Esteemed academic Peter Munz once said to me, “The wonderful thing about the humanities is the lack of one answer to any issue, there is always debate, there must always be discussion and there may not ever be consensus.”
I’m reminded of this as I watch, with a mix of admiration and dismay, the debate fuelled by Eleanor Catton’s comments about the political state of our nation and her feeling that she is a victim of a ‘tall poppy’ syndrome. I am interested in listening to all of it, but wish only to comment, as the convenor of the judging panel of the New Zealand Post Book Awards 2014, on the continuing conversation surrounding our decision-making.
The New Zealand Post Book Awards is a multi-category, multi-genre competition. It is quite unlike the Man Booker competition, which considers only fiction. The Luminaries won the Man Booker competition, a thrilling achievement. Last year it went on to win the New Zealand Post Book Awards prize for fiction. In doing so, it won New Zealand’s equivalent of the Man Booker. It then went into contention for the supreme prize against three other exemplary finalists of different genres. It did not win that supreme prize; Jill Trevelyan’s book Peter McLeavey: The Life and Times of a New Zealand Art Dealer did.
I’m as impressed as I am bemused by Eleanor Catton’s belief that The Luminaries should have won the supreme prize. I’m impressed because we don’t have a proud history of owning our achievements, of proudly proclaiming our talents. Perhaps this is a by-product of a nation that did suffer a ‘tall poppy’ syndrome. Comments like Eleanor’s make me believe that this is changing. But I’m bemused because, putting aside that it diminishes the achievement of the supreme prize winner, Jill Trevelyan, it betrays a belief that our judging panel should have fallen into line with an international panel of judges. This is at odds with Eleanor saying that she grew up with the erroneous view that Kiwi writers, and by extension Kiwis generally, were somehow less than British and American ones; that we did not, and perhaps do not, back our own opinions or our own talent.
There was no sense on our judging panel that it was ‘someone else’s’ turn to win. We made a literary judgement, not a political statement. Given that our opinion did happen to align with the Man Booker judges and we did award The Luminaries our top fiction prize, it is at least churlish and, at most, mischievous to suggest that The Luminaries did not win its due in New Zealand.
But then, that’s the beauty of the humanities. Such decisions rightly inspire debate. Like the Man Booker judges, we were a group of individuals making a collective decision. We worked hard at the task in front of us and, in my view, we made wise and well-placed decisions. I was proud to honour Eleanor’s incredible work, The Luminaries. I was proud to award prizes to all the finalists that night of the New Zealand Post Book Awards, and to crown, as supreme winner, Jill Trevelyan’s book Peter McLeavey: The Life and Times of a New Zealand Art Dealer. It deserved to win. But in the grand tradition of debating and discussing the arts, I urge you to read all of our finalists before making up your own mind.
Well said and isn’t it good that she says it by way of addressing the criticism and not criticising the critic?
Catton . . . illustrated the old wisdom “artists are children,” and it is a little baffling why people seem to expect profundities about politics from them. In Catton’s case, she is only the latest in the long tradition of NZ literary types who feel their country is too grubby and philistine for them to bear for too long.
It is one of the most tiresomely adolescent aspects of the Kiwi arts scene, and it gets more intense whenever their fellow NZers are so uncouth as to elect National Govts.
Catton isn’t a “traitor” though, despite what talkback host Sean Plunket – increasingly resembling a retired Rotarian – called her on his programme. It is just another case of artists being a bit silly. There is no need for this sort of over-reaction.