How do you think the kind of society that Eleanor Catton described in her (now infamous) interview would react to someone like Eleanor Catton saying such things in an interview?

I don't know if he ever got around to actually writing it, but somewhere there is a Borges story about a story that when read brings into being the very story that is the story that has just been read. That story, which may or may not exist, reminds me of the current kerfuffle over Eleanor Catton saying something that she thinks, John Key saying that she can think that if she wants but she really ought to understand how hard it is to run a country, Sean Plunket being a ninny and the media (social and "real") having a joygasm.

Because they seem to have attracted the most attention, despite being a few throwaway lines at the end of a longer and (frankly) more thoughtfully expressed disquisition on New Zealand's cultural/social environment and her place in it, I'll begin with Catton's comments about Key's National-led Government. She begins by expressing some disquiet about her perceived role as an "ambassador" for New Zealand, because:

At the moment, New Zealand, like Australia and Canada, (I dominated by) these neo-liberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians who do not care about culture. They care about short-term gains. They would destroy the planet in order to be able to have the life they want. I feel very angry with my government.

In assessing the accuracy (or, if you like, fairness) of these comments, let us recall that  Key chose to open the New Zealand Literary Heritage Trail with the slightly unfortunate words:

I have always believed we should enhance the literary skills of our young people and while our literary heroes may never challenge the glory and respect given to our All Blacks, we still need role models to inspire us.

And let us also not forget that Key's self-professed favourite movie is Johnny English - check out what the critics think of it here - while his favourite book is "anything by John Grisham".

Against that background, is doesn't seem completely off-base to suggest that "culture" is not one of the things that sits at the top of Key's "stuff that matters" pile. Add to this the fact that the Arts, Culture and Heritage portfolio has been taken from Chris Finlayson (who now has spies to keep in line) and dumped with 20th ranked Maggie Barry and you could even say that his government as a whole shows little interest in the issue. Or, at least, if you did say it, you could argue it was for good reason.

As for the rest of Catton's assessment, it reads (as Key quite fairly pointed out) like something you'd expect to hear from the Green Party. Which, as anyone who follows the news at all should know, is completely unsurprising. After all, here is Catton speaking at the launch of the Green's election campaign in August last year:

Ms Catton told the crowd she loves New Zealand - so much so that she often bursts into tears upon landing at Auckland Airport.

She said foreigners saw New Zealand as a peaceful, beautiful and fair society and she was voting Green as she didn't want that image to be a lie.

So a Greens-sympathetic author expresses her unhappiness that her country (and other similar countries) are presently governed by center-right regimes that hold ideological and policy preferences other than her own. That's almost as shocking as Johnny Ramone saying "God bless President Bush and god bless America" at his inauguration into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I guess.

Of course, just why Key then thinks "it's just a bit sad really that [Catton's] mixing politics with some of the other things that she's better-known for" is a bit less clear. Is it "sad" like when Eric Murray, Israel Dagg and Jonah Lomu tweeted their support for him on polling day last year? Or maybe its "sad" like when business leaders made comments like this leading into the last election:

"The PM is a proven performer who is recognised as a world-class political leader," says Deloitte chief executive Thomas Pippos.

"The consistent opinion polls are no fluke," adds Forsyth Barr's Neil Paviour-Smith. "The political leadership has been superb at a difficult time for the country post-GFC and earthquakes."

Yet, strangely enough, I can't recall any suggestion from Key that these folk ought to refrain from mixing politics with their other areas of expertise. Perhaps someone might ask him to repudiate their actions now?

And quite why it is "treacherous" for Catton to speak as she did, as Sean Plunket seems determined to keep on claiming, is even more opaque. It seems somehow linked to the fact that Catton was employed by Victoria University [Ed: Manakau Institute of Technology] while she was writing The Luminaries, and so as the past recipient of taxpayer's cash she should not be permitted to criticise the present Government. That seems a somewhat ... dangerous line of reasoning from someone who from 1997-2010 was paid far more taxpayer money by Radio New Zealand to present Morning Report.

And as for his mansplaining claim that:

Now Eleanor, you say we're dominated by politicians, you're lucky enough Eleanor, to live in a democracy where people get to vote, so the Government and the Parliament and the make-up of the Parliament represents the people of New Zealand, so basically you are bagging all of us.

Well, the Greens have already taken care of that.

Of course, Plunket is just a humble shock-jock trying to work his station up from 11th spot in the ratings, so we can pass him by without any more ado. For what really is interesting about the whole response to Catton's words is how perfectly they prove the very point that she was making in the interview. 

