The last time I saw Eleanor Catton, she was travelling in a pushchair under the care of her doting father Phillip. Judging by her Dad’s response this week to Sean Plunket’s ill-judged comments, she’s still the apple of his eye. But the acclaimed author has come a long way since then.
Eleanor Catton reportedly made some disparaging comments about the parlous state of intellectualism in New Zealand and alluding to how arts and creative endeavours have suffered at the hands of neo-liberal politicians and their supporters. Plunket’s outburst therefore seems somewhat ironic given that he himself built a career out of freely criticising others, including dissecting the political establishement. Should not Catton be afforded the same privilege?
The most amusing aspect of this affair is that Plunket’s rant simply underlines the point Catton was trying to make. New Zealand has become an intellectual desert where the media’s (and public’s) chief obsessions are cleverly branded sports teams and little else. Furthermore, intellectual debate is reviled and the political discourse revolves largely around economic progress. Unsurprisingly, Catton has consequently shown little interest in being lauded as a daughter of New Zealand as her star ascended on the global stage.
We New Zealanders are an insecure race and are constantly needing to claim celebrities as our own, as if to fulfill our ambitions vicariously in some way. Perhaps that is a function of being a tiny island nation on the edge of the real world. Given the state of the rest of the world, we actually have much to be thankful for, in reality. But in the same way that film maker Peter Jackson succeeded in spite of being based in New Zealand, Catton achieved fame through her own efforts and by the quality of her scholarship and determination, not because she had a New Zealand upbringing or any obligation to our country.
Numerous pundits, including Eleanor Catton herself, have taken to social media to express a variety of viewpoints about this sorry episode. “New Zealand doesn’t invest enough in growing strong and stable institutions to nurture and develop its next generation of leaders, thinkers and creators”, exclaims Mark Rickerby in a brilliant but somewhat pessimistic article in support of Catton. Whilst I agree with many of his points, I’m still hopeful and here’s why.
My teenage son is growing up in a New Zealand where at least half his friends are immigrants or children of immigrants, where fewer and fewer kids are taking up team or contact sports and where traditional media is regarded as largely irrelevant by his peers. It’s simple demographics. Plunket and his conservative, flabby, white, football-loving, bogan mates are right to be worried, their days are numbered.