A man for all seasons?

by Guy Somerset / 01 May, 2010
Should a writer have to consider the human consequences of his work? A prize-winning story by CK Stead raises serious questions.

It was a story "so blackly targeted it felt like a malediction"; a story that gave "gratuitous insult and offence". No, these are not the words of one of Nigel Cox's friends and family, who have been "sickened" by what they see as the "abuse" of the late novelist and his widow in CK Stead's "Last Season's Man", winner of the UK's inaugural Sunday Times Short Story Award, worth £25,000.

They are the words of Stead himself, writing of his perceived portrayal in a 1963 Janet Frame short story about a failed poet. They appear - nearly half a century after the fact, the story apparently still rankling - in, respectively, the 77-year-old's forthcoming South-West of Eden: A Memoir 1932-1956 and his 2008 essay collection Book Self: The Reader as Writer and the Writer as Critic.

Yet Stead has been batting off those who detect the traces of real life in "Last Season's Man" by belittling them as unsophisticated readers. He told the Sunday Star-Times: "Every fiction writer draws on a great variety of things in his own experience for feeling, but this is - I mean every detail - this is a work of fiction." If people wanted to drag elements out of the story "and turn it back into real life, there's nothing the fiction writer can do about it except regret and deplore it".

Regrettable and deplorable or not, it ­is something readers do, and literary biographers, too.

On page 37 of this week's Listener, you will find two men who could hardly be called unsophisticated readers: critic John Carey and Rick Gekoski, chairman of the 2011 Man Booker International Prize.

Gekoski recalls a lawyer friend urging him to sue over his "appearance" in a William Golding novel. But legally, given the transformative nature of fiction, it would be difficult to win a libel case if a writer draws on you for a character. As the New York Law Journal once reported of publisher Penguin-Viking's defence in such a case, "if every Walter Mitty who imagines himself a character in a work of fiction were to be entitled to a trial, the Great American Novel would have to be published somewhere else".

Nonetheless, it can hurt when you imagine yourself a character in a work of fiction. And clearly, when it comes to Frame's story, The Triumph of Poetry, Stead isn't on some higher plane from the rest of us.

Michael King writes about the story in Wrestling with the Angel: A Life of Janet Frame (2000).

The Triumph of Poetry contained elements of biographical overlap with the life of Stead and his wife, Kay. But in a letter to Stead, Frame insisted that although she drew on him for some details, the poet and his wife in the story "are not meant to represent you and Kay" and that the poet was in fact based on a lecturer she had had at the University of Otago. Frame apologised for "indiscretions that may seem to identify you" and assured him no malice was intended.

The story was widely thought to have been one of the prompts for Stead's portrayal of Cecelia Skyways, the Janet Frame figure in his 1984 autobiographical novel All Visitors Ashore, of which there was "a sense that maybe there are some old scores being settled here", Listener journalist David Young wrote at the time.

Claims that scores are also being settled with "Last Season's Man" were first aired publicly at the end of March on Quote Unquote, the blog of Stephen Stratford, a writer and editor and convener of the judges for this year's New Zealand Post Book Awards.

They have since been reported in Britain's Private Eye (which describes "Last Season's Man" as reading like "one of Jeffrey Archer's cast-offs") and Guardian (which, neglecting Stead's internationally reviewed novels such as Mansfield and My Name Was Judas, calls him "a retired English professor better known for his critical studies until winning the prize").

Nigel Cox died of cancer in 2006, aged 55, leaving a wife and three young children. He was the author of six novels, including Montana New Zealand Book Awards fiction finalists Tarzan Presley, Responsibility and The Cowboy Dog.

In 1994, he wrote "Leading with his chin", a crushing critique of Stead as a spent force, published in Quote Unquote in its earlier incarnation as a magazine. Last October, after seeking permission from Cox's widow, Susanna Andrew, and friend, publisher and literary executor Fergus Barrowman, Stratford reprinted the critique on his blog, as part of an online archive of old articles. However, after Stead emailed Andrew and Barrow­man on October 14, telling them he regarded their granting permission as "an unfriendly act ... and after all this time, gratuitous", they asked for the critique to be removed.

Entries for the Sunday Times Short Story Award closed on November 30 and Stead's "Last Season's Man" was pronounced winner on March 26. The judges included ­AS Byatt (one of Stead's friends, as Private Eye delighted in pointing out) and Hanif Kureishi (a writer who could give Stead a few tips on handling complaints about incorporating real life into fiction, having tapped his failed marriage for his 1998 novel ­Intimacy).

Stead's story is set in Croatia and features an older writer "deeply hurt and full of rage" and praying for the death of a younger writer who has written a devastating article about him, entitled "Last season's man". The younger writer gets cancer and dies and the older writer goes on to career success and to bed and then marry his widow. When the older man himself dies, he is proclaimed "our supreme man of the theatre" and a statue is erected of him.

