I offer my humble opinion on Eleanor Catton’s treason

This need to be constantly reassured of our worth, this adolescent insecurity is still a feature of the New Zealand psyche.

I arrived in Christchurch, New Zealand in mid-September 1964 to take up a lecturing position at Canterbury University. My wife, infant son and I had been airborne for around 36 hours with a two-hour break in Los Angeles to have a shower and freshen up. We were greeted at Christchurch airport by the head of the German Department, not yet a professor, who escorted us to his Volkswagen Beetle into which we poured ourselves, our child and our luggage with some difficulty.

We were, it transpired, to be billeted in a motel until we found permanent accommodation. The motel was in somewhere called Riccarton where the yet-to-be-professor said he would deposit us while we ‘settled in’.

As we were shoe-horning ourselves out of the V-Dub I twisted my ankle on the unexpectedly deep culvert that is a feature of some New Zealand cities, but unknown in Northern Ireland and Scotland.  A twisted ankle is extremely painful and I made a comment along the lines “stupid bloody gutters”. My new boss responded that if I wasn’t going to like it here, perhaps I ought not to have come.

I would later discover that it was a prerequisite of acceptance to New Zealand society that you should “like it here” and fulsomely express that liking from the moment your plane touched down and certainly no later than the second  when your feet met the tarmac at the bottom of the gangway. Jetlagged heads of state, visiting politicians, Hollywood stars, the famous and semi-famous were greeted by anxious media with variants of the same question: “What do you think of New Zealand?” occasionally more directly expressed as “How do you like it here?”   

This need to be constantly reassured of our worth; this adolescent insecurity is still a feature of the New Zealand psyche despite our having won almost every glittering prize in every field of human endeavour from science to literature to sport to medicine to technology to making movies. Yes, we talk now about “punching above our weight” but our confidence in our own worth is skin deep at best. Our national ego remains fragile. We can handle praise – just. But, even if you are one of us, you criticise us at your peril.

Eleanor Catton will have learnt that 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 Plunket, “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.”

She’s right, though her failure to take the main prize at the NZ Post Awards doesn’t seem to me to be a valid example of the syndrome. Different contest, different judges, different criteria – end of story.

A couple of things particularly interested me about this episode. The first was Plunket’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.”

Well, I’m not entirely sure why one should be “grateful” for an award given in recognition of one’s services to New Zealand literature. I see such an award as appropriate and deserved. And I assume that the money she earns as a university lecturer reflects her value to the institution and her students. Why should she be “grateful” for being paid to do a job, regardless of where the funding comes from? And if perhaps she should be grateful for ‘a bit of financial help during her career to write things’ (‘to write things’, Sean!) she has repaid that debt to New Zealand a thousand fold or more.

More insidious than Plunket’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.

Media trainer and commentator Dr Brian Edwards posts at Brian Edwards Media.

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