Stead story attracts British barbs

C K Stead has received further critical flak after a prize-winning short story he wrote was taken to be a thinly veiled attack on deceased fellow author Nigel Cox, this time attracting the barbs of UK satirical magazine Private Eye and author Keri Hulme.

But Stead has hit back, again criticising the blog that reprinted an essay on him by Cox and saying Hulme, the winner of the 1985 Booker Prize for The Bone People, would be worth listening to "when she is a writer again". He also said featuring in Private Eye was like having his 15 minutes of fame at age 77.

Last week the Sunday Star- Times reported that Cox's widow Susanna Andrew was "shocked" by a short story by Stead labelled a revenge fantasy about her deceased husband. VUP publisher Fergus Barrowman, one of Cox's literary executors, said he was "sickened" by the story, which went on to win the [PndStlg]25,000 ($53,000) London Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Prize. Barrowman said the story, called Last Season's Man, was a piece of "cold- hearted triumphalism" about Cox, who had "stung" Stead with a critical essay in literary magazine Quote Unquote, edited by Stephen Stratford, in 1994. Cox died of cancer in 2006.

Stead's story is about a Croatian dramatist who wishes death on a younger writer who describes him in an essay as a has-been. The younger writer gets cancer and dies, and the older writer woos and marries his widow. When he, too, dies 10 years later, he is acknowledged as a master and a statue is created in his memory.

The latest issue of Private Eye repeats the story in its Books & Bookmen column, mocking the Sunday Times' claim that Stead is "a modest 77-year-old widely recognised as New Zealand's leading man of letters". The magazine claims this "caused incredulous hilarity among NZ literati, [some of] whom wouldn't even put Stead in their top five", and says that in the reviewer's view, the story isn't much good: "it reads like one of Jeffrey Archer's cast-offs".

A comment to Stratford's Quote Unquote blog by Hulme said: "Well, I've now read the short story in question: it is f------ tame, timid, awful insofar as the writing is concerned, and vicious in the revealed background."

Another comment notes that Stead told the Sunday Times: "The reason I set this story in Croatia, rather than in New Zealand, was because everybody would have tried to work out who the characters were, and I didn't want that."

Stead maintains the story is purely fiction. Asked if there was a parallel between the two writers in his story and his relationship with Cox, Stead said: "It's not obvious to me" and he "did not accept any moral responsibility for mistakes that other people make in reading my work".

Private Eye quotes an unnamed Kiwi author claiming Stead can be "incredibly cruel" in his critical writings and "the thinly disguised portraits his books are full of", but thin-skinned when something is written about him.

In October last year Cox's 1994 essay about Stead was reprinted on the blog, Stratford having sought permission to do so from Barrowman and Andrew. Stead emailed them after the article appeared, saying: "I regarded the article at the time as an unfriendly act. I regard your permissions likewise - and after all this time, gratuitous." Barrowman says they asked Stratford to remove the Cox article from the blog, which he did. But after Barrowman read Stead's story, he asked Stratford to put the article back on the blog so people would know the back-story.

Stead, who was admitted into the Order of New Zealand in 2007, is the recipient of many literary accolades. The 1964 book of his PhD study of Yeats, Pound, Eliot and the Georgian poets, The New Poetic, reportedly sold more than 100,000 copies.

In 2007 he told The Guardian: "I think Keri Hulme in particular is a genius. There are all kinds of things wrong with The Bone People, but it is clearly the work of a major writer." Last week he said "people should start attending to Keri Hulme again when she is a writer again. She is not a writer at the moment, she gave up long ago, and when she starts again she will earn attention".

He said appearing in Private Eye doesn't concern him. "It's a famous, scurrilous and very entertaining magazine. So one is unlikely to figure in Private Eye in a flattering light; it's not in the business of making people look good."

He said he is concerned that the source of the story appears to be Stratford's blog.

"He is, in an essence, a literary wannabe; he is essentially a literary gossip columnist." Stead again criticised Stratford's position as chairman of judges of the NZ Post book awards.

Stead was proud of his story and said New Zealand should celebrate its international successes. "New Zealand isn't grown up enough to celebrate its own successes without envy."

Sunday Star Times