Eleanor Catton, Braveheart. Copyright Robert Catto Robertcatto.com

Eleanor Catton: NZ’s Braveheart? Not just yet.

I have been writing this since Thursday, recollecting and ruminating, but it has been hard keeping up since each day seems to bring another twist in the tale that has sprung from Eleanor Catton’s uncommon, but largely unremarkable remarks, made at the Jaipur Writers Festival in India.

To sum, she felt “uncomfortable” with being seen as an ambassador for New Zealand given her feelings about how our government – and she’s careful to include the Australian and Canadian governments also – are dominated by “profit-obsessed” neo-liberal politicians who “would destroy the planet in order to be able to have the life they want.”

And something of a media furore erupted.

Here is what I wrote on this site way back when her Booker win was announced:

“Beyond the novel, success at the Booker has given Eleanor Catton a profile, and I hope she works hard to make it one that truly reflects the person she is, the things she values, her depth of thought. The mainstream media is trite, superficial, and loves gossip, even the erudite sectors. She has already, by her own admission, tripped up talking too loosely to journalists (New Zealand lacking a culture of reviewing, she said), and she has to decide how to use the power the spotlight brings. Arundhati Roy, for instance, has not written a novel since The God of Small Things, but used her profile to fight for justice and sovereignty in India – duly ignored by the mainstream media (see how quickly Catton would become “that crazy astrology lady” if she starts banging on too much on the wrong topic – say, the impact of industry on global warming).”
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And also:

I hope someone as appealing and articulate as Eleanor Catton can make an impact on the fortunes of the NZ literary environment, at least lifting the profile of NZ writers, if not encouraging more funding. Given, the current government’s bullying approach to public intellectuals and culture, she could be just the person to take them on.

Lo and behold. Kinda.

Catton said her thing; in response, radio journalist Sean Plunket pushed the rhetorical boat to the limit, calling her an “ungrateful hua” and traitor” for her comments about our great country/government. And of course Catton’s remarks couldn’t go reported for even one day before Prime Minster John Key’s rebuttal had to be tacked on to them. Whenever someone says something disquieting about our country, he’s where our media go to “balance” the picture.

They’re just the two highest profile retorts. There was support as well, of course, including from those already scourged, already tarred, or with nothing to lose. And there was Twitter. But Key and Plunkett are authority figures who create a great allowable arc of attacks and uninformed comment masquerading as debate, much effectively dismissing her as a silly girl, a know-nothing writer, or fanatical Green party advocate. The unthinking dismissal of someone who is not instantly and whole-heartedly celebrating the state of our society.

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Such is the bloody circus that performs as our public discourse.

This is not simple “tall-poppy” or even misogyny.  I call it our New Chauvinism, actively fostered since the Clark years as a sheepskin to bring the Right back to popularity and reinvigorate the very neo-liberal power base that Catton was criticising.

Is Eleanor Catton the braveheart to challenge this status quo? I’ll asssert, Catton is not an expert on politcal economy and power structures. Not yet. That does not diminish the value of her remarks; not in the way Key’s belated comeback attempts to suggest. She is intelligent and moral, and trusts her feelings – the latter is something our society could learn to respect a lot more. Society, elections, would be a lot different if people were encouraged to trust their gut feelings of right or wrong.

For Catton, I expect if it matters to her she will inform herself and become truly dangerous very very quickly indeed.

That is an if. She hasn’t shown her courage yet. She can still step back, although she has made a clear statement that she will not, and even pressed her point with regards to the cutting of National Library services to New Zealand schools. But she has been invited to rejoin the silent folds. She can still be politic. All will be forgiven.

And she is safe to criticise, to a certain extent. There will always be publishers willing to print her. She does not “need” New Zealand. She has a global base and can live quite well and afford to lose the outraged fans thought she was so nice when she shone for them through The Luminaries.

But Catton clearly cares about New Zealand, its people, its culture, its environment. So if she wants to continue to share her ideas, make a difference, she might talk to Robyn Malcolm, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Lucy Lawless for some insight on voicing values contrary to those driving our gears of power. Or Jon Stephenson, Nicky Hager. Mike Joy. Or columnists like Tapu Misa, disappeared and not published enough. Martyn Bradbury would have some interesting things to say about the double-standards at “our” Radio New Zealand – there’s no refuge there. Gareth Morgan – he was the mainstream economic golden boy once, but got sidelined once he started musing on democracy and social justice long before cat-control.

Dissident voices are heard for one day, maybe a week, but are inevitably buried beneath the myriad others that are constantly rewarded for recycling the chauvinist and neo-liberal norms; it is a career path in itself. For a glimpse of her future, Catton might chat to Germaine Greer. Or Julian Assange – the flipside of being a hua/hoor. Create a haven for truth and you get to be a rapist with no evidence of such, liberty gone, no charges, no public outcry.

Regardless of her publishing, Catton can expect to be scrutinised through the lens, as Plunkett put it, of a traitor: someone who does not celebrate the ideas dominant in NZ society with the appropriate level of “jingoistic fervor”. As if any criticism is therefore a criticism of rugby, beer, barbeques and WWI veterans – of “our” team. Which is, in the chauvinism of the current establishment, the happy, positive, winning “Team Key”. Doesn’t she want to be on our team? Isn’t she a “”winner”? The derision reserved for losers, critics and malcontents is well bedded.

This is chauvinism in action. And conscious of their own brand and image, people will be less gushing with praise for Catton because cattontwitthey know she is tainted. In award or review, they’ll find some reason to favour some other author, or novel, or point-of-view. The door is open – they’ll say that she opened the door – to scrutinise everything she writes and says for more evidence of her treachery. She may become satirised, to the point that she exists to the mainstream only as a caricature and grotesque – “elitist”, “traitor”, and the establishment favourite, “narcissist” – from behind which none of her thoughts and truths and arguments will be heard.

It’s not a dead end, nor a lost cause. Arundhati Roy has forged her own path. George Monbiot is the model of a wise, moral and intelligent person railing impotently from within the media system. Media critic Media Lens has advocated a donated fund to free thinkers, journalists and  writers to publish free of self-censorship, something I’ve personally always contended. Plus artists. Especially artists. Look at Russell Brand. Artists reach people. Especially the young.

Because of this, Catton and those like her are a threat to the status quo. They become authorities we feel we know and trust, in the same way some people feel Queen Elizabeth is a trusted member of their own family. That’s why they get torn down. They can become leaders, if they have something to say. They need to be patronised, co-opted, sullied, or stigmatised because no amount of media whitewash can drown them out. Give them too much of a start and they won’t need a masthead, nor a media-constructed image, like a Key. They just connect and connect and connect. And then…?

That’s what makes them scared.

The Booker was Catton’s start. This furore, all over a simple statement of views not proportionally reflected in our public discourse, was the first step.

Red pill, blue pill. I’m with her if she goes down the rabbit hole. So should everyone of a like mind and the courage to say it. Fund change. Form an alliance.

But I would not fault her for going the other way, either.

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