We need to go further than just defending Eleanor Catton's right to an opinion, we need to encourage her for doing her job

Eleanor Catton certainly earned her pay this week, especially all that government money everyone was decrying her for receiving while she traitorously criticised our nation's character overseas. She kicked off quite a row.

Catton herself has chosen her own words on the subject and published them here, while Brian Easton has already said much of what I think in his post. Still, I was called on to debate it on Newstalk ZB with Larry Williams last night and I found I felt quite strongly about it, and so I wanted to write down my thoughts.

The obvious points are that the Booker Prize-winning author has no obligations to New Zealand as a whole; she does not represent us as an All Black or Black Caps captain does and she is not working for MFAT or Tourism New Zealand. Any receipt of government money does not buy her opinion and neither requires her to become a government mouthpiece nor a promoter of all things Kiwi. She does not have to live her life in gratitude for a Kiwi upbringing, education or work – all of which are the birthright of anyone born here.

And as for those who say they are sick of New Zealanders criticising the homeland overseas or have levelled accusations of treason, well, they are doing more damage to our international reputation than Catton. Would you admire a country and a culture that is smug and self-satisfied or one that is self aware and challenges itself to be and do better. (Isn't that what most radio talkhosts are telling individuals to do as they pull themselves up by their boot straps? Why not demand the same of the nation?). Better that we are seen as an open, intellectually lively country than one where debate is squashed.

But those are easy arguments and have been made by many. The point that I think needs to be made and remade turns those arguments on their head. Not only does she have the right to criticise New Zealand, she is in fact doing nothing more than her duty.

Authors and academics (and satirists and sometimes journalists) are the critics and conscience of any society, their job through their work and thinking and commentary is to dig and probe and reveal and question and describe and pick away at who we are and what we do. That's what good writing is.

Now some authors don't choose to do that as baldly as Catton; many let their work do their talking for them. That's all well and good. But Catton's road is just as worthy, if not more so. The reason she has been given grants and any support we have given her as a country is so she can use her exceptional talents to tell us something about ourselves, to describe ourselves to us and challenge us.

No, she's not a documentary maker or non-fiction writer, but neither was Dickens or Fitzgerald or Joyce or Kipling or Austen (or whoever you may prefer); the best novelists both shine a light and stick a stone in our shoe.

I agree with Brian that New Zealand has a deep vein of anti-intellectualism, often in contradiction of itself and its hunger for learning. We have long kicked against theory and deep thought, yet 100 years ago town halls would be packed if a visiting lecturer came to town, we have thought deeply enough to give women the vote first and (however imperfect) have some of the more enlightened attitudes to race relations in the colonised world, and from Rutherford to McDiarmid to Flynn we've produced more than our fair share of top thinkers.

I always think of my old friend Paul Holmes when this topic comes up. He used to infuriate me on Holmes, when he would tap into our anti-intellectualism and delight at kicking 'clever clogs'. When I got to know him, it infuriated me even more to find he was one of the best-read people I'd ever met and had a deep intellectualism of his own (albeit driven in large part by his love of a good yarn and understanding how things work). But he knew his audience.

The timing of this mean-spirited reaction to Catton's words is especially telling. Just a few weeks ago, many were insisting that they too were Charlie Hebdo. Now, a celebrated author can't offer a pretty mainstream political opinion without having criticism and scorn heaped upon her. Some, seeming to think themselves of a more open-minded disposition, go so far as to acknowledge "she's allowed her opinion".

That seems to me to be the refuge of the tepid or weary. Many of these people might say the same of the climate denier or moon-landing sceptic, because they either can't be bothered engaging in debate or have been fooled by modern relativism into thinking all opinions are equal. Well, they're not.

Any fool can have an opinion, but Catton has earned the right to be treated as more than just any fool. Hence the coverage of her comments in India. So well done Eleanor, you are doing exactly what's in the job description. It's not just satirists who get to challenge received truths and traditions.

Her arguments? I disagree with some and think they're not terribly well made. As Brian says, I don't think this government is "neo-liberal". And I think the "tall poppy syndrome" argument is deeply flawed. (I wrote about that years ago, here.)

But that's by-the-by. The important thing is that we let our critics criticise and our consciences prick us, lest we fall into some complacent slumber at the bottom of the world and lapse into arrogant irrelevance.

