Asking the hard questions, Mark Williams

The Writer at Work: Essays
C K Stead
Otago University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1877133957


I write on a Waitangi Day on which the Prime Minister has chosen to attend celebrations in Wellington and Auckland but not at Waitangi. The Governor-General and the Navy have been instructed not to attend. In Wairoa, Derek Fox launches a new Maori party. The meaning of Waitangi Day seems to be shifting, no longer signifying a particular place where a highly charged symbolic encounter between Maori and Pakeha marks the compact that founded the nation. What it means instead is not yet clear: a tentative multiculturalism, the will to advance specifically Maori interests through the electoral system, a long weekend?

The Government’s key policy on Treaty issues, “Closing the Gaps”, has suffered a similar blurring of meaning. The gaps to be closed are no longer those derived from colonisation which affect Maori but the general communal ones of economic and social disadvantage. A decade and a half after David Lange’s administration ushered in biculturalism with a burst of legislation and mission statements, a new Labour Government came to power promising much in respect of the principles and the mechanics of biculturalism. Just a year later, the same Government seems to be retreating, rebuffed by a stern Race Relations Conciliator and terrified at the prospect of voter antagonism.

It would be overly dramatic to announce the end of biculturalism while so much earnest effort to realise its promise continues. In schools, universities and government departments, among cultural mandarins and Anglican vicars, the work of making a bicultural society continues. Within the Government, senior ministers continue to favour writing Treaty clauses into new legislation. The word “partnership” still has the urgency and slipperiness of a political password. Yet it is difficult to mistake the hesitation of New Zealand’s most authoritative and able political leader in recent memory in the face of popular resistance to her Government’s perceived favouritism of Maori.


Throughout the period since Lange’s Government came to power, C K Stead has been engaged in a quarrel with his country’s struggle to redefine itself around the issues of race, gender and the colonial past. He has declined to share the intellectual enthusiasms of the age. He has attacked revisionist history which finds only evil in colonisation. He has condemned the teaching of English that is alert to gender incorrectness but indifferent to grammatical errors. He has conducted this quarrel by way of a critical scrutiny of the literary and public discourses which have surrounded and enabled that process of definition.

The reviews, essays and interviews in this collection cover the period since the late 1980s. Not all are preoccupied with New Zealand literature and culture, many of the best pieces –on Barry Humphries, Allen Ginsberg and e e cummings, especially – were written for international audiences. Stead touches on a range of phobias and predilections, from Te Papa (which he subjects to hilarious linguistic analysis) to Zen Buddhism (for which he expresses a surprising respect). His most trenchant pieces of local cultural criticism, however, were written in the middle 1980s, before the initial gathering point for this collection, and are to be found in Answering to the Language. Still, around a dozen pieces in The Writer at Work deal with the politics of biculturalism, language teaching and postcolonial history. These, together with the attacks on literary theory, constitute the vertebrae of the collection.

The earliest of the pieces published in this book appeared in 1989, three years after Stead retired as professor of English at Auckland University, finding academia increasingly alien. The Writer at Work encompasses the decade in which the hectic changes of the 1980s were institutionalised and their schizoid character allowed to flower into a full-blown schizophrenia. Stead notes two prongs of the reforms of the 1980s: economic rationalism and an equally zealous political correctness. These collided in the universities in the 1990s, as academia finally succumbed to the restructurings which had been visited on the Public Service in the 1980s, while political discourse within the Humanities became increasingly radical. Ironically, the Humanities were undergoing an internal restructuring themselves as the traditional literary-centred humanism came under attack from repackaged versions of Marx, Freud and Nietzsche.

Throughout that period, as registered in this collection, Stead consistently championed the traditional Humanities, the centrality of literature to English studies, and a meritocratic rather than socially meliorist understanding of the university. This accounts in part for the opprobrium he attracted from his old home, yet it is exaggerated to suggest, as he did, that English Departments were captured by literary or cultural theory. Most found accommodations which allowed varieties of acceptance and dissent. Theory was strongest at Auckland, and perhaps in giving it such power in the universities Stead, like Sargeson in respect of Hamilton and its puritanism, is projecting a local feature nationally.

