Catton, Criticism, and The Great Cringe

Eleanor Catton described a 'bullying' tone to some of the local advance reviews of her Booker Prize-winning new novel. Are our up-and-coming writers and their fans thin-skinned? Or is NZ criticism trapped in a perpetual sneering adolescence under the guise of clear-headed candour? Ross Brighton takes a look.

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Many people have been saying, again and again (a kind of Steinian insistence that somehow never manifests itself as more than, well, repetition), that New Zealand lacks a real reviewing culture, and needs more and better criticism.

Unfortunately people often seem to mistake negative reviewing for both what is lacking (which is, in part, true) and for the "good criticism" or "review culture" that is missing. While negative reviews serve a purpose (for the sake of fairness, the first review I ever published was a fairly unforgiving condemnation of Andrew Johnston and Robyn Marsack’s 20 Contemporary New Zealand Poets, VUP/Carcanet 2009), they’re not de facto good.

Case in point – Auckland writer Michael Morrissey’s handwaving dismissal of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (if you want to read it, Google will help you, I don't particularly want to link it here. I’d rather not give Investigate and Ian Wishart the time and traffic). As an advance review from one of her countrymen, it seemed churlish at the time – now that she’s won one of the top literary prizes in the English-speaking world, it has a deadening flat-earther futility to it. But it bears discussing – not just because it was a reception Catton herself was aware of, but because as a snide, derisive shrug of a thing it puts paid to the myth that the great big matriculation in NZ criticism is going to come about if we just pump out enough snark. A well-considered piece that takes a look at what doesn’t work about The Luminaries – that tries to make a case for why it might not be everyone’s book of the year – would be welcomed. This isn’t it.

First off, the big stuff: I'm going to assume that this review was part of the sexist bullying Catton mentioned in a recent Guardian interview: “The Luminaries, she said, was subject to a "bullying" reception from certain male reviewers of an older generation”. ‘Bullying’ can seem like a petulant word in the face of a hint of critical feedback, sure. Except that from the get-go in his review, Morrissey does exactly that. Here's what he says:

"Her first novel, The Rehearsal, written when the author was virtually a child of 21 (or so) set a new hallmark in schoolgirlish bitchiness, as well as including flashes of purple writing – understandable in one so young. Femmes were impressed; chaps less so."

Not only is the success of The Rehearsal implicitly gendered (women liked it, men didn't) but that's couched in terms of a value judgement too. Essentially what Morrisey is saying is that the (assumed) fact that the book’s audience was primarily female (for which no evidence has been given) makes the book intrinsically less valuable. The conclusion to be drawn from that: the only real literature is stuff that men like. Then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, there’s the infantilisation of Catton (seemingly fixated on the idea of her in a school uniform, which is, well, creepy). This is, again, gendered - in that it's a strategy which has been used from time immemorial to silence and belittle female writers (and women in general). Similar things were said about Eileen Duggan, Robin Hyde and Janet Frame (who Morrissey takes a passing swipe at as well. Not content with just rubbishing Catton, he calls New Zealand’s second most successful export after Mansfield a ‘self-centred minor writer’).

As if that wasn't enough, Morrisey goes on to describe Catton as "pensive-featured [and] marginally beautiful" - as if that has anything to do with the merit of her literary achievements, or the book at hand. Strike two: objectification. And that generally sets the tone for the review (aside from the other major stylistic tic of Morrissey's: listing great novels and great novelists as if he's creating his fantasy course syllabus; something which seems more like showboating, and assertion of literary dominance, than anything else).

From there on in, it's a review, of sorts. There doesn't seem to be much in the way of actual critical content though. He doesn't like the book: that much is clear. But all he seems to be saying is a) It's too long; b) it's a pastiche (which should be obvious) and that that is somehow intrinsically bad (Morrissey helpfully elaborates by comparing the book unfavourably to Umberto Eco, himself a pastichist); and c) that Hellenic astrology is passé. Which isn't by any means self-evident (certainly, this didn’t appear to be a big consideration for the Booker panel, let alone readers) especially given the statement that "[t]his formulaic folderol could have been replaced by alchemy or Chinese astrology, which I suspect might give more accurate character readings than its Hellenic cousin".

To which one immediately asks – what makes either of those more interesting? Is it exoticism, in the case of Chinese astrology? And alchemy... well, if we’re talking female NZ artists, Julia Morison has done that in another medium, and thoroughly, too. And just as an aside, I'm still really dumbfounded at people discussing this novel’s structure without reference to the Oulipo (doubly so Morrissey, as he compares the book to Eco, who is a member of the aforementioned organization).

Interestingly, CK Stead, in his lukewarm review for, also elides the formal aspects of the text, referring to the “astrological structure that [he has] allowed [him]self to pass over” – essentially ignoring the primary generative conceit of the novel, and leaving himself able to criticise the novel for being “shamelessly implausible – in its particular events but more, in their fortuitous combinations”. Which is bizarre, if it is more than simple wilful ignorance or bad faith: my understanding is that those very “fortuitous combinations” of events and suchlike are the direct products of the astrological schema as organising principle, in the same way that the work of Raymond Rousel is governed by complex rules based on rhyme and homophony, or that the works of his successors such as Raymond Queneau and George Perec follow similar formal conceits (most famously Perec’s La Disparition (A Void) being composed – and translated into English – without the use of the letter ‘e’, and La Vie: Mode d'Emploi utilising, among other things, the Knight’s Tour problem in chess).