Comments (20)

by Lee Churchman on January 31, 2015
Lee Churchman

I always liked the bit in the Apology where Socrates is allowed to suggest an alternative penalty to execution and responds that he ought to be provided with free food for life at public expense. 

by Maureen Jansen on January 31, 2015
Maureen Jansen

I like your fourth and second to last paragraph but can't quite fall into line with the rest of your thinking. Because her "money-grubbing ... don't care about culture" statement was so exaggerated and vitriolic, I don't think it has had a healthy effect. If the Left exaggerate the market forces/crony capitalism nature of John Key's government they are not going to change the hearts and minds of many New Zealanders. It played right into the hands of the right wing BECAUSE it was so ill expressed. I'm a Labour Party member and a Greens supporter if it's okay to be both, but I cringe at the predictable, knee jerk response to this issue found in most of the Left blogs (not this one!)

Sean Plunkett made everything ten times worse and I sympathise with Catton on that one. However, only a few have challenged her on the tall poppy syndrome, didn't win the NZ Book Award, cultural cringe and some other rigid views found in the whole interview. 

Hmm and the idea of the novel or play holding a mirror up to society (Hamlet I think) is through the work itself not in some rather trite generalisations of her fellow citizens with no apology when the media exaggerated the effects of what she said. No glimmer or humour, irony or regret just blame. 

I think John Key, David Farrar et al are genuinely puzzled by her words. They genuinely believe in their politics and I think they care about culture too. Catton is very free to criticize them wherever she wants to but in the manner she chose to do so she was always going to stir up some vehement verbal opposition. You insult people, they fight back. People felt she was insulting them, they got angry. 

As for it being her duty to tell us how she sees it, that's all very well. But I don't think her success in the Booker makes her an authority on NZ society. Some great novelists have been horrible people whom you wouldn't want to listen to on the ills of your society!!!

I think there's also a time and place to blurt out your political views. We are told not to mention politics and religion in various circumstances aren't we? Good manners in front of people we don't know. It might be different if NZ was a cruel dictatorship and she was Solzhenitsyn but ... 

by Andrew Geddis on January 31, 2015
Andrew Geddis

I think there's also a time and place to blurt out your political views. We are told not to mention politics and religion in various circumstances aren't we? Good manners in front of people we don't know.

I think, with respect, you've got this bit of your argument all wrong. The reason that "we" may sometimes bite our tongue on matters of politics/religion is that they have the potential to spark heated debates on matters people feel deeply and strongly about with no real chance of resolution. And there are social situations where beginning such arguments is "bad form". So, for example, if I'm at dinner at my in-laws and they "bless the food", it wouldn't be particularly conducive to domestic harmony for me to scoff "for goodness sake - why do you want to mutter some empty words to an invisible sky-fairy?" Much as I may think this, if I were to say it I would ruin the meal time, strain my relationship with them and get me a bollocking from my wife. So I don't.

That wasn't the situation Catton found herself in. She wasn't passing comments that might offend her audience, or breach some social understanding about the sorts of discourse expected at the event, or the like. So the only reason for her not to say what she thinks about NZ politics would be because of some general idea that "we" nave some kind of duty not to bad-mouth our country overseas, as it will cause overseas people to think badly of us. Which is what Tim (quite rightly, in my opinion) argues against.

Also, here's how The Independent is reporting on this episode.  Bears out Tim's claim that "those who say they are sick of New Zealanders criticising the homeland overseas or have levelled accusations of treason, well, they are doing more damage to our international reputation than Catton."

by Alex Coleman on January 31, 2015
Alex Coleman

I don't really think that the complaints the what she said was poorly worded, or what have you, are that strong given that it was an interview not an essay. I response of asking for clarification might have been better than, well, what we've seen.

But repeating what so many others have said, the content of the responses have confirmed that she had a point. She said we are money obsessed & don't care much for intellectualism. The response has been to count up the amount of cents she has received over some years and offer that up as how much we respect the arts, with a side serving of 'who do you think you are?' and 'Luvvies should stay out of politics'


those responses show what? That respect and care for the arts in measured in money, instead of as part of society's conversation. Which is what I read her as trying to get at, on the fly, in an interview.


by Maureen Jansen on January 31, 2015
Maureen Jansen

I think I've got a bee in my bonnet about this and am grateful that I can express a view here without being totally shot down in flames or called a member of the vast right wing conspiracy. I'm going to let it go after saying that the Independent story represents Catton's view of the issue. It makes for a good read but it's just a story not an analysis of some of the things going on here. I think Simon Wilson comes closest in his online Metro article. 

