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.

We should distinguish poppy lopping from two other situations in which writers and artists get dissed. The first is elitism, where the insiders of a group or clique sense that an outsider is making claim to membership and move to protect their territory. The second is professional envy, where one insider sees the success of another as undeserved and lashes out in vituperation. In both cases, the criticism is ostensibly levelled at the work, and it is often difficult to separate the prejudice from a strongly expressed but nonetheless honest judgement. By contrast, the tall poppy syndrome is an attack by an outsider on an insider, and it is directed not at the work but at the person.

A tall poppy is someone who achieves notable and possibly international success in a particular endeavour, be it sport or art or literature or music or even business and, as a result, becomes a celebrity. She (or he) is lauded and lionised. Her fans are proud of her; they are kind to her; they can’t get enough of her and, if she isn’t careful, she’ll be so busy making public appearances and giving her opinion on everything from climate change to her favourite footballer that she won’t have time to pursue her career. She becomes a hero, although I think a more accurate word for the role is “champion”.

The concept of a champion has evolved over the years, but it still retains elements of its origin. In biblical times, the fates of nations were decided in battles between individuals. When David fought Goliath, he did not just represent the people of Israel, he embodied them; and when he slew his opponent, the whole army of the Philistines was thereby defeated, despite their numerical superiority over the Jews. This is a tribal arrangement. The champion fights on behalf of the tribe, and the tribe identifies itself with its champion. If the champion wins, the whole tribe shares in the victory and triumphs through it. If the champion loses, the tribe falls apart and retreats in disorder. Psychologically, it ceases to exist until it can recover and regroup and re-establish itself.

Sports people understand this role; they explicitly represent their tribe, be it country or province or ethnic group. Writers, artists and musicians are often taken by surprise. One day they are doing their thing and the next they are a national representative. What they don’t appreciate is that you don’t choose to be a champion, the tribe chooses you whether you like it or not and, having chosen you, it then expects you to behave as a champion should.

In the case of the Kiwi tribe, the champion’s responsibilities are reinforced by what might be considered the national temperament. She (or he) must be modest, even humble. She must not be seen to be greedy or mercenary or selfish. She can be proud of her achievements to the precise degree that she is proud of her country and proud to be its representative. A triumphant Valerie Adams wrapped in the New Zealand flag or Edmund Hillary saying “We knocked the bastard off” are the paradigms.

Catton’s mistake was not that she called the government a bunch of neo-liberals who don’t care about culture. She had already done that implicitly by coming out publicly as a Green supporter in the general election. Nor was the reaction to her remarks in Jaipur an attempt by the right wing to deprive her of her right to free speech, as some people have suggested. There were two reasons she was attacked by the slavering wolf of talkback radio: firstly, she spoke outside the tribe to people from a foreign country; secondly, and perhaps more importantly, she explicitly distanced herself from the role of tribal champion by saying that she was uncomfortable being New Zealand’s “ambassador”. She was “a traitor” and “ungrateful” because she denied what the tribe considered its rightful share in her achievement; she thereby threatened its sense of identity.

Such reactions aren’t peculiar to New Zealand or even to nations. One of the best examples is the way in which members of the international protest generation turned on Bob Dylan when he abandoned his acoustic guitar and took his music in a new direction. Dylan, too, was “a traitor” and “ungrateful” – he was famously called “Judas” by a fan at the Manchester concert of his 1965-66 tour – because he had turned his back on “us” and seemed not to appreciate “our” belief in him.

Champions are valued most when the tribe is up against it or when a group feels small and insecure. In this lies the connection between our tall poppies and the cultural cringe. Our pride in the Cattons and the Lordes is a measure both of the things we value in our culture and the extent to which we feel the rest of the world is better than we are at such things. Our champions both exemplify our values and point to our vulnerabilities.

The Listener editorial was right when it said that it is not an example of cultural cringe to ask whether our literature is inferior. It is, however, cultural cringe to assume such inferiority without having read the work in question or to believe that international acclaim or success, of itself, guarantees superiority. The cringe is a prejudice and, like all prejudice, its effects are subtle and pervasive. It influences the reading public; the organisers of literary festivals; booksellers in their choice of what to purchase and where to display it; book page editors deciding what should be reviewed, by whom and in how many words; reviewers and book bloggers in their expectations of a book and the subtle pressures that govern how it might be criticised and in what terms.

A platitude favoured by our politicians and arts bureaucrats is that our writers are vitally important because they are “telling our stories”. According to the Listener editorial, New Zealand fiction comprises about 3% of fiction bought here. One conclusion we could draw from this is that the received wisdom is wrong: New Zealand writers are out of touch and are telling someone else’s stories – whose, it is hard to say. Another might be that New Zealand readers aren’t interested in our stories. This, presumably, implies that we have no cultural identity of our own, but have fallen victim to some neo-colonialist con that leads us to believe we are part of a global culture dominated by America. The case of The Luminaries suggests this isn’t so. Here is a novel based on a couple of intellectual conceits, a literary tour de force that reportedly sold over 100,000 copies in the local market in a year. Its success suggests that we are indeed eager for our stories, but only in so far as the world out there approves of them first. Twenty or so years ago, this was not the case. In the 1990s, novels such as Once Were Warriors and The Vintner’s Luck and, to a lesser extent, The Warrior Queen and In a Fishbone Church, achieved strong local sales before they gained any international success. These days, our literature has apparently become invisible to the wider reading public, and few people are interested in seeking it out. The cultural cringe, it seems, is alive and well.

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