This essay was written in an ongoing fit of indignation and subseqently entered into the 2017 Landfall essay competition. It didn't get anywhere - read anyway and let me know what you think.
Academic, author and poet, CK Stead, suffers from the green-eyed monster, an ocular disorder that becomes particularly active when New Zealand women win the Man Booker prize. Hera Linday Bird has called Stead the Mr Burns of poetry; I call him the Mike Hosking of literary criticism. Let's begin with an historical account...
In 1985, Stead's review in Ariel of the bone people became famous for all the wrong reasons. The article began with an argument against the author Keri Hulme’s right to identify as Māori, moved onto complaints about feminist publishing houses and a quasi-legal argument against Māori book awards, and questioned Hulme’s own description of the book’s genesis some pages before touching on anything that could be described as literary criticism. He concedes that parts of the bone people are brilliant, but he is mainly disparaging. The article manages to insult women, all Māori, and even the Irish, whom he characterises as “unstable”. Finally, he maintains that since novel writing comes from sexual energy (says whom?), the asexual Hulme cannot be considered an authentic novelist. The Ariel article is not literary criticism; it is a reactionary attempt to discredit Keri Hulme as a writer and to argue why the bone people should not have won the Man Booker prize.
As an undergraduate in the late 80’s I critiqued Stead’s position in an essay on the bone people, where I also referred to him as a member of New Zealand’s literary establishment. The lecturer took exception to my describing him thus; Stead was, according to her, an insignificant figure in postcolonial literary criticism, a biased book reviewer rather than a literary critic, and someone who lacked the ability to engage intellectually with a novel of the bone people’s complexity and originality. In the 30-odd years since, his approach to critical writing has not improved but his stature as a critic has. I have, unfortunately, been proved right. The obsequious attention directed towards his latest book, Shelf Life: Reviews, Replies and Reminiscences, is evidence of this.
The Ariel review is old news but Stead is a slow learner. In an interview in The Guardian over 20 years after the review appeared, he describes his introduction to Auckland bohemian life at the home of the gay Frank Sargeson and the “mad” Janet Frame. In one sentence he managed to diminish one of New Zealand’s best known writers, and one of the world’s greatest – two renowned artists who graciously welcomed the young academic and his wife into their circle. The interview showed that even into his seventies, Stead remained titillated by Sargeson’s homosexuality, perhaps revealing his own emotional and sexual immaturity. But his characterisation of Frame as “mad” is unforgiveable, especially as it was widely known that an incorrect diagnosis had led to her incarceration in mental asylums. Other comments he has made about Frame’s hair and dress, and his response to her brilliant satire, In the Memorial Room, have been rightly deplored as misogynist.
Fast forward another six years to Stead’s review of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, the winner of the 2013 Man Booker prize. Again, just as with the bone people, his review is reactionary and limited, proving that in the decades following the Ariel article, his critical framework and reader response has not broadened. As further evidence of sexist pedantry, Stead identifies the anachronisms in The Luminaries as the author’s errors whereas reviewers of that other Victorian pastiche, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, praised its anachronisms as clever interlocutions that deliberately and uncomfortably catapult the reader to the present.
To this day, Stead’s view of what New Zealand fiction should be remains stuck in some ideal of his own making. As he has always implied, he missed the postmodern train but as with his other failings, he interprets ths as a strength and continues to assert that because he cannot appreciate the postmodern novel, it cannot be any good. (I would love to know if he attempted to read the 2015 Man Booker prize winner, A Brief History of Seven Killings). He is, in effect, a literary Luddite. As with the bone people, his arguments against the merits of The Luminaries are spurious. While ‘[e]xhaustively “authentic”’, he accuses the story of being ‘shamelessly implausible’. But isn’t this just what many novels are? Victor Hugo, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Henry James, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez and Margaret Atwood – to name a tiny handful of great writers – have all created memorably authentic characters and places where all kinds of implausible things happen. That is the joy of reading fiction – it permits us to suspend disbelief and immerse ourselves in a world where anything is possible.