Interesting that in Charlotte Grimshaw's novel Soon there was a pretty scathing portrayal of a Key like character but it caused nary a ripple. Maybe Catton's way was more effective. 

by Ross on February 01, 2015

Now, a celebrated author can't offer a pretty mainstream political opinion without having criticism and scorn heaped upon her.

Oh so because she's a celebrated author she should be free from Criticism? That sounds elitist. As for Charlie Hebdo how is that relevant? I haven't heard anyone say that Catton should be denied the right to speak.

by Tim Watkin on February 02, 2015
Tim Watkin

Ross, I've heard numerous people say that because she's received government money she should be positive about NZ. I've heard others say "ambassadors" like her should promote NZ not trash it. And I've heard others call her a traitor. The whole debate was about whether she should have said what she said. Those are all attacks on free speech.

Of course she's not above criticism, but personal abuse? Suggestions she shouldn't express critical views? Nonsense.

by Tim Watkin on February 02, 2015
Tim Watkin

Maureen, thanks for your views.

If you read many of my posts on Pundit you'll see that I agree with what you're getting at re this government; some of the criticism of this government by the left is exaggerated. And I pointed out I disagree with her on that and the tall poppy comments.

As for holding a mirror up to society, yes as I said, some do it through their work. But others use the pulpit their success gives them to try to make a difference in some way, and I respect that. And I don't think you can judge Catton – or at least suggest she lacks humour and regret – based on one interview (if I read you right). I don't know whether she has those attributes or not and whether she relies heavily on blame, but we'd need to look at dozens of interviews to judge.

You're right that she can expect a backlash from insults. But I've seen nothing from her that suggests she was unhappy with a debate about what she said. What upset many on her behalf was the personal insults and the suggestions she should not offer criticism because she's some "ambassador" or has received public money or is a prominent Kiwi overseas etc.

I'm not saying she's especially insightful or otherwise; my main point is that I strongly feel we need to encourage the role of authors, academics and the like to be our critics and consciences. It's a vital role but one that I fear this episode shows is not well understood these days.

by Katharine Moody on February 02, 2015
Katharine Moody

The whole debate was about whether she should have said what she said.

This is of course the ludicrous part of the whole debate - the PM and his right-leaning supporters have turned it round into a 'play the man/woman - not the ball' discourse.

Instead, I'd have liked the PM to comment on whether or not his government is following a neoliberal prescription, and if not, why not ... with concrete examples of actions taken over his past two terms to disprove what she posited.

His on-going discussion in this regard on Breakfast this morning was appalling ... yet more 'playing the man/woman' comments... not one mention of the real topic/subject matter of the original comment.

by Maureen Jansen on February 02, 2015
Maureen Jansen

Tim, can you name other novelists who have used their pulpit to make a change in society? Not that they shouldn't do it but I'm not really aware of any. 

Catton's words were angry and quite personal in their own way, an attack on John Key and his MPs, wouldn't you say? They would ruin the planet and don't care about culture? They were not uttered in a form that would start a reasoned debate. Her response in her blog was very stern and once more made sweeping statements about the Right gathering their forces to shut down discussion. 

I don't really see why John Key should defend his ideology (if he has one) because of what she said, although it would be nice to get his views on neoliberalism. 

Instead of pandering to Catton I think the Left should bring up this concept of neoliberalism, discuss whether it applies to Key's government and what  the implications of that are. Maybe then they could move on from making this a debate on freedom of speech. People might have been outraged and had opinions about what she said but they have no power to shut her down. Newspaper articles have been pretty balanced. 

I agree with Catton's views on the planet and think we need a brand new way of looking at the balance between the economy and the environment. I just doubt if Catton has advanced that issue.

by Brendon Mills on February 03, 2015
Brendon Mills


Why the hating on Cotton?

Do you support neo-liberalism and John Key? It seems a lot like you do, even through you claim she doesnt.

And calling a person nasty names is pretty much the same as shutting her down,

by Lee Churchman on February 03, 2015
Lee Churchman

can you name other novelists who have used their pulpit to make a change in society? Not that they shouldn't do it but I'm not really aware of any. 

