Writer, poet and critic CK Stead on his reputation and the allure of literary prizes

by Stephen Stratford / 06 July, 2016
CK Stead has produced a new book of reviews and essays from the past decade.
Stead: “One must stay alert, and wear a hard hat.” Marti Friedlander
Stead: “One must stay alert, and wear a hard hat.” Photo/Marti Friedlander

You have, for some reason, a reputation as a disputatious sort of fellow. Rereading these lectures, reviews, interviews and so on from the past decade or so, did you ever disagree with your slightly younger self and wish to rewrite?

No, I don’t think I did. My views on some things may have softened slightly, but there has been no radical change – and I don’t think any of the really controversial matters come up in the present book as they did in the last of this kind, Book Self, where the London flat controversy resurfaced. Differences with radical feminists, for example, and with literary theorists come up in the long interview with Lawrence Jones, but only as past matters from which I seem to have emerged intact.

In a 2009 interview, you say that the “literary prizes and awards culture … is pernicious ... somewhere between a distraction and a pain in the neck for anyone serious about good writing”. Later that year you were awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction and won the Montana Book Award for your Collected Poems; in 2015 you were appointed Poet Laureate. As they say in Parliament at Question Time, do you stand by all your statements?

Yes, I do. Literary prizes are great when you win, and one is indeed grateful to the sponsors and I suppose to the judges too. But such things do tend to focus disproportionate attention on one book at the expense of others often equally (and sometimes more) deserving. “Pernicious” is a colourful overstatement; and I accept this is the world we live in – commercial, competitive, compromising. But one must feel free to say what’s wrong with it, while nonetheless accepting good luck when it comes along.

There are some terrific pieces written for the Poet Laureate’s blog, the most recent from March this year. How did you find writing for the internet?

No different from writing other pieces of literary-critical journalism. I don’t read blogs (except glancing daily at Beattie’s) and have no idea whether the way I’ve done those pieces is typical of blogs or unusual. I just wrote as I would for the Listener or the London Review of Books.

Stead in 1953.
Stead in 1953.

Speaking of the internet, why publish these pieces in book form at $45? Why not sling them up on the web so they are freely available to interested readers all over the world?

You have to understand that a literary person of my age (83) is almost wholly focused on the idea of “hard copy” – articles and then books. I want the final item to be something I and my readers can hold in the hand. Do “readers all over the world” in fact read my blogs? I know it’s technically possible but I see no evidence that it’s happening. And if they do, they don’t pay.

You say that the art of fiction “is always partly an art of voyeurism, spying and theft”. Voyeurism and spying, obviously – but theft?

I think I meant “theft” of the life you borrow for your story. Henry James has some great fictions about the writer as in effect thief (or vampire) – The Aspern Papers, for example.

Talking about the genesis of your 2006 novel My Name Was Judas, you say, “One never knows where the next idea will come from, or where the next thought may lead. One must simply stay alert, and wear a hard hat.” What is the hard hat for?

For protection against the brickbats that you may receive for following your instinct and going wherever the story leads.

Reviewing Hugh Kenner on Ezra Pound for the Times Literary Supplement, you praise his book as “a form of high scholarly entertainment, spiked with small pertinent narratives and with offbeat facts”. Sounds familiar. Is that what you aim for?

It’s really an honest description of what I find in his work. I would like to think my own critical writing was like that (which is what I think you mean) but perhaps a little less cranky than Kenner’s.

In that TLS review, you compare literary critics to car mechanics, “seen at their best when they have to probe and explain what has gone wrong under the bonnet”. Isn’t it harder, and at least as useful, to explain what has gone right?

It is certainly harder. I’m not sure about “as useful”. With things that are really successful, an almost-silent sigh of contentment often seems all that’s called for. But if you can go on to say what’s good about it, and why, and how it works, without just stating the obvious – in other words if you can unfold something of the mystery – then I agree, you may be writing lit crit of a very high order.

LS2616_b&c_ShelflifeIn one of this book’s predecessors, 1989’s Answering to the Language, in a review of a Penguin poetry anthology – impossible to imagine such a thing now – you were critical of the liberal orthodoxies of New Zealand’s literary culture, “a sort of good-boyism as crippling as the old-boyism it has replaced”. Some would think it has got worse: Are you more cheerful?

I think I was probably pretty cheerful when I wrote that – not about what it describes, but at the double hit it achieves. Yes our literary world is still no doubt full of good-boyism and good-girlism. That’s the world as it always is rather than as one would like it to be. What one craves is authenticity.

SHELF LIFE: REVIEWS, REPLIES AND REMINISCENCES, by CK Stead (Auckland University Press, $45)

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