Burn the witch: on the attacks against Eleanor Catton

For those who find success outside of New Zealand it’s considered poor form to criticise the mother country. The job of an international success is to act as a salesperson rather than a citizen. Arguably this was as true for Katherine Mansfield as it is for Eleanor Catton. So when Catton – author of The Luminaries and winner of the Man Booker Prize – ignored her duty to boost the national ego, choosing to gently criticise the national condition and ‘neoliberal’ politicians instead, the political Right flew into a kind of rage.

One right-wing talkback host took to air to condemn Catton as a ‘traitor’ and an ‘ungrateful hua’ (hua being a Māori pejorative pronounced like ‘hoor’, the Scottish take on whore). One right wing columnist tweeted his disgust calling Catton ‘just another sanctimonious narcissistic no-nothing leftie greenie’ (sic). National Party Prime Minister John Key suggested Catton lacked ‘respect‘ and should stop ‘mixing politics with some of the other things that she’s better-known for’.

You may have the impression Catton committed some national sin, and you be might right – but only if it is a national sin to criticise the powerful. Or perhaps it’s just considered inappropriate to step outside the self-contained communities of the literary classes and venture a view on politics. Catton, in an interview with Livemint at the Jaipur Literary Festival Catton, certainly offered a view:

New Zealand, like Australia and Canada, [is dominated by] these neoliberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians who do not care about culture. They care about short-term gains. They would destroy the planet in order to be able to have the life they want. I feel very angry with my government.

Catton is hardly advancing a new or particularly devastating critique. What, then, explains the vicious response? Beneath the barely concealed misogyny, the ad hominem attacks and the official disapproval is a very clear message: the role of the writer is not political. The establishment will acknowledge society’s writers and intellectuals, and might even grant them a form of collective importance, yet the writer and intellectual must be denied a private voice.

How dare she offer a view outside of the role we have assigned her! The effect of denouncing the writer’s migration from the strictly literary to the political is to transform the writer’s role from a critical one to a politically neutral one. Underneath the criticisms of Catton the person is the idea that the duty of the novelist is merely to entertain: the writer is defined only by her economic function. The writer works not for citizens but for consumers, and passive consumers at that. If Catton can be confined to mere entertainer then her political views lose their force.

Which only goes some way to explaining why a number Right-wing figures were so vicious in their condemnation. But Catton also offered something critiques of neoliberalism generally lack in New Zealand, Australia and Canada: respectability. Thus her views arrive with far more force than criticisms of neoliberalism that are offered on obscure blogs and in academic journals whose circulations is pathetically small. The viciousness, then, sought to upend Catton from Man Booker Prize winner – and thus a respectable member of the establishment – to a national ‘traitor’ who is only good for writing fiction.

The consequences of this for writing and thinking in public seem quite frightening. The art of thinking in public is, I think, a confidence trick. This is especially true for public thinkers who, like Catton, come from marginalised groups. For women in public (especially women writing online) there are the everyday intimidations like the invitations to sex – and the consequent threats of rape – but there are also the threats that we find harder to name, like the bullying attitudes of the right-wing media folk who ‘went after’ Catton. Not with the crude tools of the internet commenter, but with word plays on radio – ‘hua’ vs ‘hoor’ – and the privilege of the press conference, like Key’s suggestion Catton should stick to her knitting, so to speak.

It all serves a prosaic function – the quickest way to render a critique meaningless is to isolate the critic – but it also has an effect much harder to quantify: how many women will be discouraged from thinking in public? After all, Key’s government has form attacking women who criticise it. One critic, academic and former New Zealander of the Year Dame Anne Salmond was labelled ‘shrill’ and her criticisms of government spying laws were compared to ‘McCarthyism’ and ‘Nazi Germany’. Actor Keisha Castle-Hughes, the youngest Oscar nominee for Best Actress, was told to ‘stick to acting’ after campaigning for climate change action.

There may be no greater endorsement of the public intellectual and the activist than to invite the contempt of the establishment. But it would also be reckless to refuse to recognise how insidious the attacks against Catton could be. Why would anyone contemplating a career as a writer or a public thinker want to enter such a hostile environment? The fact that we have to even ask this question may confirm Catton’s original critique: that New Zealand, Australia and Canada are dominated by neoliberalism, where the writer’s role is confined to entertainment and her worth is measured in sales. To then deny the writer her political voice is one of the greatest triumphs of a neoliberal society.

Morgan Godfery

Morgan Godfery (Te Pahipoto, Sāmoa) is a writer and trade unionist. He lives in Dunedin and works at the University of Otago.

