Judges’ decision

January 30, 2015

Miriama Kamo, convenor of judges for the New Zealand Post Book Awards 2014 responds to Eleanor Catton’s criticism:

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?

David Farrar also responds to Catton reasonably at Kiwiblog and Trans Tasman opined:

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.

Quite.


Govt isn’t the country

January 29, 2015

New Zealand author Eleanor Catton used the forum of the Jaipur Literary Festival to criticise her country, its people and its  government:

Man Booker Prize author Eleanor Catton says she is uncomfortable being seen as an ambassador for New Zealand which she says is dominated by neo-liberal, profit-obsessed, shallow and money hungry politicians who do not care about culture.

The Luminaries author made her comments at the Jaipur Literary Festival which were reported across India, including at length on Indian news website Live Mint.

She said New Zealand did not have a lot of confidence in the brains of its citizens and there was a lot of embarrassment over writers. . .

She also said:

. . . “We have this strange cultural phenomenon called ‘tall poppy syndrome’,” she said. “If you stand out, you will be cut down.

“If you get success overseas often the local population can suddenly be very hard on you … it betrays an attitude towards individual achievement which is very uncomfortable.”

Despite her historic novel winning the Man Booker prize, it missed out on the main prize at New Zealand Post Book Awards.

Catton said she was uncomfortable with the way her international accolade was regarded in her home country. “It has to belong to everybody or the country really doesn’t want to know about it.”

She also said she was angry with the Government, which cared only about short-term gains.

Catton said had struggled with her identity as a New Zealand writer in the past year despite being in an “extraordinary position”.

“I feel uncomfortable being an ambassador for my country when my country is not doing as much as it could, especially for the intellectual world.” . . .

She has been criticised for making the comments.

I have no issue with her speaking out, she has the right to say what she thinks.

I do, however, take issue with what she said and think that much of it is wrong.

New Zealanders generally rank well for literacy and reading. From what I’ve observed from travel we have a lot more bookshops than many other countries and we have active and vibrant literary and artistic communities here who appreciate our artists.

To say New Zealand is dominated by neo-liberal, profit-obsessed, shallow and money hungry politicians who do not care about culture and that we have a Government, which cared only about short-term gains reflects her own political views which is very much a matter of opinion and one I think is unfair.

This government is focussed on the economy not as an end but the means to help people help themselves and look after those who can’t.

It  took a very moderate approach to policies in order to protect the vulnerable from the worst of the global financial crisis. Just one example of its long-term approach is welfare where it is determined to get those who can work into jobs.

But even is she was right about the government she is wrong to confuse it with the country.

Governments come and go, some of their policies endure and some don’t. They influence what happens but they are not the country.

To be uncomfortable as an ambassador for the country simply because she doesn’t like the government is showing the sort of ignorance of which she criticises her fellow citizens.


Copyright breach is theft

October 29, 2013

The media’s fascination with Kim Dotcom has irritated me.

He seems to hae been given a lot more attention and treated far more sympathetically than he deserves.

It will be interesting to see if they’re a little less enamoured with him after this news:

The Publisher’s Association has expressed disappointment that links to author Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize winning novel The Luminaries have been made available for free download by a New Zealand registered company.

The novel was discovered on Kim Dotcom’s file-sharing website MEGA yesterday.

“Everyone is rightly proud of the achievements of Eleanor Catton on the world stage so to see her work given away without her consent by a fellow Kiwi company is really appalling,” Publishers Association of New Zealand president Sam Elworthy says.

“We should be doing all we can to support the good work of not only these two artists but also every New Zealander who makes an honest living from his or her creative works.

“MEGA should do more to ensure this kind of thing does not occur.”

Victoria University Press spokesman Fergus Barrowman, which publishes Catton’s novel The Luminaries, said the fact a creative work was easy accessible for free over the internet did not make it right to do so.

“We live in a digital age and authors and publishers recognise the changing nature of how readers want to access material. We made sure that The Luminaries was available as an ebook to New Zealand readers in a timely and accessible way, and we are delighted so many of them have taken advantage of this.

“We are not surprised to be told that there are also illegal sources, but are nevertheless very disappointed,” Barrowman says.

Elworthy says the discovery of Catton’s work on a site such as MEGA was the “tip of the iceberg”.

“Just a few weeks ago we had to ask MEGA to take down an entire educational textbook written by a New Zealand author and which had been made available on their site. This type of illegal sharing is happening at an alarming rate and really hurting New Zealand creatives.

“New Zealand books and music are enjoying enormous success right now. We’re getting creative work out to millions in all sorts of formats all around the world. But while Eleanor Catton is doing big things for our international reputation, it’s disappointing to see her being ripped off by a website which calls itself a New Zealand company,” Elworthy says.

Kim Dotcom is fighting extradition to the United States on copyright and racketeering charges over the operation of his previous file locker site Megaupload.

It’s difficult to make a living from creative endeavours anywhere, harder still in New Zealand where there’s such a small market.

The Man Booker win will have exposed Catton’s work to a much bigger audience but thanks to the free downloads she won’t be getting all the money she’s earned from it.

Beach of copyright, illegal sharing, call it what you will, it’s theft of intellectual property.


NZer youngest Man Booker winner

October 16, 2013

New Zealand author Eleanor Catton is the youngest ever winner of the Man Booker prize.

Prime Minister John Key has congratulated New Zealand author Eleanor Catton on winning the Man Booker Prize for her novel The Luminaries, announced in London.

“This is a hugely significant achievement on the world stage for a New Zealander,” Mr Key says.

“It is made even more extraordinary by the fact that Eleanor Catton, at 28 years of age, is the youngest ever author to receive the prize, and The Luminaries is only her second novel. “This will be a tremendous boost for young New Zealanders in the arts and is a testament to the obvious talent and hard work of Eleanor Catton,” Mr Key says. Ms Catton is the first New Zealander to win the Man Booker Prize since Keri Hulme in 1985 for The Bone People

. The Listener interviewed her. Last week and links to coverage of the win here.


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