Stead told the UK Sunday Times he had set the story in Croatia rather than New Zealand "because everybody would have tried to work out who the characters were, and I didn't want that".

It is possible to read various parallels with events during Cox's illness, including the media coverage it received and his final speech at the 2006 Montana New Zealand Book Awards four days before dying.

Andrew found these images "really disturbing, especially that last speech, which I will never ever want to revisit in any guise, in fiction or in fact". As for the older writer sleeping with the younger one's widow, she says: "The fact there might even be a suggestion of that is a ghastly thought."

Barrowman describes the story as "a kind of revenge fantasy". He emailed Stead to tell him he was "sickened by your abuse of Nigel and Susanna and their children" in the story. He says he's had "quite a number of people say, 'How could he? That's disgusting, that's sickening.' And then there are the people who asked, 'Did Susanna really have an affair with Stead?' That, I suppose, is what's always worrying about something closely modelled on real life: are people going to recognise the point of departure?"

Stratford wrote on his blog that "Leading with his chin" was "so clearly the grit in the oyster that produced the short story". "Obviously, the elderly author in the story is not literally Karl, any more than the younger writer is literally Nigel. But you'd be hard put to slide a piece of tissue paper between them," he wrote, adding that the story was "an act of revenge".

Susanna Andrew doesn't believe it was. "I don't think there was any malignancy there with Stead," she told the Listener. "I just think his imagination failed him - he failed to imagine what it would be like for others to read it, and that's a charge against a writer. When Stephen and Fergus were going on about it being his revenge, I just couldn't bring myself to believe that, because that would be so inhumane."

Stead, who refused to be interviewed for this article, earlier told the Sunday Star-Times there was no parallel obvious to him between the two writers in his story and his relationship with Cox and he "did not accept any moral responsibility for mistakes that other people make in reading my work". The story had had no relation to the posting of "Leading with his chin" on Quote Unquote.

Judith Dell Panny, author of last year's Plume of Bees: A Literary Biography of CK Stead, says she does not see Cox in the story. "I'm not trying to whitewash Karl Stead," she says, perhaps mindful of some of the criticism of her book for sidestepping the trickier aspects of Stead. "But I just find this suggestion he has written a revenge fantasy four years after a guy has died is bizarre. To me, it's nonsense.

"Nigel Cox died, but then people die. I don't think that's the great big piece of evidence that this must be Nigel Cox. I honestly believe that when he was swept away with the story, Karl Stead forgot the details concerning Nigel Cox in particular. I think there are many people now who think ["Leading with his chin"] is the one big negative story about CK Stead, and it is not. There are many negative reviews of his work. He's written a story about somebody mortified by a review. That's a very ordinary situation, it happens time and time again, and he has a protagonist who overreacts to that."

So, is it all just an unfortunate coincidence, then? Stead's refusal to comment further is unfortunate, as there remains much to clarify.

Was "Last Season's Man" written before or after the posting of "Leading with his chin"?

Did Stead have Cox in mind as the younger writer?

Surely he couldn't have been entirely uninfluenced by memories of Cox and "Leading with his chin"?

If he did have Cox in mind, what was his motive?

And whatever his motive, did he not stop to think how it might distress Cox's family and friends?

Did he not think that was of account?

All fiction draws on real life to one degree or another. But "Last Season's Man" raises many valid questions. These are not questions than can be dismissed by calling Stratford, as Stead has done, "a literary wannabe", "a literary gossip columnist", someone who should be sacked as convener of the Montana judges for "writing blogs which are simply creating needless trouble among New Zealand writers".

Andrew has said Cox, if he were still around, would have found the whole thing amusing; but he's not around, whereas Andrew and her children are.

Ultimately, the questions are moral, not artistic ones. Many a great work of art has sullied origins. Whatever they are, the origins of "Last Season's Man" do not invalidate it artistically, and it's more layered than a mere Jeffrey Archer cast-off. But the extra dimension of the Cox backstory does highlight the one-dimensionality of Stead's vengeful older writer in the story. There is a textural thinness to the light mockery of him, compared with the scab-picking self-excoriation one might expect from, say, a mid-period Philip Roth, if presented with the same festering emotion. The implausibly sexually compliant widow, meanwhile, is pure late-period Roth.

Stead complained to the Sunday Star-Times: "New Zealand isn't grown up enough to celebrate its own successes without envy."

Surely the sign of a mature society is one that isn't fawning and flattering but honest and exacting? Who told the Dominion Post in 2004: "I grew up at the great time of English literary criticism ... I learned that criticism is very important. It mattered. Even though what you wrote was going to get you into trouble with your fellow writers, it was important to be honest. It was a point of honour." CK Stead did.

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