More by Morgan Godfery ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. Excellent blog Morgan. It is horrifying to see the PM’s response to Catton. Isolating and belittling are powerful ways to make people think twice about speaking their minds.

    1. That is the way our Prime Minister works really isn’t it?- puts people down using his public standing as Prime Minister- my kids have not been blinded by his antics and have called him a “bully” (assuming they make that observation on the tactics they see at school in the schoolyard?) which I think is an interesting and perhaps honest take on the way he comes across….

      “no comment , no ! Nup! no comment” ..

        1. No it isn’t. Helen Clark didn’t behave this way, nor any of the more recent Labour leaders, including Andrew Little. No Green Party MPs behave this way, or ever have. It’s pretty much peculiar to Key, serving to cover his lies.

  2. Heartiest congratulations to Eleanor Catton on courageously speaking he truth about our New Zealand situation, not an easy thing to do knowing that ferocious reaction would abound from those without her luminosity. I hope support for her will be huge, enabling her free-thinking spirit to flourish.

  3. Power corrupts in many ways and one cannot be critical of “neoliberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians” as they are never wrong! Sadly their so called public minions (powerful in another context) – Plunkett and Hooton have to make their obnoxious ‘noise’ to keep themselves in the public eye.

  4. Thank you Morgan. It is so important that we have the right to speak in a democratic society and are not bullied or harassed for doing so. Ka rawe e hoa, nga mihi.

  5. Thank you to all of you for speaking up in defence
    of Eleanor Catton. She was absolutely bang
    on in her summing up of the true nature of this government. More riches for the already wealthy is
    the only mission of this government, and the arts
    are sadly neglected and undermined.
    Sean Plunkett and other media critics have reacted hysterically, not analytically as they ought to.

  6. A fine rebuttal; cogent, thoughtful and Dammit ….. why do they still need to said in the 21st century – makes me want to weep with frustration and disappointment.

  7. I wonder if she were a man she would have been attacked in this way? Richard Flanagan criticised Australia in his Man Booker Prize speech and didn’t receive that sort of backlash.
    I don’t think it is specifically artists the right hates speaking up, though that is a useful peg to hang their criticism on, I think they resent women being allowed to be part of the political scene. You’d think after over a hundred years they would have got over votes and representation for women.

  8. Terrible that the very people who banged on about freedom of speech do their best to condemn an intelligent woman for telling it the way it is

  9. It is always disappointing when what could have been a useful debate descends into a flinging of labels and intellectual categorisation. As if giving something a name immediately condemns it. It is also disappointing when the source of the original criticism is ignored in the later raking of the coals. So Catton’s book won an international fiction prize. It also won the NZ award for fiction. The fact that it did not also win the NZ Post book award for 2014 (which went to Jill Trevelyan’s Peter McLeavey, described as a supreme achievement that delivers on every front) appears to be the point at issue. This would have been a much better focus of debate.

  10. The reaction to Eleanor Catton’s comments has sadly been a win to the government. It will take a brave individual to express their true opinion in public from now on without being bullied. Key and his oversized PR dept are destroying our right to freedom of speech. May the Eleanor’s of the world stand strong and not be silenced!

  11. It’s even worse for poets than it is for novelists. The nedia and the general public following on from the media, have put poetry and poets so far onto the sideline that they now scarcely exist.

  12. It is a shame that we now have to add bullying to Elanor’s list ..
    the vehemence of some of the replies, suggests her criticisms activated unexamined guilt .. if you are comfortable with your decisions, you can be gracious in the face of criticism ..
    those reactions also prove what a powerful person in their eyes she is .. no one feels the need to bully someone they consider inferior .. they have scored an ówn goal’..
    which gives weight to the saying ..’Love your enemies’.

  13. Catton’s views struck a nerve with Key deep down in places he’d never talk about at dinner parties. His cold water retort the next day didn’t wash away her tarnish. Catton will be a sharp Greenstone in Key’s shoe until his exit.

    1. Really? i don’t think so, he just retorted in the way he does to anything approaching the truth. Her political swipe and his spar were not even the subject of debate – rather the ‘tall poppy’ comments she made.

  14. Eleanor Catton is free to say what she likes.
    So are the ‘Right Wing.’
    So is Morgan Godfrey.
    None of it matters to people in the real world.
    Thank God for us.

    1. Just where exactly and what is this real world of which you write? It’s always disappearing out of frame or around some corner and never to be found for me.