The list would be far too long to fit on this blog. To choose but one female author: Harriet Beecher Stowe went much further than Catton in decrying her society's values.

by Ross on February 03, 2015

The whole debate was about whether she should have said what she said. Those are all attacks on free speech.

Nonsense. Since when has disagreeing with someone been an attack on free speech? I haven't heard any of Catton's critics say she should be denied the right to speak. To even suggest such a thing is absurd.

by Ross on February 03, 2015

By the way, Sean Plunket has claimed he is the victim because, he reckons, some have wanted to shut down his right to speak...in the end it comes down to a disagreement and not a lot more.

by Maureen Jansen on February 03, 2015
Maureen Jansen

Not hating on Catton as such, Brendon. She seems like a sterling person with strict moral values and a blisteringly clever writing style. I think she said some silly things, or said good things in a silly way and many people have pandered to her because of her Booker win. 

by Tim Watkin on February 03, 2015
Tim Watkin

Maureen, gosh there are many. Margaret Atwood leaps to mind. Salman Rushdie obviously. Ian McEwan. Alice Walker. Toni Morrison. Stephen Fry of course is a novelist amongst other things. Nadine Gordimer. Barbara Kingsolver... Going further back, Dickens was certainly a philanthropist, which involved an activism of sorts. And Jonathan Swift.

Those are off the cuff but I'm sure others can think of many more. I tend to agree that she played the person as well as the ball, so those defending her on those grounds need to think about her being able to take what she dishes out; she doesn't seem to have minded the response.

As I said originally, like you I have some issues with what she said and how she said it. And while no-one can 'shut her down', there's certainly been a hint of wanting to do that by some who have kicked into her.

Ross, sorry but I throw your "nonsense" back at you. Those who have argued that famous NZers overseas should not criticise NZ or those getting public grants and working for universities should be less critical, that is clearly more than just a disagreement with what she said, but a questioning of her right to say it. I don't see how you can have missed the heart of the whole debate!

And Brendon, I think Maureen is a long way from "hating" and has been pretty clear of her criticisms in this thread and careful to question Catton's comments, not her as a person.

by Brendon Mills on February 03, 2015
Brendon Mills

No, Maureen is hard right and cannot standing people saying nasty things about her idol John Key.

Never mind that John Key, and his dirty tricks team have said even nastier stuff about those on welfare, those who belong to the trade unions, those who are teachers, those who earn under $75,000 per year, etc.

First they will come for Cotton, and damned if I dont speak up for her because I wasnt an author.

[Ed: Enough personalisation of the argument, thanks. By all means speak up for Eleanor Catton (although it might help to spell her name right), but that doesn't allow you to attack the alleged motivations of others for holding their views.]

by Andrew Geddis on February 04, 2015
Andrew Geddis

Tim, can you name other novelists who have used their pulpit to make a change in society? Not that they shouldn't do it but I'm not really aware of any. 

Well, George Eliot (author of Middlemarch, a novel you held up as being far superior to The Luminaries) said that “If Art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally.”

And in terms of another contemporary Man Booker Prize winner, there's Hilary Mantel. Have a read of her experience after trying to "use her pulpit to make a change in society." Sounds somewhat familiar.

by Tim Watkin on February 04, 2015
Tim Watkin

Brendon, Maureen very clearly writes:

I'm a Labour Party member and a Greens supporter if it's okay to be both

What makes you claim she's "hard right"? Do you know her and her politics?


by Ross on February 06, 2015


I suggest you read Paul Thomas's column in today's Herald. He makes the same point as me that it's silly to suggest thst criticising Catton is somehow akin to denying her the right to speak.

The implication is that Catton and her fellow "dissident public intellectuals" are entitled to be as scathing as they like about New Zealand and New Zealanders and be listened to in respectful silence.

Leaving aside RadioLive host Sean Plunket's outburst - which was roundly condemned - in what way did the (by and large supportive) response to Catton's remarks amount to suppression? Why should a writer be able wade into the political arena - and even some of Catton's cheerleaders admitted her analysis of the Key Government was unsophisticated - without her robustly expressed views attracting critical scrutiny?

Politics is an adversarial activity. If you take one side of the argument, you should expect those of different persuasions to come right back at you. As they say in America, "If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen."

At their most overwrought, these attempts to equate critical counter-argument with suppression slide into Walter Mitty territory, becoming a sickly fantasy of persecution in which some of the least threatened dissenters in history are being subjected to harassment and intimidation by a "neo-authoritarian state".

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