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.