opera or an epic fantasy, there are rich images and symbols in there to explore, but make them yours. That’s a scary thing to do. We might all see what an oddball you are! But for everything person who turns away, you’ll find many other who love you for being yourself.

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Eleanor Catton debunks the idea that literature is elitist

Eleanor Catton is a very powerful writer. What do I mean by powerful? Writers don’t command armies, head governments or lead major corporations. No writer I know can leap a tall building in a single bound. Many, in fact, struggle to get up from awkwardly low seating. And yet writers do have very great power, when they choose to wield it.

Writers tell the truth.

Having put that there, on its own line, as a baldly contentious statement, let me take a few sentences to unpick it. Which is a good word. Writers unpick the truth. They take a bundle of contradictory and confusing ideas – like a ball of yarn that has got all tangled up – and untangle the threads so we can see them clearly.

Elitism is a tangled mess of ideas if ever there was one. Literature is another mess of often contradictory things. Jumble the two together and you end up with such a dense conceptual mass that very people will be able to make sense of it. Eleanor Catton is one of those very few people. And writing for Metro NZ, in a bare few hundred words, she unpicks the yarn ball of literary elitism so that we can all look at it clearly.

These days, the idea of being a “good reader” or a “good critic” is very much out of fashion — not because we believe that such creatures do not exist, but because we all identify as both. The machine of consumerism is designed to encourage us all to believe that our preferences are significant and self-revealing; that a taste for Coke over Pepsi, or for KFC over McDonald’s, means something about us; that our tastes comprise, in sum, a kind of aggregate expression of our unique selfhood.

Catton begins her short essay by talking about elitism. And the way that complex writing, using “difficult” words like “crepuscular”, attracts accusations of elitism. But it’s when Catton tugs on the thread of consumerism that the issue of literary elitism begins to unravel. We think of writing that we don’t understand as being elitist. But this is only because we have been trained to think of literature as a product of consumerism.

Consumerism, requiring its products to be both endlessly desirable and endlessly disposable, cannot make sense of art, which is neither — not desirable, because an encounter already is, and not disposable, because an encounter exists relationally, in space and time.

Books are not chocolate bars. Books are not fashion clothing. Books are not motor cars. Or blockbuster movies. Literature is not a consumer good. It is, in Catton’s words, an encounter. The most crude and ridiculous sign of treating literature like a consumer good are the 5 star rating systems employed on Amazon and elsewhere.

All a starred review amounts to is an expression of brand loyalty, an assertion of personal preference for one brand of literature above another. It is as hopelessly beside the point as giving four stars to your mother, three stars to your childhood, or two stars to your cat.

Here Catton hands the reader / consumer a chance to think about literature in a quite different way. A book is like a relationsip. You encounter a book in the same way you encounter any person who becomes important in your life : parents, friends, lovers, even enemies. And of course this can only be true. Books come bubbling up from the deep imagination of other humans, they are about the deep emotional experience of being human, of being alive. How can you treat this like a can of coke?

The book in question is evaluated as a product, and because the product has failed to perform as advertised, it is judged to be deficient. These negative appraisals are rarely developed beyond, “If I had understood/enjoyed/been interested in this book, it would have been better.” I am always tempted to reply: “If you had understood/enjoyed/been interested in this book, you would have been better.”

Here is Catton’s trump card. She may be tempted to say it, I often find myself actually saying it. Literature isn’t there to entertain you. Any more than your friends, parents, lovers or anyone else in the world exists to serve your needs. These are all things that you relate to. And you are responsible for the health of all you relationships.

I highly recommend reading Catton’s essay in full. Then take some time to unpick the complex problem of literary elitism for yourself. Stop thinking about literature as a consumer good, and start thinking about it as an encounter. And then see if what once seemed like elitism, starts to look like something quite different.