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Poppy lopping and cultural cringing

Novelist Chris Else reflects on “the Eleanor Catton affair”

Among the matters raised by the Eleanor Catton affair, two seem to have been given short shrift: our treatment of our tall poppies and whether or not we suffer from cultural cringe. The Dominion Post editorial for 30th January 2015 denied the existence of a tall poppy syndrome: “New Zealanders are kind, sometimes excessively so, to their achievers. Keri Hulme says she got enormous support when she won the Booker, and this is the usual pattern.” In a similar vein, the New Zealand Listener editorial for 7th February 2015 came close to denying the existence of a cultural cringe:

It is simply not true to say that we don’t embrace our literary successes. The Listener has always championed excellent writing; in fact, we put Catton on the cover before her Booker win. By contrast, sports stars almost never make our cover.

These claims are no doubt true; however, they are also beside the point. We laud our successful people; we also sometimes cut them down. The grosser form of the cultural cringe may be on the retreat, but there is a subtler, more insidious form that is as deeply ingrained as racism or sexism. The tall poppy syndrome is its inevitable consequence.

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Crying duffers, Jane Stafford

The Luminaries Eleanor Catton Victoria University Press, $35.00, ISBN 9780864738950 This is an extraordinary work. It is over 800 pages long, with a cast of characters to match and an intricately complex plot – or web of plots – revealed

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The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton

An extract from Eleanor Catton’s new novel. Mercury in Sagittarius (January 27, 1866) The 12 men congregated in the smoking-room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met. For all their variety of comportment and dress

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Age-old contracts, Elizabeth Caffin

A Year to Learn a Woman Paddy Richardson Penguin Books, $28.00, ISBN 9780143010029 Misconduct Bridget van der Zijpp Victoria University Press, $30.00,  ISBN 9780864735751 The Rehearsal Eleanor Catton  Victoria University Press, $30.00,  ISBN 9780864735812 A woman around 40, now on

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