Paul Thomas

Eleanor Catton

Jan 30, 2015 | Kiwiana

Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker-prize winning novel The Luminaries shows she knows a thing or two about astrology, but I doubt she foresaw the stoush triggered by her remarks at an Indian literary festival.

It was a heavyweight clash: in Catton’s corner were fellow celebrated writers Keri Hulme and Alan Duff; in the opposite corner RadioLive host Sean Plunkett and the organiser of the New Zealand Book Awards. Prime Minister John Key made a cameo appearance, but left the ring before hostilities commenced.

Of the various contributions, Hulme’s and Key’s were the most measured. I suspect on reflection Plunkett would acknowledge that the term “traitor” didn’t belong in this debate. I also suspect it will be a while before he uses “hua” again: fine old Kiwi vernacular, but simply not worth the trouble.

Duff’s rant read as if it had been phoned in from the tenth tee. He probably didn’t do Catton any favours by calling New Zealand a “garbage-strewn cultural wasteland ruled over by mediocrities” since it rather dovetailed with Plunkett’s assertion that she was “bagging all of us.”

So what did Catton actually say? Well, first of all she gave the Government a serve: “Neo-liberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians who don’t care about culture.”

Fair enough. That’s her opinion and, as Clint Eastwood pointed out in a Dirty Harry movie, “Opinions are like assholes: everybody’s got one.”

In his feline way, Key linked it to Catton’s Green Party leanings and there was indeed an echo of the slightly unhinged rhetoric you might hear at a Greenie gathering: “[The government] would destroy the planet in order to be able to live the life they want.”

She referenced the cultural cringe which, regardless of what you might’ve heard to the contrary, is alive and malign and living in this country.

She criticised the Government’s lack of support for cultural and intellectual pursuits, a valid gripe but, as Hulme observed, “whatever country a writer was from, they would be disillusioned with government support for the arts.”

Catton was discomforted by the way her Man Booker triumph was seen as a New Zealand award, suggesting that Kiwis are suspicious of individual achievement: “It has to belong to everybody or the country really doesn’t want to know about it.”

This may reflect her experience but, from the outside looking in, she seems to be reading too much into the media’s tendency to play up the local angle to get their readers’ or audience’s attention.

I wouldn’t have thought the claiming of her as a New Zealand writer was essentially different from the “our Russell Crowe” syndrome or the headline on a story about the death of a Lower Hutt-born, British-raised woman: “Kiwi backpacker found dead in Thailand.”

If some Kiwis have been too eager to bask in Catton’s reflected glory, as of August 2014 we had purchased 120,000 copies of The Luminaries which amounted to 20% of worldwide sales. (It’s still top of our bestseller list.) Given it’s a long and demanding read, that in turn suggests we’re not quite the knuckle-dragging philistines of Duff’s imagination.

She raised the Tall Poppy Syndrome. I’m normally wary of those who play the TPS card with its implication that, once a person is deemed to be a success, they enter a high achievers category, separate and distinct from the common herd of aspirants and no hopers, and should therefore be above criticism.

But she did so in the context of her failure to win the big prize in the 2014 Book Awards: “There was this kind of thing that now you’ve won this prize from overseas, we’re not going to celebrate here, we’re going to give the award to someone else.”

(The Luminaries won the fiction category but the overall Book of the Year was Jill Trevelyan’s non-fiction work Peter McLeavey: The Life and Times of a New Zealand Art Dealer.)

The awards organiser thought she’d showed “bad form” by putting down the judges. I disagree.

I think Catton had every right to expect The Luminaries to be Book of the Year; I reckon it was a no-brainer; I believe the calculated snubbing – what else was it? – of this extraordinary and unique work of fiction will be a source of embarrassment for New Zealand literature for years to come.

Finally, while I understand her publisher Fergus Barrowman’s protectiveness, I don’t think this kerfuffle proves “we have a real problem with public conversation in this country.”

But being earthy, egalitarian little New Zealand, the conversation isn’t necessarily going to be highbrow. That’s just the way we are.