Is Eleanor Catton a traitor? Does Sean Plunket have a brain? Has the Prime Minister read The Luminaries? Who would have thought an obscure Indian literary festival could cause such agitated ripples 12,000km away ?

But when author and writing teacher Catton mentioned during a long chat at the Jaipur Literary Festival that New Zealand was a country led by "neo-liberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians who do not care about culture", local panties were mightily bunched.

You have to wonder why she was sugar-coating the reality, but that was her decision.

The rest of her statement, during a conversation that was almost exclusively about writing, went unreported, but is worth mentioning: "They care about short-term gains. They would destroy the planet in order to be able to have the life they want. I feel very angry with my Government."


Only the last sentence is a matter of opinion. The rest are statements of fact that none of Catton's critics has tried to deny.

The two most prominent critics, the Prime Minister and talkback host Plunket, responded with, respectively, passive aggression and personal abuse. "I'm disappointed if she doesn't have respect for the work we do because I have tremendous respect for what she does as a writer," the PM said.

Really? And what would he know about that? I'm going out on a limb here, but I'm pretty sure he hasn't read The Luminaries, or even its predecessor, The Rehearsal.

He doesn't admire her work, of course. He admires her success and her rise to prominence.

And that's a perfect example of the sort of shallowness Catton is decrying.

Meanwhile, poor old Plunket, who used to be a responsible journalist for grown-ups, has been busily trying to reinvent himself on air as a rabblerousing snot - and doing rather well at it.

The RadioLive host bagged Catton for criticising the Government when she is in a "Government-funded" job, teaching writing at the Manukau Institute of Technology - oh, the glamour! Those students pay fees so it's Government-subsidised at most.

Plunket, who co-hosted National Radio's wholly taxpayer-funded Morning Report for 14 years, overlooked that as well as drinking deep from the public trough Catton has performed such acts of philanthropy as setting up a fund for writers and providing an opportunity for Plunket to get a tsunami of free publicity.


And whereas her students will learn a lot about how to write, Plunket's listeners will learn nothing except how to loathe intellectuals and prefer invective to thinking.

Catton will continue to write brilliantly. Meanwhile, having told her to stick her remarks where the sun doesn't shine - and you might want to think about the implications of a middle-aged man saying that to a 29-year-old woman - Plunket will continue to deliver his drivel where the brains don't work.

It was disappointing in light of all this to see Catton play the tall poppy card: "We have this strange cultural phenomenon called tall poppy syndrome." There's nothing strange about it - it's frequently mentioned in Australia and Britain, and in Scandinavian countries the law of "jante" describes a similar phenomenon.

In fact - thanks, Wikipedia - tall poppy syndrome was described as long ago as the fourth century BC by Aristotle in his Politics.

All too often the complaint of being a victim of tall poppy syndrome is made by people who think they should be exempt from criticism.

Catton has been celebrated loud and long. That respect is totally deserved and should only be increased by the observations made this week about the country she obviously loves.

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