Catton's main argument, before she gets on to talking about the Government at all, is that New Zealand (and hence New Zealanders) have a deeply conflicted relationship with the wider world around us. On the one hand, we crave validation and recognition. Consider how the term "world class" is considered the ne plus ultra (see what I did there?) of positive acclaimation, how events/actions that "really put us on the map" are to be strived for, while to say that something "could be in/from New York/Paris/London/etc ..." is  to mark it as exceptional. Unless and until something has been stamped with international recognition, we can't really be sure if it's any good. Because it's the Man Booker prize that lets us know that Catton is a really good writer, right? Just as Royals is a great song because it got to number one on the Billboard charts ... as opposed to Tiny Ruins stuff which may be OK for a local artist, but is hardly ... and you know the rest.

Yet at the same time we are somewhat suspicious of those who venture outside into that world and receive such acclamation from it. If external validation proves the worth of a person/novel/song/idea/etc, then those who receive such may develop a sense of entitlement, or a belief that they actually are better than those of us who have stayed "home". Which then feeds into our anxieties and uncertainties about our national self-worth - if on returning home these people act as if we are pedestrian and beneath them, then maybe we actually are that?! So we must make sure that they aren't allowed to act in that way - we want our heroes to be Ed Hillaries, thanks, and not Kanye Wests.

And even worse are those who venture outside into the world and receive such acclamation from it, only to fail to tell the world how completely wonderful New Zealand (and the people who live there) are. Because if the world has judged them "worthy", yet they are telling the world that we have problems, then what are we to think of ourselves? Our metric for gauging importance ("this person is world class, so must matter!") clashes with our basic insecurity ("the audience we desperately want to impress is hearing bad things about us, which means they will judge us poorly!")

And so ... cue anger and outrage. Treachery! You were one of us and we nurtured you, and now this is how you repay us? Whadda ya think you are, anyway - all you did was write a book!! It's not like you're even an All Black!!!

Which is exactly how the sort of society that Catton is describing in her interview could be expected to react to her words. Which it did. Thus showing that her words contain (at least a measure of) the truth. Which we don't want to hear, because we're the kind of people that she says we are. 

But at least it got Sean Plunket some attention.


Comments (20)

by Lee Churchman on January 28, 2015
Lee Churchman

Add to this the fact that the Arts, Culture and Heritage portfolio has been taken from Chris Finlayson (who now has spies to keep in line) and dumped with 20th ranked Maggie Barry

Maggie Barry ruled the airwaves of my childhood during her stint on Radio Lakeland – a station whose playlist seemed to require Elton John's "Don't Go Breakin' My Heart" to be played on the hour, every hour. I can't think of anyone more qualified...

by Nick Gibbs on January 28, 2015
Nick Gibbs

Shouldn't she be thanking John Key for delivering that atmosphere of darkess, anger and suffering that artist have always thrived on? 

Surely the conditions are now ripe for her to become NZ next/only Noble Prize winner.

by Ross on January 28, 2015
I always get nervous when so called celebrities opine about political matters. Sure, Catton can say whatever she likes, but imagine (yes, I know it's hard) but just imagine if John Key let rip with an erudite review of The Luminaries? No doubt Catton and others would say: "what gives an idiot like you the right to criticize my work - why don't you just stick to politics".
by william blake on January 28, 2015
william blake

In terms of response, Key's patronising "disappointment" rates as a hit below the waterline, he is really pissed, his government is being criticised by an internationally relevant intellectual.

I don't think Catton is bagging the country either, she is just saying that neo liberalism creates an arid wasteland for creativity.

by Lee Churchman on January 28, 2015
Lee Churchman

I always get nervous when so called celebrities opine about political matters.

Why? It's supposed to be a democracy. They're generally no worse informed than the average Joe.

If it's because they have a public platform, then perhaps we should start gagging journalists, who frequently don't have a clue what they are talking about.

by Andrew Geddis on January 28, 2015
Andrew Geddis

...imagine (yes, I know it's hard) but just imagine if John Key let rip with an erudite review of The Luminaries? No doubt Catton and others would say: "what gives an idiot like you the right to criticize my work - why don't you just stick to politics".

Oh, I don't know - politicians of all stripes seemed to have plenty to say about the merits of The Luminaries! And if puffed up legal academics think they can do literary criticism, then why shouldn't anyone else?

by Che Nua on January 28, 2015
Che Nua

Tautoko her korero but she was born in Canada so not a real NZer anyway

by Peggy Klimenko on January 29, 2015
Peggy Klimenko

@Ross: "imagine if John Key let rip with an erudite review of " The Luminaries"?"

