CK Stead's bracing blast from the past

Last updated 00:42 30/03/2008

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IN THE opening essay of this lengthy but always lively and engaging collection, Stead remarks, "I have always believed that the reader of a piece of literary criticism should feel in the presence of a particular person, a personality, who is reading and commenting on the work in question." He goes on to say that "when a personal reminiscence or anecdote seems helpful" he has not "hesitated to use or refer to these".

Because I share Stead's dislike of the "bogus authority" of criticism written "without personality, as if composed by God, or a committee", I feel encouraged to reminisce a little and begin by acknowledging a debt. Much of my grasp of literary history, particularly in regard to Shakespeare, modern poetry and New Zealand writing, is there because Stead taught it to me when he was a professor in Auckland University's English Department in the 1970s.

A great deal has been said over the years about Stead's combativeness (often in hushed tones, lest he overhear and come out swinging with both fists). Those who know him only by whispered reputation might imagine he was a fearsome professor, battle-scarred from incessant literary warfare, bristling at all times with barely suppressed ire, ready to slap the bejesus out of any student daft enough to disagree with him.

His enemies will be disappointed to know that my recollection of Stead as a teacher is quite the opposite. In the mid-1970s most MA classes were small enough to be taught in a tutorial format. Far from being intimidated by Stead, we students back then regarded him as a rather kindly figure. He urged us in a friendly fashion to voice our opinions and didn't seem to mind too much if they were bollocks, provided we had at least read the texts and were trying.

In another passage in his opening essay, Stead writes, "What I wanted my academic colleagues (who were often not poets) to consider was the proposition that choices made in the process of literary creation were not necessarily conscious at all; that they were, rather, rapid intuitive discriminations. It was not so much the intellect that was engaged as the sensibility, the sensuous eye, the quick (spontaneous, opportunistic) wit, the talent for tone (not unlike `charm' in conversation), and the `ear'."

I can confirm that he also wanted his students to consider this proposition. We would turn up to tutorials armed with George Williamson's Reader's Guide to T. S. Eliot: A Poem-by-poem Analysis and other cribbing tools of the period. Stead would spy these and patiently explain that while tracking down allusions was all very well as a kind of scholarly pursuit, it would not tell us why certain lines of poetry and passages of fine prose stirred the imagination and provoked an emotional response.

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Stead's great gift as a critic is an ability to articulate his ideas with outstanding lucidity. Damien Wilkins once suggested in a review that Stead might even be burdened with "a surfeit of clarity". Yet he has always recognised that the qualities which distinguish the literary genius from the journeyman are not wholly susceptible to elucidation. Magic, mystery, inspiration, intuition call it what you will is also involved.

In a brilliant essay on Colin McCahon he argues that is the same with art. We can discuss McCahon's religious ideas and interpret the lettering he often included in his paintings, but while this is interesting it won't explain why McCahon is a powerful painter. Describing how he was moved by McCahon's Elias paintings "while remaining relatively indifferent to the messages they carried", Stead concludes that "the power came not from `story', or text, but from the use of paint, the application of colour, the filling and balancing of spaces".

Part of the fascination of Book Self is in watching the country's best critic confront the limits of criticism. Stead has dedicated his life to the pursuit of literary excellence. Yet excellence is very difficult to explain or define. At bottom, either you see it and feel it or you don't. With excellent work, there is little for the critic to do except gesture approvingly and hope that others will share the recognition.

With work that fails to be excellent, on the other hand, there is considerably more to be said and Stead has seldom hesitated to say it. This, I think, is the principal source of his reputation for combativeness. Not all authors receive news of their failings with equanimity; some become homicidal. Stead can be prickly, too, when anyone challenges the quality of his own writing. Further battles have arisen because he won't stand for literature being judged by criteria other than excellence, such as race, gender, political affiliation or social standing.

Stead revisits many of the feuds from his past at one point or another in Book Self. Some have now receded into literary history and Stead writes good-naturedly about all concerned, recalling former adversaries, now dead, with evident affection. One issue that clearly still rankles, however, is the sale of the Bloomsbury flat, intended for use by New Zealand writers, that he helped to purchase in 1990. On a personal level he was hurt when some local authors impugned his integrity. He was also irked that a kind of post-colonial rejection of the Mother Country clouded what for him is an obvious truth: London remains a centre of literary excellence and thus is a good place for a writer to be.

Book Self includes several extracts from Stead's entertainingly gossipy journals which show him as much at home in London's literary community as he is in New Zealand's and a seasoned participant in writers' festivals all over the world. When he's not writing or reading or performing in public, he's busy socialising with other authors. I marvel at his stamina.

In one journal he describes how he staunchly makes his way through Drusilla Modjeska's novel The Orchard, even though it gives him little pleasure, and then stays at the Varuna Writers' Retreat in the Blue Mountains, north of Sydney, where he is obliged to share a meal with a boring Aussie playwright whose only topic of conversation is his own miserable career.

It sounds close to my idea of hell. Bad attempts at literary fiction strike me as entirely worthless, whereas non-fiction, even if poorly written, might at least contain useful information and pulp fiction (which Stead seems never to read) might at least be fun.

Yet Stead's grumbling about both The Orchard and the playwright is relatively restrained. He seems to accept that putting up with bad books and egotistical bores is a necessary part of the literary life.

The level of his commitment to literature and high culture, in general is what chiefly distinguishes Stead from the generation of students he taught.

Whereas he inhabits the literary world almost all the time, we were just visitors. We had virtually all of us grown up reading comics, singing along to the Beatles, the Monkees and Herman's Hermits, going to Elvis Presley, James Bond and Clint Eastwood movies and watching Mr Ed, Get Smart, Star Trek and Bonanza on TV. If, with Stead's help, we learned also to appreciate fine verse and prose, we did not abandon the pop culture which was our heartland.

A large part of the fascination of Book Self is that Stead represents a kind of literary high-mindedness that is dying out and near impossible for anyone born in the heavily commercialised western world after World War II to emulate. Not just readers but literary celebrities born after the war. Martin Amis wrote a book about computer games. Michael Chabon is obsessed with comic book superheroes.

Stead's is not a modern sensibility. I say that not as an accusation, just a fact. I'm not suggesting for a nanosecond it would somehow improve him to become a pal of The Edge, read a batch of Batman comics or blob out to American Idol and Prison Break. On the contrary, I think it is as a cogent advocate of past values, presenting a bracing counterblast to slovenly contemporary arguments, that is of greatest value.

* BOOK SELF: The Reader as Writer and the Writer as Critic

By CK Stead Auckland University Press, $40  

- © Fairfax NZ News

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