The (Neoliberal) Luminaries


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Oh dear.

There is a culture in this country of giving altogether undeserved praise, legitimacy, and privileged pride-of-place to certain high-powered (and demonstrably talented) spinners of fiction.

Not the writers or other cultural contributors who seek to enrich our nation when it comes to the arts, you understand … I mean the tawdry old-boys club of politicians and political-commentators whose sweeping scale of involvement in the arts and culture of this country appears to be to turn up at the awards ceremonies, and then either passively ignore – or actively rubbish – those self-same artists they were photo-opping with as soon as they become politically inconvenient.

This is exactly what’s just happened with Eleanor Catton.

Now, I’ve got something of a confession to make. I have never read, nor am I likely ever *to* read, anything by Catton. From where I’m sitting, while it’s great that she’s internationally recognized and now something of a household name … I get *quite* enough in the way of door-stopper tomes of elaborately astrological New Zealand fiction every time I read a Treasury report.

But I’m sure I wasn’t alone in expressing an actual and vocalized CHEER when I cast my eye across her reported comments that we find ourselves subjugated by a government of “neoliberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians” who have, at best, an economic appreciation for culture.

Catton may feel “uncomfortable” acting as an intellectual ambassador for New Zealand in light of all of this – but as far as I’m concerned, anyone prepared to boldly and openly state *exactly* what a large swathe of us are thinking like that, is a prima facie *excellent* representative for the views and aspirations of thousands of Kiwis.

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Of course, the sad inevitability of sticking one’s head above the parapet in hostile ideological terrain, is that somebody will attempt to snipe it off.

And no sooner had Catton’s remarks about the marshy shallows of our public culture and sphere been processed by the domestic equivalent of the arse-end of Fleet St, then the snap-back reaction had begun.

It started (somewhat curiously) at the top, with the Prime Minister … who took time out from a busy schedule of hijacking/politicizing sporting events and accepting electoral endorsements from rugby stars to tell Catton off for “mixing politics with some of the other things that she’s better known for” (assumedly what she got wrong was mixing in Green rather than Blue politics with being a public figure…). He then suggested that despite National’s well-signaled intent to have less New Zealanders pursuing Arts degrees – rather than those famously literary pursuits of science and engineering – his government’s record on the arts was fine because they’d once turned up at a book-fair.

Finally, to cap it all off, he vehemently proclaimed that he was not, no way no how, “profit-crazed”.

And while a cursory examination of the man’s ruinous record when it comes to maximizing returns from the state’s asset base does certainly seem to suggest he isn’t very *good* at being profit-crazed … it also occurs that the sort of man who would rather skip all his lunch-breaks and piss in a bottle instead of taking even a minute off from his quixotic pursuit of making money … well … what else do you call the money made, but “profit”, and how else to describe the behavior than “crazed”.

About the nicest thing I can say concerning John Key on Eleanor Catton, is that if he suddenly feels that his government’s policies are able to contribute to the success of some New Zealanders in one area … then it’s only a hop skip and a jump of realization from there to his grasping that the policies of his government in *just about every other area* are capable of holding back New Zealanders from success in others.

The relative level of cerebrality displayed in Key’s response (I stress I said *relative*) was not, however, matched by the commentary from alleged National Party media trainer/communications advisor Sean Plunket … who started out by branding Catton a “traitor”, and then decided to strain the credulity of a nation by pretending he’d used a somewhat obscure Te Reo insult when it became patently obvious that calling one of New Zealand’s foremost literary figures an “ungrateful whore” was a quick way to being Paul Henry’d.

You’d quite honestly find less in the way of infantile outbursts down the *other* Plunket.

I’m not going to get into the philological ins and outs of what Plunket may or may not have said (except to note that much of the alleged “factual” content invoked was just flat-out wrong) … but whether Plunket intended to slur Catton as a “fruit”, “ovaries”, a “bugger” (or, possibly, some word of a feminine inflection starting with C), a person whose head ought to be boiled and eaten, or someone whose cranium was forcibly inserted into one’s posterior … or, for that matter, as the rest of Plunket’s diatribe makes out, someone who receives money in exchange for services and then doesn’t properly flatter the hander-out of coin (which sounds *awfully* close in implication to “whore”, now, doesn’t it…); there is no translation, imputation, or bilingual sleight-of-hand which renders Plunket’s comments on Catton an appropriate broadcaster’s response to a measured political criticism.

By coming out and attacking Catton herself on the basis of her party affiliation, her place in the New Year’s Honours List, her position as a taxpayer-funded academic – and just about everything else possible apart from the actual and manifest truth of her remarks … Plunket & Key have unwittingly managed to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt the vacuity and pettiness of our political classes as highlighted in Catton’s initial comments.

Frankly, I’m hella-glad Catton’s had the gumption and wherewithall to come out and say-what-we’re-all-thinking … because at the moment, it really does seem to be the case that when it comes to matters of culture and criticism, some of our leaders and opinion-shapers appear to have all the depth of the Windsor gene-pool.


  1. Go Catton.

    She was being polite she should have added “bullies”

    “neoliberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry political bullies…..” who have, at best, an economic appreciation for culture”.

    Because as well as showing she is right about their behaviour she has also showed what bullies they are and how against freedom of speech they are.

    Key just can’t help himself. Must keep in the limelight.

    Not sure if this is true, but apparently he said

    “there were better New Zealand novels than the Luminaries such as Lord of the Rings”.


