Sunday, April 18, 2010

CK Stead, Nigel Cox and Private Eye

For years Bill Manhire was able to boast – not that he would have – that, as the oration conferring on him his honorary degree of Doctor of Literature from Otago University in 2005, put it, he was:
the only New Zealand poet ever to figure in Private Eye.
No longer.

As the whole world knows now, or at least that portion of it that reads the Sunday Star-Times, the latest issue of Private Eye has an item in its Books & Bookmen column about the CK Stead/Nigel Cox story already featured here, here, here and here. In the SST Stead cheerfully – and rightly, I reckon – takes the view that all publicity is good publicity:
He also said that featuring in Private Eye was like having his 15 minutes of fame at age 77.
I get my own 15 minutes of fame when Stead describes me as “in an essence, a literary wannabe; he is essentially a literary gossip columnist.” He dismisses Keri Hulme’s criticism on this blog of his short story “Last Season’s Man”:
“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 a long time ago, and when she starts again she will earn attention.”
I don’t know about this: she’s either worth attending to or she isn’t, and I can’t see why it would have much to do with her recent publishing history. And as the SST says, Stead himself called her “a major writer” as recently as 2007.

The Eye column isn’t available online as its publisher, Lord Gnome has the same sensible attitude as Rupert Murdoch: it is silly to give content away. You’ll have to buy the dead-tree magazine unless you are one of the many in New Zealand who have received PDFs of the page in their email inbox: I don’t know the source of these, but boy have they gone viral. I won’t quote from the story as it is all copyright but the SST piece (not online) quotes enough to give the flavour of it: more sour than sweet, basically.

UPDATE: the latest Sunday Star-Times story is now online here.

UPDATE 2: Jolisa Gracewood, the literary detective who uncovered the plagiarism in Witi Ihimaera’s novel The Trowenna Sea, weighs in here. It’s all good but the last par is outstanding.

UPDATE 3: You’d think there was nothing more to say about all this, but Guy Somerset has lots in the Listener published yesterday, cover date 1 May: the article will be online here from 22 May. It opens with Stead’s reaction to Janet Frame’s 1963 short story “The Triumph of Poetry” (which Fergus Barrowman refers to in a comment here). Stead thought the main character was based on him and took strong exception at the time. He still does: he said in 2008’s Bookself that the story gave “gratuitous insult and offence to Kay and me” and says in his forthcoming memoirs that it was “so blackly targeted it felt like a malediction”.

I wonder what Alanis Morissette would say.


Fergus Barrowman said...

The SST also has an excellent letter by Kerry Jimson, which accurately identifies the precise location of the hurt in Stead’s story, while correctly noting that Nigel himself would have defended his right to have written and published it. As would I.

But how on earth can Stead go on pretending that there is no parallel between his story and real life, and go on saying that we’re all unsophisticated oiks for seeing that there is? Does he think we're stupid, or are we supposed to be obeying some antique code of manners whereby we have to pretend not to see things that are right there in front of us?

It’s especially baffling because he has been on the other side of an affair like this. Near the end of his forthcoming memoir South-West of Eden he writes of his friendship with Janet Frame:

‘In all that time the only really dark patch occurred when Janet wrote a story which seemed to be about us in Takapuna. There was a poet and his wife, a pregnancy, an abortion, consequent lifetime sterility for her, the loss of poetic powers (and of hair) for him . . . It was called “The Progress [sic] of Poetry”, not a good or successful piece of writing, and so blackly targeted it felt like a malediction. This was something that came later and is, therefore, outside the frame (or Frame) of the present book; but I refer to it now because, in apologizing, and trying to explain (this was in 1964), Janet wrote me a letter in which she referred back to our days at Takapuna: [quotation follows, ending] But I want you and Kay to understand that I’ve never felt any malice towards you.’ (342-3)

Frame’s story is called ‘The Triumph of Poetry’. That Stead gets it wrong probably indicates that he didn’t reread it. If he had he would also have been cured of the delusion that it’s ‘not a good or successful piece of writing’.

Keri H said...

Stead is completely wrong that I 'gave up writing a long time ago.'

The last time I had a *book*published was in 2004 ("Stonefish", short stories, pub. Huia.) But I have had something published every two months thereafter - poems, forewords, essays and columns.

I am a writer - and I have a LOT of mss I work on.

But - Stead knows buggerall about me, the way I work, and what I work on.

His latest comments - what sad & tawdry wee comments they are too -just emphasize this-

Keri H said...

O, pace Bill Manhire - I figured in 'Private Eye' earlier than you did. And while foremost a writer, I am also a poet.

bob roberts said...

Wasn't Stead's characterisation of Frame in All Visitors Ashore a form of revenge -- again saved up over 20 years -- for the Frame story? That seems to be the way it goes in the Michael King biography.

Keri H said...

There is no doubt that Stead does this savaging of other writers - either outright or in thinly-disguised nasty cariacatures in his novels.

He will be remembered in academic circles - and probably for "Smith's Dream" and possibly for "All Visitors Ashore" in a more general readership: otherwise, forgettim.

Curl Skidmore said...

I quite liked Death of the Body though it wasn't nearly as much fun as All Visitors, but pretty much gave up on him after Sister Hollywood. I did have a go at The Singing Whakapapa but just couldn't do it - that was about the point in Stead's career that the Cox article assessed him, so it seemed to me fair comment.

