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.



THANK YOU for being a subscriber. Because of you Whaleoil is going from strength to strength. It is a little known fact that Whaleoil subscribers are better in bed, good looking and highly intelligent. Sometimes all at once! Please Click Here Now to subscribe to an ad-free Whaleoil.

  • Rodger T

    Maybe Eleanor should tell us exactly how much taxpayer money(which most of us have had to sweat to pay) she feels she is entitled to,just to clear the air.
    BTW ,Steve Braunias over at `erald is very entertaining on this subject this morn.

  • Wallace Westland

    Eleanor Catton has released another diatribe in today’s NZ Herald right there on pg2 where it ends in a threat and vow for revenge

    ” In future interviews with foreign media, I will of course discuss the inflammatory, vicious, and patronising things that have been broadcast and published in NZ 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”

    For crying out loud even her threats are long winded and verbose.
    Go ahead Eleanor, your audience is a bunch of pointy headed chardonnay socialists anyway that already hold your liberal hand out bludging views.
    The rest of us don’t care.

    • pak

      Her verbosity is clearly inherited. Listened to her father witter on for about 15 minutes to Sean Plunket and all he basically said was that he didn’t like the name-calling of “hua” and “traitor”. Perfectly O.K. though for his daughter to slag off New Zealand whilst on her travels abroad which seem to be in part at least funded from the Public purse. Let her”demand” away, I am finding her strident outbursts an increasing irrelevancy.

    • sarahmw

      I think she sounds unbalanced . I hope the strain of fame isn’t having a negative impact. But if she has been indulged all her life then it’s par for the course sadly.

    • kehua

      Oh dear, the word that comes to mind is , diddums.

  • Second time around

    Catton’s persistence with this issue is doing her no favours even with her loyal supporters. She has creativity, but so do the entrepreneurs, the peasant farmers who work this land, and the adoring proletariat who purchased her books in such numbers.

  • Murray Smith

    Brian, the Kiwi with the Irish accent, has often been wrong in many of his opinions. This is another example.

  • Bart67

    Catton’s latest outburst in which she states that she will only talk to foreign media about this from now on is interesting. As a writer of fiction, she appears to be blurring the lines between fiction and reality.

    She is quoted as saying “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.”

    It would appear she has hired John Minto as her press secretary.

    I wonder if she would also like to comment on the more that $50,000 dollars worth of taxpayer support she has received from Creative New Zealand. The majority of which was allocated by the National Government. The same government that made grants that enabled her work to be translated in to Portuguese, Dutch and Spanish.

    However, should she be so opposed to the government that has supported her to this extent that the receipt of these funds is anathema to her, I am sure the long suffering NZ Taxpayer would be happy to see her repay said funds from the royalties of her work.

    She is at best misguided, at worst spoilt and ungrateful. I am not saying she should bow, scrape and tug her forelock like some demented serf. but perhaps she should at least acknowledge the support she has received.

    • Bluemanning

      I wonder if the National Govt are still ‘funding’ her at all? She is an author of independent means therefore it is time to pull the financial plug if it hasn’t been yanked all ready.

  • JKV

    “The intellectual wasteland that is commercial talk-radio”. Typical of the faux-intellectual left that Mr Brian Edwards represents. What is particularly telling from Edward’s piece is the qualities in the New Zealand character that he so scorns: modesty, humility, a love of country. He’s right about that – these would be totally alien to the left.

  • YankeeManu

    Catton is running interference to distract us from the real reason Russel quit.

  • All_on_Red

    Edwards unwittingly exposes the snobbish elitist views of the so called intellectual left. We are better than the “common” NZer. Sure you are Brian.

  • Wheninrome

    The question still to be answered, Will she go on and write other “masterpieces” or are these outbursts a sign of a struggling mojo?

  • Genevieve

    Eleanor is like a petulant child and now says, ” she will discuss inflammatory, vicious and patronising things that have been broadcast and published in New Zealand this week, in future interviews she does with foreign media”
    Her father Dr Catton, has also been on air taking Sean Plunkett to task.
    This is hardly the way to make this issue go away.

    • twr

      Publicly funded family, all whining for more it would seem.

    • Genevieve

      If anyone has 13 minutes of their life that they wish to waste, here is the link to Dr Philip Catton’s interview with Sean Plunkett. The guy is as tedious as his daughter.

      • sarahmw

        And it seems Grandmother was at it also on zb . Eleanor you are a big girl now put on your big girl pants . Seems very precious and spoilt.

      • pak

        Unfortunately I had already listened before your advice received! Tedious and didactic. Instead of dismissing the “Right” he could take a leaf out of the P.M.’s book who when asked about the artistic choices of his daughter simply said he was proud of her then added a bit of light-hearted humour.

    • pisces8284 .

      What a nasty piece of work she turns out to be

  • Who is she? A nobody who got upset and votes for the greens?