Stead has consistently argued that a particular kind of attention to language lies at the centre of literary criticism. This attention involves political as well as imaginative engagement, a respect for the text, the individual consciousness that produced it, and the world it figures. After 1986 the prestige of theory in the universities made this balance increasingly unsustainable. Criticism was disposed to look not for the distinct voice of an author in the text but for the signature of culture. This justifies what seems a curious shift in Stead’s critical practice. First, his criticism becomes more culturally engaged, less involved with purely formal issues of literary evaluation. Secondly, his writing style, always lucid when conveying even the most complex points of textual analysis, became steadily and deliberately more accessible: “[i]n this climate, it seemed to me, the best of literary journalism became more than ever important.”

The professional academic quality of his earlier criticism gives way to cultural criticism and literary journalism as he addresses himself to that bogeyman of the theorised left: the common reader. As Stead observes himself, “there is no important difference in tone, in vocabulary or in the demands they make, between my academic papers and my reviews for journals.” This means that some of the difficulty of thought to be found in his best essays, especially those in In the Glass Case, is less in evidence here. But there has been a gain in the ability of the pieces to reach beyond an academic audience. The irony is that while theory, opposing elitism, has become more susceptible to the rebarbative jargon of academic in-talk, Stead has broadened his readership by simplifying, as he acknowledges, “complicated issues” and by polemicising his prose. He has given the issues that preoccupy academics a wider social provenance by canvassing them in magazines with glossy covers.


The main strength of Stead’s criticism of cultural fashion and shibboleths consists in its negative force. He is trenchant, often bitingly so, in locating the weak points in his opponents’ positions. But he is less successful in suggesting positive alternatives to what they propose. He is briskly dismissive of the more extravagant claims made about the Treaty (“framed for a society and a set of circumstances that no longer exist”) and biculturalism, for example: “[w]e are a principally mono-cultural nation, though with a significant minority, Maori and recent immigrant, who are in varying degrees bi-cultural.” Yet, if there is to be a shift away from biculturalism in this country, it will be towards finding an accommodation between bi- and multiculturalism. The choices Stead presents are often binary. The assertion that Maori language is local, English is for the world, begs the question. This, after all, is precisely the point made by those who wish to give the Maori language greater status in its own land.

In broadening his audience, Stead places himself in intellectual company he would no doubt find disagreeable. When the Christchurch Press (12/1/01) carried a disgruntled letter by the uncle of a student in the English Department at Canterbury University, objecting to a course focused, he complained, “on sexuality and explicit sexual practices”, the author of a good deal of lively fictional sex might be expected to reply that one of the traditional functions of the Humanities is to lead students to that exhilarating discovery of literary power, formal daring, and subtle moral reflection in texts which deal with the full range of human sexual preference. Yet in one respect the letter-writer touches on a point that Stead himself agrees with. When the former objects that a third of the assessment for the course consisted of a “Gender and Sexuality” section, he implies that literary study is corrupted by the politicised readings of literature known as cultural studies, gender studies, queer studies.

Stead has been the most consistent, forceful and vigorous opponent of those approaches in this country in recent years, and as such a necessary presence, useful even for those who oppose him. In the face of those for whom novels, poems, plays are merely the vehicles of cultural values, Stead asserts the primacy of the text. Against a professionalised discourse which excludes non-specialised readers, Stead argues for a literary language which has the accessibility of journalism and the verbal exactness of the best creative writing. In response to the earnest politicians of interpretation, Stead insists on the imaginative force of the literary work. In the face of the relentless dissolution of the authorial ego, Stead asserts the presence of the author in the text signalled above all by style (“Dead or alive, the author lives in every sentence”).

