Stead's collection of experiences deserving of respect

A collection of reviews, lectures, notes and more from C.K. Stead.

BOOK SELF: The Reader as Writer and the Writer as Critic
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 sections.

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.


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