    Oh well just another watermelon.

    • Cadwallader

      A life of living off the taxpayer gives her all the authority in the world….at least in her mind!

  • ruawai

    Of course she has the right to free speech as do the people that have responded to her comments! Brian Edwards seems to think Eleanor Catton has the right to free speech but not Sean Plunket.

  • dumbshit

    were she to engage even 1st gear in her brain before she dropped the clutch to her mouth, she might reflect on the fact that this government has possibly up to 52% public support, therefor by association she is “dishing” 52% of the population!

  • Wheninrome

    A left field thought, is she gathering information for a book, a book about the “nasty” right wing people.
    If she is it will definitely be a one-sided tale. It won’t mention the taxes paid that enable the “cultural intellectual types” to pursue their dreams. The grants, etc.,

  • geoff

    Before Edwards criticizes Plunkett perhaps he should be reminded of that television interview with Rodney Hide-where he deliberately tried to get to get Hide to repeat an allegation outside of the house so he could personally sue him for defamation.

  • Cambo

    Don’t always agree with Steve Braunias from NZH, but IMO, this is gold –

    • pisces8284 .


    • hrs
    • kaykaybee

      Brilliant work from Braunias

      “I (Ms Catton) checked out of the hotel yesterday, and flew back to New Zealand.

      I arrived today. The man at customs said, “Welcome home. Do you have anything to declare?”

      “Yes,” I replied, in a loud, clear voice. “Yes, I most certainly do.”

  • Curly1952

    Is she putting her name out there to replace wussel with her attack on the government?

  • Rodger T

    Time for a review of the entire arts grant program ,I believe.
    If you can`t stand on your own two feet ,why should the long suffering taxpayer have to endure your ingratitude and scorn?
    How much public money did Shakespear, Austen ,Dickens or the great Enid Blyton receive ?
    Not to mention all those great artists too numerous to mention .

  • Dr Wang

    It appears that silly little Eleanor is determined to show everybody what a petulant wee princess she is – what a huge disappointment after the heights of her achievements last year.

    I can’t see how globetrotting Catton showing the world that she has a collossal carbon footprint even larger than Al Gore (she would even make most of the wealth-creating “1%ers” look environmentally conservative) helps her posturing – it just confirms she is just another hypocritical pseudo-greenie, full of all the environmental demands that all the great unwashed must adhere to, but not her.

  • PsychoKea

    Maybe she is positioning herself for a stint as head of the Greens, is it just con incidence that Wussell has just announced his resignation ?

    • Imogen B

      That’s a no go. Wussel’s replacement must be male.

    • metalnwood

      A fiction writer, I suppose she has some of the required credentials then.

  • hrs

    The name caller gets a negative reaction and labels the negative reaction as a name caller. Ironic to say the least.

    Name caller conflates “tall poppy syndrome” with reason for her not getting a New Zealand award.

    Name caller was uncomfortable with the way the Man Booker was seen as a New Zealand award. “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.” Name caller complaining about NZers celebrating her award.

    Can NZers do any right by the name caller? Not allowed to celebrate her award. But not giving her further kudos is equivalent to tall poppy syndrome. How should we behave oh enlightened name caller?

    Name caller states that “At the moment, New Zealand, like Australia and Canada, (is dominated by) these neo-liberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry
    politicians who do not care about culture,”. Oh dear, labeling a group of politicians that a lot of people consider do a decent job for this country as shallow and money hungry and then being surprised by the lash back. Even more ironic.

    A few words describe this name caller: sanctimonious, hypocritical, deluded.

  • nudgy

    Don’t recall Eleanor taking Dotcom to task when he put her award winning book on Mega for all to read for free.

    • Kevin

      She probably doesn’t even know what the internet is.

    • Imogen B

      Earning income from book sales is far less important than being propped up at the public trough. It’s art for art’s sake.

  • timemagazine

    How amusing it is always to see other people’s faults but never our own. Isn’t it Eleanor?

  • Effluent

    Tall poppy? No.
    Spoilt brat? Yes.
    Her petulant response in this morning’s Herald makes no acknowledgement of the hefty financial support she has already received from the long suffering NZ taxpayers, nor of the fact that her own remarks were clearly motivated by partisan political considerations.
    She has been called on this hypocrisy, and found wanting.

  • pisces8284 .

    “O, wad some Power the giftie gie us to see oursels as others see us”
    Robert Burns

  • Orange

    “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.”

    What on earth is Edwards talking about?? Has he gone into cookoo land? 1) No one has forfeited her right to say what she wants. No one has sent her to prison or other horrible punishments that would be dolled out in Islamic or atheist dictatorships 2) Edwards is directly attacking the freedom of speech of radio talk back hosts??? He’s upset at someone saying something and that’s “ok” but not if someone else is doing the same thing. Total hypocrisy Edwards. Poor form.