  15. A wonderful article. I listened to Elanor’s father Dr Peter Catton speaking with Plunket the plonker on radio live and he (Plunket) was well and truly put in his box by the erudite and thoughtful Dr Catton.

    There are countries in the world where it is illegal for people to critisise their governments and can be severely punished. These right wing attacks on Catton’s comments are chillingly similar in nature.

  16. That seems to me, as a Scot and not a NZlander, to be a major over reaction to a reasonable and restrained piece. The vituperative flare undoubtedly means that her remarks have hit home and having no valid rejoinder her opponents resort to vicious harassment. It could be that she is wildly off course and the NZ establishment are altruistic and misunderstood. But since they are politicians …….

  17. well done Eleanor – obviously your words have struck a nerve with SP and his right wing leader JK – I applaud her message as it is so true – it is obvious SP and others dont like their govt. being accurately portrayed by people such as Eleanor – well done young lady – and its great to see your father also debating the issue with SP

  18. Hi Steve, Which “real world” do you live in. You do care enough to post a comment so your world is a participatory one, yes?

    Bullying does seem to be the first line response to those who criticize the current government. A bullying culture breeds intimidation, verbal violence, and the threat of physical and emotional harm. Yes this is still the dominant NZ everyday culture.

    In my “real world” we work hard to promote open frank discourse that does not support scapegoating as a
    valid response to criticism. Culture is dynamic and can change towards non violent communication and listening deeply to one another.

  19. It is a sad and frustrating mystery to me why the likes of PM Key retains such popularity. His recent responses to Catton’s comments must surely be seen for what they are, belittling and disrespectful, if not just plain banal. Is the NZ public equally banal that they accept this behaviour (and continue to endorse it) from a supposed leader? I am reminded that this is what the late Stéphane Hessel meant when he said “It’s time for outrage” (Indignez-vous)

  20. So Ms Catton chooses to bite the hand that feeds her (reportedly $50,000 so far, and probably more to come). That is her right in our lucky democracy.

    But it does not entitle her to expect that our own judges must fall into line with the views of the Booker panel.
    They are entitled too – to award their prize to a work of their own choosing.

  21. If most Kiwis were honest – we’ve all walked away from Kiwi writers. None of my friends can quote a current living Kiwi fiction writer other than Catton. Certainly no poet. Rapper other than Scribe? No idea. Children’s author? The Wonkey Donkey guy, whoever he is. But life goes on. If Sam Hunt had never written a verse Kiwis would have never missed what they don’t know. It’s just the way it is. We will miss out on many upcoming Kiwi talents, but we are busy with our lives and families and time is short. For most of us being a Kiwi involves working 70 hour weeks and worshiping our children. That’s our culture. It seems to work somehow. Could it be better? Perhaps.

    1. Hear hear! A writer, a woman who has something to say and says it out loud – finally. Writer’s used to be people who something to say – but here in NZ everyone has to be so careful not to upset anyone because they’ll turn out to be married to their publisher. So bravo EC, you do ROCK!

  22. There was some reaction to her statements, which is a good sign if anything. It would be overstating it to say she was closed down by a couple of comments. John Key made his usual snide comments and we all know Sean Plunket is an asshole; you can expect some incendiary garbage from him.
    The stronger reaction came not from her political statements but from her ‘tall poppy’ comments, which were widely reported as relating to her disappointment at not winning the Best Book at the NZ Book award! If this was a real quote and did refer correctly to the award she can, I think, expect criticism; it is quite a brattish attitude to take. If, on the other hand she made no such comment and its a media beat-up, then she’s been misrepresented completely. But as far as I heard from the NZ book awards panel rep Dick Frizzle on RNZ- that was the gist of it.

    So good on her for using her platform to criticise the govt but I think her other comments lost her traction.

  23. So…anyone keeping track of Catton’s book sales since this brou-ha-ha
    broke up because you sure as sheep cannot buy this sort of publicity and
    the politician who is not open to earning a little money on the shy, hasn’t
    been born. Yet.

  24. For the most part a great article, until:
    “but it also has an effect much harder to quantify: how many women will be discouraged from thinking in public?”
    ( – but of course no men would be similarly discouraged? Presumably the delicate wee dears are not able to survive criticism?).
    What appallingly sexist crap!

  25. I’m pretty sure the Maori word “hua” translates roughly as “fruit” or to “yield fruit”, so Sean Plunket’s comment is pretty senseless and plain stupid. I can accept that he may of used it as an emotive, derogatory slur, but the claim that it was misogynistic is rather ambiguous.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.