Friends who read more local stuff than I do say that Judas was OK, but 'OK' isn't enough to get me to read it. The next couple of generations have raised the bar.

Funny how no one talks about his poetry at all.

Keri H said...

Curl Skidmore - heh: "Funny how no one talks about his poetry at all."

It's erudite - I understand.
And more or less bloodless.
Tho' I havent read his stroke poems yet (I have a personal interest in that kind of poetry, having had a minor one myself) and these may be more compelling.

Of CK Stead's generation, I esteem bits of James K, and quite a lot of Smithyman & Curnow. Adcock and 'Robin Hyde' and Frame.

I *listen* to poems: I love the pictures they can conjure, and the rhthyms and word play of a really good poem.

Stead just cant manage that - for me.

To call him 'NZ's finest living writer' is a silliness. Even if you add "male" to the purported honour...Dont worry Gee! Or Marshall!
And that's just taking ss writers & novelists into account-

Dave Hillier said...

>I *listen* to poems: I love the pictures they can conjure, and the rhthyms and word play of a really good poem.

>Stead just cant manage that - for me.

Me either. I haven;t read all of it but I have read a lot of it and nothing has stayed with me. Unlike Jenny Bornholdt, Michelle Leggot and Bill Manhire, not to mention the older generation.

Melior Farbro said...

And here is the view from Tararua:

Cecelia Skyways said...

I'm very glad to see that so many of you are twigging to the fact that so much that Snarl Kidmore says about me, either in his fiction or his criticism, is unreliable. Lol @ The Progress [sic] of Poetry. If I had wriiten that story about Snarl, I would have called it The Triumph of Innuendo - that is his forte.

Leon said...

This argument is pointless. None of you can write worth a damn anyway.

Anonymous said...


And I thought youze poets and that, was a rilly sensitive bunch of empaths.

Keri H said...

Anonymous - you never been in a poetic feeding frenzy eh? Think - o, porbeagles? Really angry ones?

Leon: until you present some evidence that
*you write or read poetry
*understand some poetry
*can actually contribute something

your opinion is so much porbeagle shit.

Pamela Gordon said...

In his comment above, Fergus quotes CK Stead on Janet Frame's story about a mediocre bald poet, and points out two ways that Karl misrepresents the issue: first in getting the title wrong, and second in claiming her story was badly written. There is a third injustice done to Frame in the way that Fergus selectively quotes the 1964 letter from Janet to Karl. Your blog readers will take away the impression that Janet tried to "apologise" and "explain" about the story. In fact, the deleted section of the letter goes on to clarify that the story was not written about Karl, it was written about a much older man, who had lectured Janet at university, who had been a promising poet in his youth. She had however borrowed a few details from Karl's youth, in order to construct a back-story for the failed old poet. Just as she had borrowed details from at least a dozen other sources, including her own life (her own induced miscarriage), and invented some facts too, to create the whole picture. As authors do. It was Frank Sargeson who first drew the connection and pushed it, and a motive for that becomes clear if you have already read Paul Millar's Pearson bio. Frank was at the time furious that SCENTED had beaten COAL FLAT for the NZ fiction award. So he had a campaign going against Frame, and spoiling the friendship between Karl and Janet was just the sort of thing Frank used to do. Janet was genuinely horrified at the accusation as she idolised Karl and Kay Stead and admired him as a poet, and there's no way she intended that story to name check or embarrass him. It was Frank who publicly revealed the few similarities, otherwise nobody else would have even noticed them. Her apology recognised that she was wrong to have put recognisable details in, and she never did that again to a friend without first asking permission. People talking about this kind of thing might like to reflect on the fact that there's a difference between borrowing recognisable characteristics from real life experience and transforming them for some other purpose, and writing a story "about" someone. Janet borrowed details; Karl appears to have written "about" Nigel (although when I first read it, I thought of Michael King first), and in ALL VISITORS ASHORE, Karl did both.

Stephen Stratford said...

Thank you, Pamela, that is illuminating and convincing.

And what you say about Sargeson sounds right too - I didn't know him but several of my friends did and they tell stories about the mischief he got up to, exactly this sort of mischief.

I haven't read the Millar/Pearson biography yet but I will: I have heard only good things about it.

Fergus Barrowman said...

Hi Pamela,

You’re right to tick me off for abridging Karl’s quotation of Janet Frame’s letter. It was lazy, but not very misleading. Her letter is an ‘explanation and apology’, and a generous one, which is why it looks a little funny that Karl is still writing about her story in such strong terms half a century later.

You know, if Karl had given a similar reply when the Sunday Star-Times first interviewed him about the Quote Unquote posts, there wouldn't be a 'spat', they wouldn’t have had a story to run, and this would all have died down long ago. Is that ironic or just sad?

Harry Butler said...

Re Stead's poetry, Dave Hillier says "I have read a lot of it and nothing has stayed with me."

True for me. Nothing memorable there at all.

Until today when I looked at the new issue of Sport (#38) which has some Stead poems. This stanza on page 111 stood out:

'I find myself more and more
out of joint with the times -
a madman lost among brambles.'

We will all be able to memorise that one.