    • parorchestia

      There is also a major moral problem that he ignores: why should a hard working taxpayer be forced to support activities that he has no interest in or gains little to no benefit from. Opera, for instance, is generally appreciated by the well-to-do, yet is supported largely by taxpayers and ratepayers.
      Not all of us are keen on reading made up stories either.
      Let those who want a particular activity support it. Catton should aim to attract enough readers so she can live comfortably. User pays is the fairest system of all.

  • Mags

    I don’t mind supporting the arts and I enjoyed reading the luminaries. EC is also entitled to voice her views.
    The thing that irritates me the most is that EC seems to think she had the automatic right to win the overall prize at the NZ Post awards. She has questioned those judges integrity despite them awarding her the top prize for fiction. This is the arrogance that I find abhorrent and which reflects badly on her.
    For someone who makes her living as a wordsmith she has shown little finesse or insight.

  • Hard1

    Simple-cast her adrift from the public purse. Ask for the public money that paid for her book translations to be returned. And don’t fund her foreign poet boyfriend either.
    No more public money period. Let life imitate art. You are what you eat. Why didn’t daddy fund the book writing?.

  • Wasapilot

    It might be said by her supporters that she is suffering “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. A quote from a little known neo liberal writer, who is far less well known than her, and so obviously far less talented.

  • kaykaybee

    So either Eleanor has sicced Daddy on to nasty Sean or he dashes to his daughter’s defence (despite the fact she’s an adult and a Booker Prize winner to boot). It’s all a wee bit precious to me. I defend her right to say what she likes and it is important we have these discussions in NZ, but I equally defend the rights of anyone to respond to her.

    My advice to Eleanor is she needs to reflect on the rights of others to oppose her views. Heaven knows we’re only stamping our feet up and down in our little tinpot, xenophobic, anti-intellectual manner when she had the international literati fawning at her feet. How is it so bad commentators and citizens responded in kind to remarks considered to be highly politically motivated in parts, pithy, self absorbed and churlish?

    Yes, we all need to be mature enough to have these conversations, but how does she imagine she’s the only one allowed an opinion. She needs to grow up, harden up and remember that it’s not our lack of maturity that saw the discussion take this form it was hers.

    • Intrigued

      I’d really like to be able to up vote this comment over and over as I really couldn’t have articulated my sentiments exactly any better if I tried. Ugh! So over this Catton outburst. Catton is so obviously tossing her toys out of the cot for the whole world to see cos she’s furious National won another term – and did so, so convincingly!

      • Another Middleagedwhiteguy

        Democracy is a marvelous thing when you are on the winning side – she isn’t, so in her view it’s not working correctly, doesn’t exist here, etc. (And you can change the wording of that last sentence putting in “freedom of speech”, with exactly same result.)

        Amazingly, for a novelist she seems to have quite a small vocabulary when referring to politicians.

  • niggly

    Wow, look at how many places the taxpayer has funded her to travel to in the last 12 months – 14 places:

    “In the past twelve months I have travelled to England, Scotland,
    Ireland, Wales, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Sweden, Spain, Canada,
    the United States, Australia, Brazil, and most recently India,”

    And despite that, the NZ Government i.e. actually she means the TAXPAYER (but is too gutless to say so), doesn’t appear to be doing enough for her!

  • Forrest Ranger

    Catton said “We have,” she said, “this strange cultural phenomenon called ‘tall poppy syndrome’; if you stand out you will be cut down.”
    We have another kiwi cultural phenomenon which is telling people like her who desperately need it to “pull your head in”

  • Popliteal

    Princess syndrome.

  • Joe_Bloggs

    Does Edwards genuinely miss the hypocrisy in his defence of Catton?

    He defends her right to publicly criticise the country, its people, policies and leadership. Yet attacks Plunkett for criticising Catton.

    I mean, really Brian, “we’re not playing tiddlywinks here, mate”. Politics is a contact sport and Catton is happy to play for the opposing side.

  • intelligentes candida diva

    If the fuss is because she said
    “…..this strange cultural phenomenon called ‘tall poppy syndrome’; if you stand out you will be cut down.”…”, I agree with her.
    Unless you play sport pretty much if you succeed and then come in for the second round of winning it is not uncommon to be cut down.
    Try a few work places and hate to say it females in position of authority seldom support a brighter female I have seen it, experienced it and have listened to younger females say it

    Just maybe she has a point and there is a smidge of truth in the comment.

  • steve and monique

    Had never heard of this woman before now. Seems she is getting the press, and lime light she so desperately wants now, and still moans. As for the connection to the Greens, well it explains a lot. I feel she may have contracted Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease while overseas.

    • Another Middleagedwhiteguy

      Could her commotion (with the obvious public connection to the greens) have been just the last straw for wussel?

  • parorchestia

    Brian ignores Rule No. 666: exercise scepticism when a person or a pig complains that the trough ain’t big enough. They may be acting somewhat selfishly.