The Eleanor Catton Saturday Series: Part I

My good friend Brian Edwards has stuck his oar in on the Catton debacle.  And he thinks that low ranked talkback hosts like Plunket should be ignored.

Eleanor Catton will have learnt [a] lesson the hard way. The Man Booker Prize winner, only the second New Zealand writer to claim that prize, had, it seemed, committed the unforgivable sin of biting the hand that had fed her. She was, according to her most vitriolic critic, broadcaster Sean Plunkett [sic], “an ungrateful hua”, a term he later translated as “ungrateful scoundrel”. She was also, he said, “a traitor” to New Zealand.

Catton was evidently piqued at The Luminaries not being awarded the main prize at this year’s New Zealand Post Awards though her novel did win the Fiction category of the awards. “We have,” she said, “this strange cultural phenomenon called ‘tall poppy syndrome’; if you stand out you will be cut down.”

A couple of things particularly interested me about this episode. The first was Plunkett’s emphasis on Catton’s ‘indebtedness’ to New Zealand society, her ‘ingratitude’ for everything her country had done for her.

“Here’s a woman who’s a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, and works at a publicly funded institution, and has received a bit of financial help during her career to write things. Then she turns around and says she didn’t get a fair crack.”

More insidious than Plunkett’s accusations of ingratitude or his calling Catton ‘a traitor’ is the implication in all of this that if the state has assisted you in your endeavours and contributed to your success, you forfeit the right to publicly criticise the country, its people, policies or leadership. Loss of freedom of speech is apparently the interest you have to pay on your debt to New Zealand.

We are a people who like to celebrate the success, particularly on the international stage, of our fellow New Zealanders. We see that success as an affirmation of our personal worth, often to the point of living our lives vicariously through it.

This is nowhere more evident than in the area of sport. We idolize our sporting heroes. But our idolatry is contingent on our heroes not letting their success go to their heads, not getting out of line, not straying into areas that ought not to concern them, like social issues or politics, not being “up themselves”. Whether you’re an All Black, a war hero or a famous Kiwi thespian, you must keep your views to yourself or pay the penalty. There are myriad examples.

Above all we require our heroes to be modest about their achievements. And, in order not to leave any possible doubt of that modesty, to understate the achievement, minimise its significance and express embarrassment at the undeserved praise.

The commonest word you hear in New Zealand now in interviews with people who have won awards of gongs or widespread praise for things they have done is ‘humbled’. ‘I’m humbled by the public response, by all the letters of congratulation, by being recognised for my work.’ The word conveys the idea of having been undeserving, unworthy, of being reduced rather than increased in one’s own estimation. What a pity that the only acceptable way to respond to praise or congratulation in this country is by some mealy-mouthed apology.

Anyway, if I were Eleanor Catton I wouldn’t be too bothered by criticism emanating from the intellectual wasteland that is commercial talk-radio. No media segment in New Zealand has a more elevated view of its own worth or the worth of its opinions than this lot.

Edwards does a great job trying to talk this down from a serious crime to a midemeanor – essentially victim blaming the public for being taken aback by someone having been supported broadly, including financially, who then turns around and gets stuck into the Government.

My good friend Brian totally omits that Catton went straight for National’s throat, and that she does so as a fervent Green Party supporter.  All of this is relevant – as is the response she had.  A politically motivated outburst definitely deserves public reflection.


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As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story. When he’s not creating the news, he tends to be in it, with protagonists using the courts, media and social media to deliver financial as well as death threats.

They say that news is something that someone, somewhere, wants kept quiet. Cam Slater doesn’t do quiet and, as a result, he is a polarising, controversial but highly effective journalist who takes no prisoners.

He is fearless in his pursuit of a story.

Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him.