Putting Eleanor Catton among the pigeons

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.