Does this make Stead a grumpy reactionary, out of tune with the best and brightest of the new generation, or is he the lone defender of common sense, good writing and literary value in an age whose dominating voices have gone mad and not noticed? Hindsight will acknowledge Stead to have been New Zealand’s most important literary critic, at times a major novelist, an enormously knowing poet of considerable virtuosity, and a cultural commentator of great courage who stood against the sometimes theological pieties of an enthusiastic age. No doubt, the judgement will also allow an unevenness in the creative work, a lack of generosity in some of the criticism, a tendency in the cultural essays to be swept up in what he rails against. At times in his polemical writing, Stead runs together literary and cultural theory and overstates the force of the political left in the universities. What I believe will be apparent is the centrality of political engagement to his theory and practice as a writer. Stead has never been an aesthete; even where he attacks the devotees of political correctness, he is being political. What he opposes is not politics as such but ideology, a politics that knows its conclusions in advance.

Reading these essays, reviews and interviews over the 1990s indicates just how tricky it is to place Stead on any finely calibrated political balance. Routinely condemned within the academy as a conservative, Stead is unlikely to be one the writer of the letter to the Press would own. There are, it would seem, two quite different C K Steads. There is the demonised Stead encountered in New Zealand literary mythology (less commonly than Stead himself suggests). Then there is the Stead also encountered in these islands: the major critic, novelist and poet, able to move fluently in the world of literary luminaries. At a conference in Australia I once heard Karl Miller, editor of the London Review of Books where many of the reviews in this collection first appeared, defend Stead against attacks made on him there by New Zealand academics. Both of these images are partial inventions as they figure in this book, where Stead enlists one to dispel the other.


For many intellectuals, Stead’s combative stance in the 1980s and 90s has made him a reactionary figure, destined to become more and more irrelevant as the country fastens its identity to postcolonial markers and practices. For Stead, what he sees as the capture of the academy by leftwing cultural theory, the “occult language” of contemporary literary criticism, the scepticism about critical objectivity and fact-based history, are bizarre fads which will themselves be consigned to the capacious rubbish-bin of history. Stead is alert to paradigm shifts, as when he notes that the theory that New Zealand was a “destructive matriarchy … [was] as common in the 1950s among literary and intellectual people, and as shallow, as its opposite which now prevails.”

Perhaps the important question now is not to determine which party is right, which wrong, but to clarify the strengths and limitations in both positions. The cultural agendas of the 1980s and 90s produced excesses, simplifications and distortions. Feminism, biculturalism and postcolonialism at times hardened into ferocious faiths. But who would wish to return to the New Zealand before those energies were released, to Muldoon’s gothic outpost of empire? Who, for that matter, would wish to return to the New Zealand universities of the 1960s and 70s? Stead’s criticism has often been partial and harsh and sometimes personal. Yet who else has had the courage to take the dissenting view in face of a seemingly solid wall of conviction and to ask the niggling, hard questions that the convinced would rather not confront?

Stead’s formidable strengths – intellectual and rhetorical – are a function of the clarity and precision of his use of language, the hard edges of his style. In his own terms, that style represents the presence of the man in the writing: clever, combative, fundamentally at ease with himself. Those virtues are also the source of his chief limitation as a writer and thinker. Stead wants to pin down the meaning of words. He is intolerant of language that escapes reference. This accounts for his suspicion of surrealism or nonsense writing, both of which push the non-referential aspect of language too far.

Yet in literary and in public discourse (in Janet Frame’s more opaque moments or the arguments over the meanings of the Treaty) the slipperiness of language continually allows new and unexpected meanings to appear. Words like Waitangi, where opposing agendas meet and interpretations conflict, should be allowed as much openness as possible. The culture with all its variation and contestation moves through them as it seeks new ways to express and contain its differences. The efforts to pin down the meaning of such key cultural terms, or of the words of the Treaty, represent an attempt to close down other interpretations. In opposing particular narrow interpretations of the words at the heart of our culture, Stead does us all a great service. But at times, he too closes down discussion by the rigour of his truth-telling, and he fails to acknowledge how much of the positive work in freeing up language, finding new interpretive possibility, has come from the places he condemns: the universities.


Mark Williams teaches in the English Department at the University of Canterbury.


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