A collection of reviews, lectures, notes
and more from C.K. Stead.
BOOK SELF: The Reader as Writer and the Writer as
Auckland University Press, pbk, $40
Review by Lawrence Jones
C.K. Stead views this most recent book as a sequel to his
The Writer at Work (2000).
It is collection of miscellaneous non-fiction - reviews,
lectures, obituaries, journal notes, interviews, plus a few
formal academic pieces.
It is held together primarily by the sensibility of Stead the
writer - sharp, common-sensical, sometimes contrary, and, of
course, by his clear and eminently readable prose.
Stead has given the book structure by dividing it into four
The first section, "Shelf Life", is made up of literary
reminiscences, autobiography and social commentary, all
spoken by the writer in his own person.
The major piece in this section is the text of his 2006
Hocken Lecture, "Fifty Years Ago: Some Images of the Young
Poet and his Elders: Brasch, Curnow, Sargeson".
This engaging piece emphasises his relationship with Charles
Brasch, presented from both sides as he recounts his memories
and quotes from Brasch's diary.
This section also includes his Listener obituary of
Janet Frame, his account of "One New Zealand Writer's
Engagement with French Language, Literature and Society", an
essay on men in Katherine Mansfield's life that throws some
light on his novel Mansfield, and, among many other
pieces, "Poetry and Politics (and a beating)", a fascinating
account of an unjust caning he received as a schoolboy and
his use of it in a political poem years later.
The second section, "Third Person", is written from "the
neutral persona of the literary critic".
It is mostly reviews (and Stead is an excellent reviewer)
with three longer pieces: a fine 1996 lecture on Robert
Lowell, a shrewd 1996 review-essay on Thoim Gunn's
Collected Poems and a 1995 review-essay on Craig
Raine's History: The Home Movie which has some very
interesting things to say about the Modernist long poem.
If the Stead of the Hocken Lecture seems mellowed, the
critical knives come out in the third section of the book,
"First Person", made up of interviews and journal entries.
The interviews are very enlightening, especially discussion
of My Name Was Judas, while the journal entries,
mostly from times when he was at literary festivals or
writers' retreats, can be very cutting on his fellow writers
- as he says, "Here the ego is exposed - not quite naked, but
now and then with its shirt off."
There is, for example, his description of the persona he
perceives in Australian writer Drusilla Modjeska's The
Orchard - "a sort of crazed egotist - pretentious,
demanding, humourless. She would be simply insufferable to
know - an alone person blaming the world, and especially its
50% that is male, for all her troubles".
Or there is his characterisation of the Australian Bob Ellis
at a literary festival as "a corpulent and crumpled dwarf
with the remains of good looks, one long gossip column on
short legs, clearly with some literary talent, interesting
experiences in the corridors of Canberra, a stock of
one-liners, an entertainer".
Stead's ego with its shirt off is especially evident in his
journal entries about the controversy in which he played a
leading part concerning the provision of a flat in London to
be used by New Zealand writers.
Stead the academic critic is dominant only in the fourth
section, "Lit Crit and Lit Hist", three academic pieces, the
major one being the contentious and influential 1979 lecture
"From Wystan to Carlos: Modern and Modernism in New Zealand
Poetry" - updated with some new notes.
The academic also appears in the introduction, "The Function
of Literary Criticism", in which he speaks of what has
happened to literary criticism since the 1950s, when
"intelligence, sensibility, clarity of mind, an engaged and
engaging personality" in the critic could be expressed in
criticism which "would do its job, renew interest in the text
under discussion, even return to it a life it had lost", a
mode replaced in the last 25 years in New Zealand by literary
theorists in whose work "political worthiness dressed itself
in a language only intelligible, if at all, to the initiated,
in order at once to assert its academic credentials and to
conceal its predictability and repetitiveness.
Ingenuity replaced serious thought, sociological measurement
replaced personal engagement, ideology replaced sensibility".
Stead sees this theorised criticism as especially destructive
in its attempt to discredit the literary nationalism of the
Curnow, Brasch and Sargeson generation, a movement which he
felt to be still exciting in the 1950s when he started, a
movement that now is history, something that "belonged to its
time, and that time is past", but something to understand
historically and to respect, not to rubbish as elitist,
racist, sexist, classist, etc.
As a literary historian, I say "amen".
- Lawrence Jones is emeritus professor of English at the
University of Otago.