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.
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.