Gordon Campbell on the Eleanor Catton rumpus

If anyone was in doubt about the accuracy of the comments made in India by Eleanor Catton, the reaction from some quarters here at home has gone a long way to proving her point. By ‘some quarters’, I mean (a) RadioLive host Sean Plunket who called Catton a “traitor” and (b) Prime Minister John Key who dismissed her views as being those of a typical Green Party supporter, which is apparently almost as bad.

In context, Catton seemed to be talking about the mixed feelings she felt after what she had created suddenly becoming a kind of public property claimed by the entire country and its leaders. That must feel weird at any time, in any place. Catton evidently finds it particularly alienating when the government of the day has shown little interest in the arts beyond their promotional/economic value. One can readily understand why she might feel on some days: “Hang on, ‘We’ didn’t win the Man Booker Prize, I did.” Catton was at pains to point out this ambivalence is felt by successful artists in Australia and Canada as well – in that they are readily claimed by elites who otherwise appear to care about the arts only to the extent to which they can be monetized.

Before going any further, it is a good idea to read what Catton said about New Zealand, in full. Here we go:

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. I, for example, grew up just having a strange belief that New Zealand writers were automatically less great than writers from Britain and America, for example. Because we were some colonial backwater, we weren’t discovered, which I’m hoping will change.

The matter of having this kind of cultural embarrassment about your place in the world, we really need to actively resist that and be brave. I don’t think good literature can come about without bravery. The last thing you want is a whole country of embarrassed writers slinking around. The good side of New Zealand is that there isn’t all that kind of shallow literary fame where everyone’s backstabbing each other. You kind of need a snobbery for those kinds of things to happen.

But I think it is always a shame when people don’t stand up for what it is that they really believe. And I do think the problem we face in New Zealand is that we are reluctant to express firm beliefs in anything. An example would be, I was teaching in class in Auckland. I made up a statement with manifestos from all over the world, different writers who all thought what writing should do or not do. I was going to give it out to my students and have them write about the one that spoke to them the most. When I was putting this document together, I thought, hang on, I don’t have any New Zealand writers here. And I spent an entire day on the Internet trying to find an aesthetic statement from a New Zealand writer and there was nothing. Hopefully in the future, we will have more people being brave in that way.

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. If you get success overseas then very often the local population can suddenly be very hard on you.

Or the other problem is that the local population can take ownership of that success in a way that is strangely proprietal. So many people have talked in the media and me directly in ways of 2013 being the year that New Zealand won the Man Booker Prize. 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. 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.

Frankly, none of that seems exceptional, or controversial. It is a series of linked observations about the occasionally fraught relationship between the artist-as-individual and the artist-as-public-figure. It is about whether one would want to be labeled as “a New Zealand writer” – whatever that means in 2015 – if that means being treated at times as some kind of national commodity, like milk powder. Some people – Peter Jackson, Lorde – seem fairly comfortable with their dual role as artists and national flag-bearers. Plainly, Catton isn’t, and her reticence should be respected.

When she says she doesn’t want to be treated as an ambassador for this country, this isn’t treason. She is just expressing her misgivings about being treated as something of a novelty act – a New Zealander who writes well! Fancy that. And she also feels a bit reluctant about being claimed as the cultural baggage of a country whose governing set of values routinely run dead counter to her own creative impulses. Well, good for her. I hope she writes some great books out of that tension.

Obviously it isn’t necessary to debunk every last idiocy in Plunket’s tirade, which does a pretty good job of satirizing itself. She’ll survive. Given that she is some artsy-schmartsy academic who writes books and dates a poet, Catton isn’t geared to be his favourite person, anyway. Ideally, it would be nice to live in a country where artists – and academics – can criticize our profit-obsessed politicians to foreigners without being publicly abused, but hey, them’s the breaks. And lest we forget : a respect for free speech means that ultimately, we have to protect Sean Plunket’s right to make an ass of himself, publicly.

Personally, Key’s response bothered me a lot more. By reflexively pigeon-holing Catton as a Green, Key showed once again that he governs only for the people who vote for his programme. Those who differ – and their opinions – are to be personally taken down. I hope the ‘bravery” that Catton talks about will not waver because of the kneejerk reactionary in the Beehive. Essentially though, Plunket was dead wrong when he says “You are bagging all of us.” That’s the point: no one is bagging all of us. No one speaks for all of us, and no one writes for all of us, and no-one wins prizes for all of us. More than most, the Prime Minister is supposed to speak for all of us, but he gave that up long ago.

Eastwood, Ho!
Talking of ambivalence…In case you’re still sitting on the fence about the smash hit film American Sniper – liking Clint Eastwood, but not quite so sure about ultra-patriotic movies that celebrate the killing of hundreds of Ay-rabs – here’s Clickhole to help you out, with a genius ‘reading list’ on the subject.

Run The Jewels, Again
Writers, huh. It is even easier to deify or denigrate musicians, so I guess any flattening of that power curve is welcome. To that end, Run The Jewels are loved partly because of the fierce, no shit nature of their music but – equally – because Killer Mike and El-P are such obviously likeable dudes. Never more so than in this clip in which they offer a stream of considered advice to teenage girls with love problems. Like favourite uncles, they’re respectful and funny and…yes, they do offer some excellent tips on such potentially tricky topics as: ‘I’m 14 and I feel attracted to this older guy in his 20s, so what should I do?’ Watch the video below and find out, especially if you are that 14 year old.

In mid-January, Killer Mike also wrote this excellent op ed about the revolutionary legacy of Martin Luther King. Earlier in January, their show in Wellington was a singalong ultra-fun good time, and believe me, a great way of spending a birthday. Here’s one of the show’s highlights, from RTJ’s second album: