Editorial: NZ artists' wins full of attitude and originality


These are extraordinary times for a country accustomed to looking to the sporting field for global recognition. Twice this month, it has had reason to celebrate achievements in the arts that will resound even more sonorously around the world.

First, there was the scarcely believable feat of Lorde becoming the first New Zealander to reach the top of the United States Billboard charts with her debut single, Royals.

Then, as the 16-year-old from the North Shore continued to sit atop the popular music world, Eleanor Catton, a 28-year-old from Mt Eden, this week became the youngest author to win the prestigious Man Booker Prize with only her second novel, The Luminaries.

This yin and yang of artistic endeavour was, by any yardstick, phenomenal.

It was also far-reaching in its implications. Re-emphasised was the fact that, whatever the obstacles imposed by geographic isolation, New Zealand artists can succeed overseas. In so doing, they open doors for other of this country's authors and singers.

As Eleanor Catton said, we can be confident that our stories are worth telling.

Equally, we can again enjoy the renown that such success delivers to this country and the benefits that spring from it. Already, we have glimpsed this through the awards bestowed by Hollywood on Sir Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies and, earlier, Jane Campion's The Piano.

The pay-off globally has been evident in tourism dollars and increased work for the country's film-making industry.

The reward for Eleanor Catton's triumph will be measured in a different but no less significant way, that of this country's reputation for producing literature of the highest order. Worldwide, it is virtually impossible to walk into a reputable bookshop and not find a copy of The Bone People, Keri Hulme's 1985 novel and the only previous New Zealand winner of the award. The Luminaries will henceforth enjoy the same status.

Eleanor Catton, herself, alluded to an aspect of this in her thoughtful acceptance speech. She had been free during the writing of her book, she said, to concern herself not with questions of value but of worth. Her publishers had managed to strike an elegant balance between making art and making money. This reference to the Victoria University Press reflected well on its sensibilities, given that many overseas writers despair of their publishers' money-making mania.

It is a further feather in our cap that both women have reacted to their success with dignity and courtesy. In a world in which the ridiculous demands of the most transient of stars are tolerated, unassuming artists attract attention. Eleanor Catton's response set her aside, as did that of Lorde on reaching the top of Billboard's Hot 100.

The task of both these women now is to build on their success.

It helps that both have done things their way. This has laid the groundwork for Lorde to do what she wants, with a strong probability her fans will follow her. Eleanor Catton, meanwhile, has ploughed her own furrow with an epic 832-page work for a world with a notoriously short attention span.

This strong strand of individuality means we can celebrate a reputation for artistic work that combines ambition with startling originality. For now, talk about New Zealand need no longer focus on the All Blacks or the America's Cup.

- NZ Herald

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