    • Ironically Tolkien was very much opposed to fascism and abuse of power and the oppression of the little people…and his ‘Lord of the Rings’ is all about this …he was profoundly affected by the two World Wars and many of his friends were killed in World War I….. although he denies his writing is allegory, many have seen in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ the looming threat of fascism and World War II and those who stood up against it and resisted.

    • What makes The Lord of the Rings so much better than The Luminaries is that you can sit in a cinema and passively soak it up (in between snoozes). No need for that pesky reading.

      • Hey, we don’t need to read! Remember we are going back to Feudalism here in NZ! Unregulated Charter schools and ‘performance pay’ will get rid of literacy and put that cash in the pockets of the ruling elite, where it should be! Then the nations kids can just soak up propaganda movies in-between working the coal mines. It all makes sense as an economic vision!

      • Thanks for the useful and informative link Jo. I read it then thought . . . . . well actually, what I thought isn’t ‘publishable’ here . . . . . (No, not even here!)

        Thanks also to Curwen Ares Rolinson for the above article which comes excellently close to saying . . . .well almost ‘it all’.

        Now i think I’ll go away and throw up, or cry, or maybe just hum to myself a chorus of “Don’t cry for me, New Zealand”.

        God help us all!

  2. The vast RWNJ clobbering machine, having disposed of the better prime ministerial candidate, is so redundant it has been reduced to random attacks on civilized people.

    In the future, the precedent should be that PMs reserve their criticisms of authors for their own book award interviews.

    The only whore in this story is Key.

  3. I am going to go out and buy her book now!….To my mind it is the mark of a great writer or artist or intellectual that they are prepared to stand up and be counted against the forces of oppression and injustice ..The great British playwright Harold Pinter immediately springs to mind..

  4. Good article Curwen, but I feel you’ve made a very lazy judgment regarding Catton’s work. The Luminaries articulates just how badly Chinese immigrants were treated in NZ under a system of indentured labour. It also shows how a white male elite regarded Maori. the astrology is just a veeery clever working framework.

  5. The National government and their MSM spin doctors have a real problem about someone boldly speaking the truth about New Zealand. They want the myths to persist. The myths about a clean green New Zealand, a New Zealand of equal opportunity, about justice being available for everyone whatever their race or economic position; about a being a safe place to be a woman or child; about freedom from being spied upon if you disagree with government policy. Myths! myths! myths! Once they were largely true, but now they largely historical. But National wants not only to preserve the myths, but enhance them. That is what this “social housing” policy is all about: create a new myth about how the housing needs of the poor and disadvantaged will be taken care of. How will their needs be met by selling off state houses, when even National admit that the waiting list is growing? Answer: create another myth, and constantly feed it until it seems true and people will stop questioning it, like Dirty Politics, and National’s economic mismanagement.
    When will our MSM stop acting like National Party cheerleaders and start questioning what they are doing?

  6. And one more thing: that Nationalphile muppet Sean Plunket should do New Zealand journalism a favour and emigrate to Baffin Island or somewhere similar.

    • How could you say so?!

      He’s a treasure, is Sean Plunket! The nearest we have to our very own Glen Beck. Such fire! Such oratory (or is that ‘lavatory’? Dunno)!

      No wonder he left that dull old National Radio for the Real World where he could use the full measure of his wit and intelligence. (Was that one or two millimetres? Dunno.)

      What a scintillating scintilla he is. A real ‘flash in the pan’ (Or was that ‘flush’? Dunno…)

      Where could we be without him…

      • I wouldn’t call Radio Live the real world .
        They were bailed out by the tax payer to the tune of 42 million dollars.
        Hardly standing on their own two feet.!!

  7. well said Curwen, you covered all the bases. Thank you for that forthright expose of this Key led gumment that we are stuck with for three more years, pending police investigations notwithstanding.

    • In my experience, New Zealanders don’t take kindly to criticism . Our American cuzzies found that out the hard way back in the 1980s when they tried to stiff-arm us back into the ANZUS “nuclear umbrella”. Three million-plus Kiwis raised one middle finger as a gesture of their feelings…

    • so why has not one single rebuttal been about the actual comments then?

      every single comment back has been an attack on her personally

  8. So pleased Lauren Catton has rattled JK and MsM, thanks so much, I say. She definitely has an understanding of how horrible NZ Inc is for many who live here under this Tory dictatorship that National and fellow bullies are obsessed with running here, while the hypocrisy of their regime astounds many of us, our fellow global human beings barely know how much many kiwis dislike them.

  9. Key won’t appear on programmes such as First Line to discuss more the important current political issues, however, his severely maladjusted character can’t handle a bit of criticism, so he immediately leaps onto the forum in a desperate attempt to defend himself, and band aid up his poor pathetic wounded ego.
    Talk about a total Sad Ar$e

  10. I hear now that the need to be able to pee while working at your desk and maximize returns that MPD are looking at urinal connected workstations.

  11. What would have happened if a writer had made these comments about the Labour govt 8 years ago? Probably not much.
    The difference this time? she questioned Key’s Govt, which caused the hysteria, and public vilification.
    There’s something very wrong with a country whose citizens are only allowed to make glowing comments about their Govt, and ‘show gratitude’.

    • @Judas Collins –

      Yes, it’s called fascism, led by a vain, self centered, corrupt despot, who shall not (never) be challenged or questioned!

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