Wouldn't that be an oxymoron? Or is it some other figure of speech I'm searching for...

by Ross on January 29, 2015
"his government is being criticised by an internationally relevant intellectual." I thought Catton was a writer....but internationally relevant intellectual does sound more impressive!
by Ross on January 29, 2015
Lee My comment was really about the US political scene. Literally dozens and dozens of celebrities there feel they need to say how good/bad are the Democrats or Republicans. I am not sure if it is helpful. Of course these people have the right to speak...but imagine if suddenly National and Labour were to produce various celebrities offering their support. Would you be impressed if Irene Van Dyk, for example, said that she thought John Key was the best thing since sliced bread? Would you take her views seriously?
by Maureen Jansen on January 29, 2015
Maureen Jansen

Thank you for deconstructing the negative response to Catton's comments.What about casting your critical eye over the whole interview, parts of which have featured in The Herald: the NZ Book Awards etc? I read what appeared to be a big chunk of the interview in an Indian paper and, left-leaning book-lover that I am, I still wasn't impressed by her statements. 

It must be hard when others feel they can use you to advertise NZ or feel the whole country owns your achievement. However, I think it's a bit churlish to complain about it. That's not my main objection, though.

Attributing her failure to win the NZ Book Awards on the Tall Poppy Syndrome is so last century and once again churlish. A cliche.

Maintaining that a novelist shouldn't write poetry or it would weaken her craft  is a strange opinion and I can't help but wonder if she's getting back at CK Stead for his review of her book.

She also mentions cultural cringe, another cliche. "The last thing you want is a whole country of embarrassed writers slinking around." Is that what our writers are doing? I thought we'd had a big improvement in the cultural cringe department over my life-time but she seems to be discovering it all over again.

I have to add that I like what I see of Catton but I dislike her book, put it down the first time then went back and forced myself to read it. It got better but not enough for me to really enjoy it or feel enriched by it. Straight afterwards I reread Middlemarch to reassure myself I wasn't losing it! Maybe that's why people look sideways at Catton: I thought I was an intelligent reader but your book didn't work for me. 

And wasn't her political statement a sweeping generalisation that cast all NZers in a bad light. Je suis not my government. 


by Simon Connell on January 29, 2015
Simon Connell

I find the 'tall poppy' part of Catton's comments a bit weird to process:

We have this strange cultural phenomenon called “tall poppy syndrome”; if you stand out, you will be cut down. One example is that the New Zealand Book Award that follows the announcement of the Man Booker Prize, in the year The Luminaries won it, there was this kind of thing that now you’ve won this prize from overseas, we’re not going to celebrate it here, we’re going to give the award to somebody else. If you get success overseas then very often the local population can suddenly be very hard on you. Or the other problem is that the local population can take ownership of that success in a way that is strangely proprietal.

So many people have talked in the media and me directly in ways of 2013 being the year that New Zealand won the Man Booker Prize. It betrays an attitude towards individual achievement which is very, uncomfortable. It has to belong to everybody or the country really doesn’t want to know about it. 

The bit about the New Zealand Post Book Award seems a bit bitter, I guess? Especially considering she won the fiction section prize but not the top award, it seems to be overstating things to say that outcome was a cut down.

And then there's the bit complaining about the problem of the collective claiming individual success. It's not that this isn't a phenomenon that we might want to talk about. It's that that's the kind of complaint we might expect characters in Ayn Rand novels to make about society - so it's a little surprising to hear it from someone who then goes on to complain about money-hungry neb-libs.

If you unpack things a bit further, as Andrew has here, it starts to make more sense. But on the face of it the tall poppy stuff struck me as a bit weird.

by Andrew Geddis on January 29, 2015
Andrew Geddis

Hi Maureen,

Those all seem fair comments to me - there's no reason to treat Catton's words as holy writ, and I'm not in the business of defending everything she said. And I'm definitely not getting involved in the backbiting/feuds of the NZ literary scene - I'll stick to the far more tranquil waters of legal academia, where everyone treats each other with fairness and respect and the problem of individual ego never raises its head.

