February 2, 2015

Eleanor Catton vs. New Zealand


Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Should an acclaimed, award-winning novelist be free to speak out against her home country’s neoliberal politicians without being told by a radio show host to “stick [her comments] where the sun don’t shine”? In New Zealand, the answer to that question seems, unfortunately, to be no.

In October 2013, Eleanor Catton became the youngest author ever to receive the Booker Prize, which she won for her second novel, The Luminaries. Since her victory, she’s been traveling around the world promoting and discussing the book, and a couple of weeks ago, she found herself at the Jaipur Literary Festival. At Jaipur, she was asked the usual questions all writers are asked at these kinds of events—questions about her reading habits, her inspirations, and so on—as well as the not so usual questions, like what she thought about New Zealand’s government and her home country’s attitude to its artists.

Her response to the latter set of questions has provoked a great deal of scrutiny.

You can hear some of Catton’s remarks in the first forty seconds of the video below, but the real source of the controversy is an interview published on Livemint.com.

The Livemint interview, which was condensed, stripped of questions, and edited significantly (note the difference between Catton’s remarks in the video and how they appear in the text), quickly spread to media outlets in New Zealand. It’s worth quoting Catton at length:

New Zealand has the misfortune in not having a lot of confidence in the brains of its citizens. There is a lot of embarrassment, a lot of discrediting that goes on in terms of the local writers . . .

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 . . .

I know I shouldn’t complain too much—I’m in such an extraordinary position—but at the same time I feel that in the last year I’ve really struggled with my identity as a New Zealand writer. I feel uncomfortable being an ambassador for my country when my country is not doing as much as it could, especially for the intellectual world. It’s sort of a complicated position to be in.

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.

There’s a lot here, though none of it, as Catton later pointed out in a statement, was different from anything she’d said before. Catton has been politically outspoken for as long as she has had a public platform, and any conscientious writer is bound to feel conflicted about the idea of being an ambassador. But even if these remarks were nothing new, they received an unprecedented—and nasty—response at home.

I could devote the rest of this blog post to the response of New Zealand radio personality Sean Plunket, whose six-minute rant was so densely packed with misogyny, pedantry, and anti-intellectualism that it’s a wonder he had time to take a breath. (He’s the one who told Catton to “stick [her comments] where the sun don’t shine,” and he also called her a “traitor.”)  If you’d like to subject yourself to New Zealand’s very own Bill O’Reilly, you can click here.

Far tamer—yet more shocking—was the response of New Zealand prime minster John Key. Largely because he’s the fucking prime minister. If Catton needed further evidence for how thin-skinned and anxious New Zealand’s political class really is, Key’s defensive appearance on a TV morning show could not have proved the point any better. Admittedly, there’s something amazing about a head of state appearing on national television to defend himself against accusations leveled by a novelist—but it’s also hyper-sensitive and, well, creepy.

And then there was the right-wing Taxpayers’ Union, which itemized the various grants Catton had received over the years. The implication being, I guess, that if you get a rather modest amount of arts funding, you should never criticize a government’s cultural policy, because that makes you ungrateful.

Fortunately, this was a minority response. New Zealand’s first Booker winner, Keri Hulme, defended Catton, as did the writer and publisher Paul Little, who wrote an excellent op-ed, in which he had some harsh remarks for the aforementioned Plunket:

The RadioLive host bagged Catton for criticising the Government when she is in a “Government-funded” job, teaching writing at the Manukau Institute of Technology –oh, the glamour! Those students pay fees so it’s Government-subsidised at most.

Plunket, who co-hosted National Radio’s wholly taxpayer-funded Morning Report for 14 years, overlooked that as well as drinking deep from the public trough Catton has performed such acts of philanthropy as setting up a fund for writers and providing an opportunity for Plunket to get a tsunami of free publicity.

And whereas her students will learn a lot about how to write, Plunket’s listeners will learn nothing except how to loathe intellectuals and prefer invective to thinking.

Catton’s father, a philosophy professor, also appeared on Plunket’s show to defend his daughter.

And of course, Catton herself had some harsh words for her critics. I mentioned her statement above, but I encourage you to read the entire thing—it’s as lucid, sharply argued, and tough as her original remarks. And it ends on just right the note of defiance:

In future interviews with foreign media, I will of course discuss the inflammatory, vicious, and patronising things that have been broadcast and published in New Zealand this week. I will of course discuss the frightening swiftness with which the powerful Right move to discredit and silence those who question them, and the culture of fear and hysteria that prevails. But I will hope for better, and demand it.


Mark Krotov is senior editor at Melville House.