Eleanor Catton Confronts the Men with Scythes

by Simon Wilson / 28 January, 2015
The tall poppy syndrome is alive and horribly well.


It’s surprising Eleanor Catton believes she’s been a victim of the tall poppy syndrome. The Luminaries has sold more than 125,000 copies in this country, which is probably several times more than all other New Zealand novels combined over the same period. And in my experience – reading about Catton, listening to her and watching her at public engagements – those numbers translate into a very large and on the whole adoring public. We love what she’s done, don’t we? We love that she did it, pure and simple, and we also love that it was one of us who did it.

True, there are fatuous blowhards like Sean Plunket who don’t agree. But his comments on Radio Live don’t, it seems to me, characterise the way New Zealanders think of Catton. He called her a traitor. Whether we’ve read The Luminaries or not, it's pretty obvious most of the rest of us think she’s a great New Zealander.

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.

It is one of the great tributes this country paid to Eleanor Catton that our literary critics, on the whole, rose to that challenge. They did not feel obliged to gush and rave, simply because the book had been anointed by a judging panel in the old country. They treated Catton as a major artist whose public deserved as insightful a critique as they could muster. They treated her seriously. It’s also a mark of intellectual maturity in the country as a whole that this happened.

It’s true that by adopting such keen critical appraisal, the judges in the NZ Book Awards last year decided not to give The Luminaries the supreme award. They didn’t prefer another novel, remember (if that had happened, I think we might have been excused for thinking they were halfwits). They gave top spot to a biography. But does anyone seriously think this was because the judges wanted to cut Catton down to size? That they believed she’d already had enough glory and now it was someone else’s turn?

If that were true, Catton would be right to complain about the tall poppy syndrome. But I don’t believe it. I don’t believe there is any possible explanation other than the obvious one: the judges made a considered (and presumably agonising) decision that the biography was the better book.

But now Eleanor Catton has spoken her mind about tall poppy syndrome and various other things she thinks are wrong with this country – and the scythes have been quickly put to work. Turns out that while so many of us adore our tall poppies, there are still some among us who cannot bear it when they don’t adore us back. Turns out also that the angry scythers did not learn from the literary critics, who did their diligent best to balance the strengths and weaknesses of the book: they did not allow Catton to employ the same considered approach, and nor did they employ it themselves.

What is their complaint, exactly? Plunket, and a few other agitated radio types like him, ranted about how it was wrong for Catton to criticise the government because she draws a salary paid for by taxpayers (she has a part-time job teaching creative writing at the Manukau Institute of Technology). I rather like the poet Kevin Ireland’s view of that: he has often said it is the duty of an artist to bite the hand that feeds.

Is Plunket suggesting that taxpayer funding should buy the silence of its recipients? Not many of us would escape that net. Does he think academics in particular should shut up? Does he think artists are PR machines?

And why does Plunket think someone is a “traitor” for not supporting the government? Does he also think that way about half the members of Parliament?

Why is he 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.

You don’t have to agree with her. John Key is perfectly entitled to defend his government, as he has done, and Sean Plunket is entitled to dissect Catton’s criticisms of this country, which he didn’t bother to do. But Key also said it was “a bit sad that [she] is mixing politics with some of the things she’s good at”, and that was patronising and silly. We should all feel free to mix politics with anything we like.

As for Plunket, he said twice that we should “leave politics to the politicians”. Actually, it’s the end of democracy when that happens. It’s the very last thing we should do.


More reading
“Consumerism, requiring its products to be both endlessly desirable and endlessly disposable, cannot make sense of art, which is neither.” Eleanor Catton on Literature and Elitism

"Prime Minister John Key today pledged the government would fund $36 million towards Eleanor Catton’s defence of the Man Booker Prize." Satirist Steve Braunias writes the news.

"Has Eleanor Catton invented a new form of literature? An illuminated manuscript for the age of the internet?" Simon Wilson reviews The Luminaries.

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