Being an “impatient realist”, as Stead calls himself, is a fatal flaw in any reviewer of fiction but it has never caused him to question his critical abilities. He admits to this being a limitation as a reader, but not as a critic. His response to fiction is thus unashamedly based on personal taste. For a healthy literary culture to develop this is not healthy, and this where the Mike Hosking analogy comes in. Hosking is neither qualified nor adequately informed to discuss the topics on which he pontificates. He turns his deficiencies into virtues, and is confident that anyone who disagrees with his mostly ill-formed opinions is wrong, even stupid. He lacks emotional intelligence and cannot grasp complexity. His sense of superiority is insufferable. He believes that if he can be a success then so can anyone, without acknowledging that he is a privileged, white middle-class man operating in a society that strongly favours privileged, white middle-class men.
It is this same schema that allowed Stead to simultaneously hold a senior position at a university, have plenty of time to write creatively, and be a prolific reviewer and critic. Wystan Curnow was right when he argued that the expert and the practitioner must be separate entities for the arts to thrive. But Stead’s ego is too large for him to acknowledge his conflict of interest and any damage he might have inflicted by promulgating his personal views in his teaching and criticism. Contrary to what he claims, he does not invite dialogue. His well-known ridicule of deconstructionism is a good example of his mulishness. Jacques Derrida, one of the most original thinkers of the twentieth century, is simply dismissed. Stead can disagree with the critical practice of deconstruction all he likes, but it is his duty as an academic and critic to do so intelligently, and not through misrepresentation and guile, just as it is Hosking’s duty as a TV One presenter to do the same with current affairs.
Stead and Hosking are arrogant, unguarded and unapologetic. They are also very successful. Stead dresses up his narrow personal views as valid literary criticism; Hosking dresses up his as valid social commentary. Both embody an ethos of anti-intellectualism. Representing personal ideologies as the truth might be acceptable in some professions; in television journalism and literary criticism it is deadly. We need to examine not their behaviour – there will always be public figures to impose on us their ill-formed views – but why they are granted primacy within the wider context; and why, despite their questionable pronouncements, the positions they hold are as strong as ever.
From this muddle, a situation has developed in which Steve Braunias, John Key, Mike Hosking and Karl Stead are not such unlikely bedfellows. Braunias lionises Stead in his review of Shelf Life and subsequent interview, and in a column censured the petition calling for Hosking’s resignation (presumably in defence of freedom of speech); Stead attacked Catton’s prize-winning novel as being, among other things, “implausible”; and Key publicly attacked Catton for criticising government policies during her Man Booker acceptance speech (in direct opposition to freedom of speech). Braunias scolds Hera Lindsay Bird for her “silly and insulting” description of Stead, when it was in fact witty and accurate. Did Braunias suggest to Stead that his review of The Luminaries was silly and insulting when that is exactly what it was? I can’t quite shake off the feeling that if Catton and Bird were male and Stead and Braunias female, these reactions might have been quite different.
All this small-minded hubris could be considered laughable, yet more fodder for a blog or withering comment on social media, but it’s more serious than that. There is no antidote to the likes of Hosking and Stead. While they have their detractors, they themselves remain pretty much untouchable. They still hold important positions – primetime TV presenter, and Emeritus Professor and Poet Laureate respectively – while opposing voices are quickly belittled by accusations of so-called political correctness. This very essay would be dismissed as such, but it is not just another feminist complaint – it is a call to action for everyone who wants robust and constructive public dialogue to become the norm, and for well-known figures like Stead and Hosking to be called to account.
What is the solution to a cultural problem where people of their calibre become successful in the first place, use their positions in the public eye to flaunt personal opinions, and then get away with it? Do we have to accept the hegemonies they represent, and what can we do to challenge those hegemonies? How can we ensure divergent voices are heard and respected? By harnessing our collective power as compassionate, intelligent beings we can start with literary culture. One way to help bring about change might be to revive what Stead himself calls the “literary age”; a time when good newspapers devoted several pages to literature and professional reviews. It could also address Catton’s claim that New Zealand lacks a “reviewing culture”, a claim with which Stead happens to agree. As dedicated readers and writers we can put pressure on the media in all its forms to stage a literary revival that might include sophisticated supplements, book reviews by paid experts, feature articles by new generations of critics, and most importantly, a platform for accessible, ongoing public dialogue.
My dream is for a fresh, new literary culture in which divergent voices converge, and where the currency of writers and critics is not measured in terms of their public profile, emotional disconnectedness, cynicism, or self-aggrandizement. In my dream literary culture, envy and mediocrity are history, and talent, generosity and the imagination flourish. Mr Burns would call this implausible; let’s try it anyway.