The Lone Luminary

Eleanor Catton speaks honestly about the challenges for New Zealand writers — and get vociferous bile hurled at her from John Key and Sean Plunket. No wonder she is frustrated at being treated as the ‘creative writing ambassador’ for this country. Given her literary success it strikes me as safe to assume that she has a wealth of professional wisdom to impart as she sees fit.

Is this not the point of having ‘leaders’ in the first place? It seems not if you tell New Zealanders what they do not wish to hear. Sean Plunket called her an ‘ungrateful hua’ this morning, and had to hastily make clear that he said ‘hua’ and not ‘whore’. Apparently ‘hua’ is an inconsistent shortening of ‘upoko kohua’, meaning ‘may your head be boiled and eaten’. A deep insult in anyones lingo.

I am interested in the character of the offense taken by the likes of Key and Plunket because of the irony revealed in their hostility to criticism. Eleanor Catton said at the Jaipur Literary Festival that New Zealand is ‘dominated by these neo-liberal, profit obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians who do not care about culture’. The underlying cause for the outrage on behalf of some (the very people she refers to and their assorted media cadres) could perhaps be beause an unpleasant opinion is all the more cutting when it is verifiably true. Secondly, there is a feeling that Catton is being ungrateful in expressing herself in such terms. I shall examine both notions.

The first proposition is straightforward. Does the government value the creative arts? Judging by the miniscule funding levels for stalwart institutions like Radio New Zealand, which many in the creative arts rely on for getting the word of their endeavors to the public, no. The government does not value the creative arts. And it is not disrespectful to say so.

They (the government) cannot see the money in literature and for good reason, because there isn’t any. The value of the arts is in the heart, not the wallet. There is a connection between development in the arts and development of society. The time of Socrates and Plato was also the time of Phidias and the building of the Parthenon. The time of Queen Elizabeth I was also the time of Marlowe and Shakespeare. The highpoint of the industrial revolution was accompanied by the impressionist painters, the expressionists reflected the turmoil of the early 20th century. Our art explores our identity. Why change the flag Mr Key? — if not for the reason that our developing national identity is not reflected by the current design. That is part of the case made in favour of the change, and it accidentaly highlights the importance of art to society, which the Prime Minister both supports and disavows. How acrobatic the minds of these politicians are.

If no further support for the arts is forthcoming, perhaps an honest reflection on Catton’s remarks could be entertained. Truth is a defense to libel, and the charge against ‘neo-liberal, profit obsessed, very shallow, very money hungry politicians’ is justifiable because it is very close to the mark.

The second proposition is that Eleanor Catton is being ungrateful. Sean Plunket said the following (as reported by stuff.co.nz): ‘Here’s the woman who’s a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, and works at a publically-funded institution, and has recieved a lot of financial help during her career to write things… Then she turns around and says, ‘I don’t get a fair crack’…’

Eleanor Catton wasn’t complaining that she didn’t get a fair crack. She was saying that we don’t. We, the anonymous young who have nothing but our own self belief and a desperate compulsion to write. Eleanor Catton is not the only talented writer in New Zealand. But she is on a high and lonely summit as an internationally successful one. She’s looking for company at the top, and shouldn’t we celebrate her desire? Become worthy of it by learning from her example? Or is it better to shake off her wisdom and cut the ties that bind her to these shores? How we have been impoverished by the latter tactic in the past.

If it is traitorous to point out the barriers to success then Sir Peter Jackson is a traitor. He certainly faced public derision for daring to say that the tax incentives for big budget films weren’t competative enough. Arguably he was right in his criticisms, but the difference in his case was that the government could see the dollars behind him and backed him on that basis. Why aren’t there more Peter Jacksons? A big factor has to be the fact that the barriers still exist for everyone else. I digress.

Eleanor Catton teaches creative writing at the Manukau Institute of Technology, and in the warped reasoning of Mr Plunket this should make her wary of saying anything against the government. How I hope that the Sean Plunket principle is not shared by the leading tertiary institutions of this country, which would poison the research they do, and kill the ability of the wise to tell truth to power. Not a state of affairs I find attractive.

I shall leave you with one final thought. If we keep chopping the tall poppies they will simply (to paraphrase Shakespeare) ‘bid us adieu, and shape their old course in a country new.’ How happy those lucky countries will be.

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