A lot has been written about Eleanor Catton’s interview on liveMint TV and Sean Plunket’s response to that interview (see The Dim Post, Gordon Campbell, Morgan Godfery). What was overlooked in the kerfuffle were Catton’s comments about New Zealanders’ reluctance to express firm beliefs, in particular the beliefs New Zealand writers hold about writing. Catton said:
But I think it is always a shame when people don’t stand up for what it is that they really believe. And I do think the problem we face in New Zealand is that we are reluctant to express firm beliefs in anything. An example would be, I was teaching in class in Auckland. I made up a statement with manifestos from all over the world, different writers who all thought what writing should do or not do. I was going to give it out to my students and have them write about the one that spoke to them the most. When I was putting this document together, I thought, hang on, I don’t have any New Zealand writers here. And I spent an entire day on the Internet trying to find an aesthetic statement from a New Zealand writer and there was nothing. Hopefully in the future, we will have more people being brave in that way.
It is certainly a debatable point of view, and one that reminded me of how spoken interviews often lend themselves to generalisations. That said, I think Catton’s underlying point deserves more discussion. One writer I emailed cited Allen Curnow’s controversial introduction to A Book of New Zealand Verse 1923-45 (1945) as a form of manifesto, as well as Michele Leggott’s Opening the Archive. A quick browse of Best New Zealand Poems will throw up many a manifestoesque statement, for example Ian Wedde’s belief in the diversity of poetry. On the other hand, New Zealanders are often so agreeable that they do not speak out, and, as Brian Easton points out of Catton, when they do, they are attacked by the media. The dire consequences of such an attack are outlined by Godfery on Overland.
Whether or not you agree with Catton is not really the point. She is a writer that spurs intellectual debate about the role of writing and writers, and she is also someone who stands up as a public intellectual. This is a valuable thing, and it’s certainly brave. To show my support for her right to speak, I asked a few New Zealand writers to write their own statements or manifestos about writing – a love letter of sorts to Catton’s outspokenness. Thank you to those who responded. If you’re a New Zealand writer, post your own in the comments (or email them to me) and I’ll add them to the post. Please feel free to repost.
Free speech is the non negotiable space writers and writing must inhabit. As part of the Fourth Estate it is every writer’s job – as it is every journalist’s job – to hold governments to account and to speak out against them if/when things go awry. In this, the remits of the Fourth Estate – impartiality, integrity – are those which guide the writer through their free expression of opinion and critique. Writers and writing should never be lambasted, shamed or demeaned for simply ensuring democratic principles such as liberty and open discourse are upheld. – Siobhan Harvey, poet
Poetry should walk the tightrope between the right and the left brain and never fall off. It should create whole worlds that the poet cannot fully understand, and be soul-work, and never lie still. – Joan Fleming, poet
Writers write for all sorts of different reasons, so I wouldn’t expect each and every one of them to be the critical voice of their generation, or to regard speaking truth to power as a moral imperative. However, these are very legitimate and I would say necessary expectations for a society to place on its intellectual class overall. This is why we must stand by those writers among us who dare to be critical of our society and its institutions when they are under attack. Solidarity with Eleanor Catton. - Giovanni Tiso, writer and translator
The writer must be true to herself. Truthfulness is beautiful although it may be hard to hear and hard to look at. It can be brutal. It can fail. Truthfulness does not speak for the sound of its own voice or step forward for the pose. A character may act falsely, a plot move may be a false lead but the force that through the green fuse drives the flower must also drive the writer’s hand. The writer’s hand is hers alone. – Kirsten McDougall, novelist
I’m a little allergic to the idea of manifestos, I guess because of their insistence and demands for certainty in a pursuit (that, to my mind, better rewards suspension of judgment, and uncertainty). A characteristic in our literature is a determination to stay open, to allow multiple realities into a work, to intentionally puncture the tendency towards easy and firmly held opinion. This is one of the brilliant offshoots of what is essentially a postcolonial literature, and one of the reasons why there are so many excellent New Zealand poets. – Anna Smaill, poet and novelist
I think writing should not be afraid to offend, not offense for offense’s sake, but to address issues and subjects that the writer feels strongly about and to which certain sectors might take objection. Satire is an under-used and under-appreciated genre in New Zealand writing. Many New Zealand writers shy away from dealing with political issues in their writing either because politics doesn’t interest them or because they fear the backlash in a small society. In this way, I think it is brave of Eleanor Catton to nail her political colours to the mast. Art addresses the full spectrum of the human condition, but we must not forget that we are citizens as well as writers. As writers, we can use our talents and our vision to effect change. – Andrew M. Bell, poet, fiction writer and playwright
Writing should be an honest, pioneering inquiry into the aspects of the writer, and the world the writer inhabits, which are concealed or overlooked. Sylvia Plath’s promise to ‘write until I begin to speak my deep self’ is attractive to me. I don’t think this ‘deep self’ is found by solipsistic tunnelling, but via perilous imaginative journeys that send the self into alien circumstances. This sort of writing should startle both the writer and the reader – perhaps by showing what is presumed foreign to be familiar and vice versa. Writing should also be readable. If the writer fears, disrespects or neglects the assumed reader, writing becomes muddy. Instead, writing should accentuate the muddiness of quotidian language and inspire us to demand better. If we only receive politicians’ cliché-muffled meaning, advertisements’ senseless promises, and bureaucracies’ contorted parlance, we might forget how much clearer expression could be and relinquish our own clarity of thought. Writing should ward off such a vulnerable impairment. – Amy Brown, poet
Writing at its most radical is an act of empathy. It makes you, as best you can, inhabit the mind of another person. Even if that person is cruel or hateful or simply different to how you see yourself, it makes you spend time understanding their perspective. - Sarah Jane Barnett, poet and reviewer