But on your comparison between Middlemarch and The Luminaries ... it is perhaps a little unfair to say Catton's second novel isn't quite as good as a book The Guardian ranks as the 21st greatest of all time! Having said that, but, remember that Henry James greeted the publication of Eliot's masterpiece with the review "Middlemarch is a treasure-house of details, but it is an indifferent whole." Sounds somewhat familiar, no?

by Andrew Geddis on January 29, 2015
Andrew Geddis

Hi Simon,

I agree the whole thing about the NZ Book Awards is a bit weird - she probably should get over it. But on the collective claiming of her success, I read that as more of a lament about the tendency we have to see the work of art not for what it is, but rather in instrumental terms as to what it will do for us. So, rather than saying "Good on Eleanor Catton for producing such a good book - it's great that we have such talented people in our country", we say "Eleanor Catton's book has really put New Zealand on the map - doesn't it show the world how great we all are!"

by Maureen Jansen on January 29, 2015
Maureen Jansen
I know it's not fair to compare her novel to Middlemarch and that book judgement is subjective. I was trying to express how her book made me feel. It had gained such acclaim but I could barely read it. One of the few things in life I pride myself on is my ability to enjoy challenging literature. I don't usually fail on a Booker prizewinner. (I found this year's winner soppy in parts - enjoyed it though.) After the L I thought I'd see if I could still enjoy the genuine 19th century literature I had read in my youth. Middlemarch seemed the ideal choice and yes, I still found it dazzling (apart from the local politics sections)After my poor reading experience with The L, I found that a lot of keen readers agreed with me. There were some negative reviews. She blamed them on older male writers being affronted by her success, even though one of them was Kirsty Gunn. I really wonder if she takes criticism badly and tends to blame it on agism, sexism, tall poppy syndrome or cultural cringe. Because of a certain bitterness about this she is lashing out at our right wing government for putting a money value on everything. Am I being unfair?
by Andrew Geddis on January 29, 2015
Andrew Geddis

I'm not sure Middlemarch is the best example of "the genuine 19th century literature" to set alongside The Luminaries. Part of the reason the former is considered so "great" is that it transcended its time, in that it eclipsed the genre trappings expected of "the Victorian novel". A better comparison would be, say, The Old Curiosity Shop or Who Killed Zebedee? These are the sorts of books Catton is using as templates (in style and "voice", anyway).

And, yes, The Luminaries divides readers. My wife and I both loved it. Others didn't. And yes, there were negative reviews. As Simon Collins notes in his Metro blog:

It’s true the book did not receive unqualified adoration from the critics. While some loved it start to finish, others loved it in parts, or admired it more than loved it, or just didn’t get it. Most did their best to explain their response, and in doing so to help their readers become deeper, more engaged, more aware readers of the book. That’s what critics are supposed to do.

Catton did not react wonderfully well to that. She made it clear she was hurt by some of what was said, in the way that most artists, when they release their darlings into the world, are hurt by anything less than simple adoration. Sadly for artists, it’s a difficult truth that critics do not write for them; critics should respect the artist but their job is to write as fairly as they can for the public.

But I think the statement "Because of a certain bitterness about this she is lashing out at our right wing government for putting a money value on everything" is quite unfair. Because as Collins also notes:

Why is [Plunket] even surprised that Eleanor Catton doesn’t support the current government? She’s made that clear several times. And, omg, what’s he going to do when he realises Lorde may not be its greatest fan either? Does he think that since we spent so much of 2013 and 2014 feting our new-found wonderful young New Zealand women, they should have realised we just want to admire them without having to think about what they believe? Women can be read and sung along to, but should not actually be heard?

Eleanor Catton is a leading New Zealand intellectual, and clearly she is not afraid to build a profile as a public intellectual. Hallelujah. We have far too few of those and we desperately need more. Why? Because public intellectuals have the job of helping us think more insightfully and critically about things that might really matter to us as citizens. The more we do that, the healthier we become as a nation.

by Maureen Jansen on January 29, 2015
Maureen Jansen

I take your point about the 19th century novel. I too read Simon Wilson's blog entry and found it mainly very insightful. Because I never listen to Plunket, I'm basing my views on what Catton actually said and how I feel about it. I think what she said was problematic in its own right and someone can feel disappointed in her for it without being a sexist old guy. Nor do I see it as an issue of intellectualism. Wasn't her remark about the right wing governments a rather crude exaggeration. Not very brainy and as Simon Wilson said not surprising that a bright young woman of her age would lean to the Greens.

I think she was probably probed into giving some of those answers and was quoted out of context. I'm sure she's a better person than the one revealed by the Indian newspaper. But all I have to go on so far is the material we have been shown. 

by Ross on January 30, 2015

I'll stick to the far more tranquil waters of legal academia, where everyone treats each other with fairness and respect and the problem of individual ego never raises its head.

After law there's a career in comedy beckoning.

by Andrew Geddis on January 30, 2015
Andrew Geddis

After law there's a career in comedy beckoning.

 Some have said that my career in law is a comedy ... .  
by Lee Churchman on January 30, 2015
Lee Churchman

I find that lecturing is just highbrow standup.

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