I suspect (and indeed, it’s merely a suspicion), that there is a good deal of anxiety produced by Catton offering up such an audacious and, indeed, cerebral work the second time around. Its size is intimidating, for starters (how many times are we going to hear that it’s the longest book to ever win the Man Booker?), but the formalism and formidable intellect is intimidating, especially coming someone so young, and from a woman (this might be related again to the omniscient third-person narration, mentioned as an aside in the Guardian piece I’ve previously linked to, which is associated with a certain level of detachment from the characters of a novel, both on the part of the narrator/author, and by extension the reader).

This is reflected in Guy Somerset’s review in The Listener, in which he states:

Catton acknowledges at one point she is imposing “a regimental order” – applying “mortar to the cracks and chinks of earthly recollection”. But without cracks and chinks, the surface of the novel is placid and detached. It’s as artfully manicured as the facial expressions she describes in a female character, and could do with some dirt beneath its fingernails.

His conclusion is that “The Luminaries exists mostly as a puzzle to be solved or flummoxed by”, with “recurring motifs and themes” that “feel more like devices to serve the puzzle”. Rather than a humanist work, it’s a vast work of formal artifice, to which Somerset concludes that “one of our most gifted young writers has boxed herself in. Yes, it’s a big box, with a lot of space to move around in. But it sounds awfully hollow in there”.

Reading the criticism, I’m reminded again of Julia Morison, particularly the calculatedly cerebral, hermetic (pun intended) and visually austere (though deeply layered and complex) works she made in the 80s, seemingly designed to sidestep all expectations of what art by women was meant to be (and largely was at the time). All of which, ironically, points toward the exact opposite of Stead’s conclusion that the book “is, you might say, Virginia Woolf’s nightmare of how many steps back a woman might take the form if given her head and a room of her own”.

Or perhaps, contra Stead and Somerset, Catton is doing what Yeats desired, “not tak[ing]/ [her] bodily form from any natural thing”, and “gather[ing herself] Into the artifice of eternity”: is that not what the stars are?

But back to Morrissey, and the way he uses what’s nominally a review Catton’s work as a pulpit for a wider view on New Zealand, and modern literature. His statement that "those who think the canon is obsolete should be stomached up against the largest cannon and the fuse lit" makes me want to vomit, or, worse, write a long and heavily referenced essay. Some people seem to desperately need gatekeepers and authority, as if they need to be told what is good and what isn't, or be in charge of the telling/deciding. You see heaps of this in the discourses around contemporary poetry in the US - there's "too much", "too many poets", a "glut" (Johannes Göransson, and others, have written great stuff about this, mostly at Montevidayo): all of which means that it's impossible to be an "expert" anymore, which is the real fear. People need a neat, clearly demarcated canon to study and pronounce upon, but that idea is disintegrating and people are getting really, really scared.

I’m similarly confounded by the pronouncement: "Let us presently cast an eye over the contemporary novel – and indeed be grateful there is such a thing in this shallow electronic age". It sounds like Morrissey has been reading too much Jonathan Franzen. Anyone worried about the state of the contemporary novel, or that this "electronic age" is "shallow", is reading the wrong stuff. I would suggest at least partly because of their technophobia, and the fact that the most exciting and vibrant literature isn't being published by the major houses any more, and when it is, they're late to the game, like Harper Perennial picking up Dennis Cooper (though he was previously published by Grove, and HP were fairly quick to pick up Blake Butler) and Vintage publishing Tao Lin. Or making serious mistakes, like Fourth Estate passing up on the incredible Kate Zambreno.

And the stuff about how "[w]ith young men not reading, The Luminaries becomes a symbol of the continued decay of a general high culture into a gender-skewered one"? This seems to me to speak more of the reviewer's personal anxieties than anything else. It’s a long and complicated argument, but suffice to say that television and comic books are the vehicles for a lot of the strongest narrative writing around these days, and there is much potential for such in the still-nascent medium of video games. The latter two media have audiences that are pronouncedly skewed toward a male demographic, to the point that  some of their creators will gleefully alienate anyone else. Much has been written on the subject, but Todd McFarlane and Mark Millar were recently particularly odious about the potential audiences for their comics. Maybe this should be of a little cold comfort to Morrissey - it’s likely that as many young men are engaging with stories as ever have in the past. But the notion that it’s The Luminaries, or books like The Luminaries contributing to any sort of cultural ‘gender skewering’ (let alone cultural decay) is just laughable.

I'd also hasten to add that his reading of (if one will excuse the term) world literature is.... well, not as broad as it could be. The parade of names seems like showing off, but to me it also shows someone who hasn't done a lot of recent reading (outside of Indian literature, which I'm not too familiar with) - at least not by the major literary publishers, who are definitely in decline (PS: Don DeLillo and Jonathan Franzen as great American novelists? Both are bores, and the latter is a boor as well). Not to mention the conspicuous lack of – you know, names in the general reference to Chinese literature, particularly surprising considering Mo Yan was awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize for the stuff.

Finally, just to be a pedant, to compare a phrase from Catton's novel to one by Garcia Márquez (and that's his proper surname, not just Márquez by itself), after reproducing that claim of him being "the greatest writer in Spanish since Cervantes" ... and using Garcia Márquez in translation, with no analysis of the translation is... well, problematic at best.

There is much to be desired in the way of criticism, and secondary discourses regarding New Zealand Literature in general. No one should be piled onto for offering a voice of dissent, but Morrissey isn’t the great saviour we have been waiting for.

So what has been worthwhile? It’s not long or in depth, but Giovanni Tiso’s short meditation on Catton’s win over at Overland is pretty good, with a little historical context (Stead has been Stead for several decades, it turns out) and some wonderful turns of phrase without descending into fawning jingoism. I’d like to see Tiso tackle the book head on, as his writing is, by and large, some of the best criticism in this country.