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.