Monday, July 11, 2016

Something New

[NOTICE TO READERS: For five years, Reid's Reader has been presenting an entirely free service to readers with commentary on books new and old. Reid's Reader receives no grants or subsidies and is produced each week in many hours of unpaid work. If you wish to contribute, on an entirely voluntary basis, to the upkeep of this blog, we would be very grateful if you made a donation via the PayPal "DONATE" button that now appears at the top of the index at right. Thank you.]
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THE QUIET SPECTACULAR” by Laurence Fearnley (Penguin / Random House, $NZ38)
 Here are some basic rules of book-reviewing to which I always at least attempt to adhere when I review a new novel:
                   (a.) Books should be judged BOTH on their style [how well or badly they are written] AND on what they are saying [ideas and social values that they appear to promote or support or ridicule or satirise or dismiss]. I do not believe in an “art for art’s sake approach”, which looks only at style and leads to a sterile aestheticism. But neither do I believe any reviewer should applaud or reject books solely on the basis of their explicit or implicit ideas [which leads to a propagandistic approach]. For fuller exposition of these ideas, see my posting on Henry de Montherlant’s Les Jeunes Filles / PitiePour Les Femmes.
                   (b.) Authors should be given a fair go. A book is not to be dismissed or damned with faint praise because it has one or two questionable elements. [Which book hasn’t?] The whole text should be considered. The book should be read from beginning to end. One of the reasons I set up this blog in the first place was so that I could consider new books in some detail without the tight constraints on length that many magazines and all newspapers impose upon their book-reviewers.
                     (c.) It is often helpful to consider a new novel in the context of the novelist’s previous work.
                     As all this throat-clearing at the start of a review might have alerted you, I am being very cautious and stating my position clearly because I am about to deliver a very negative verdict on Laurence Fearnley’s latest novel The Quiet Spectacular. Please note that I come to this judgment after having read and duly considered the whole novel. My view does not come out of prejudice. As I noted before on this blog [see the posting TheQuality of Kindness], some months back I suffered an intemperate and foolish attack by a publicist who claimed that I was a malicious person who made it my business to destroy writers’ reputations for the fun of it. With regard to Laurence Fearnley’s previous output, please note that on this blog I wrote mixed, but generally positive, reviews of her novels Reach (2014) and the award-winning The Hut Builder (2011), as well as the memoir Going Up Is Easy, which Fearnley ghost-wrote for her mountaineer friend Lydia Bradey. (I had earlier reviewed her Room and Mother’s Day on platforms other than this blog).
                     Despite their many merits, I did, however, note the awful weight of overt symbolism and rather arch patterning in Reach; and the tendency to preach in The Hut Builder. And these tendencies run amuck in the over-patterned, over-symbolic and over-preachy The Quiet Spectacular, to the point where the characters become mere ciphers and walking ideas.
                     Set-up. Told throughout in the third-person, this is a novel written in three parts, each of which deals with a separate woman; followed by a fourth part in which the three of them join together.
                     First is Loretta, menopausal, living with her partner Hamish and her younger son Kit. (Her two elder children by a previous marriage have flown the coop). Loretta works as a high-school librarian and is used to dealing with frequently bratty schoolchildren, although she does have a vocation for getting youngsters into reading. As she taxis her son to all the interesting things he does (fencing, water polo etc.), Loretta remembers with regret the sense of adventure she had as a child, and how it has been washed out of her life. Kit is beginning to outgrow her; and her role as a mother is evaporating. It annoys Loretta that traditional adventure narratives centre on males. When she encounters The Dangerous Book for Boys [a handbook on interesting things boys can get up to], Loretta thinks of compiling a Dangerous Book for Menopausal Women. She’s already had the fun of relabelling a map of New Zealand with place names belonging to women explorers and pioneers rather than their male counterparts. Sometimes Loretta’s real-estate-agent friend Shannon (who disappears from the novel far too early, in my opinion) deflates Loretta’s dreams of adventure with a little healthy scepticism. Still Loretta aches for real adventure. While visiting some local wetlands, she finds a “den” built around a tree where somebody sleeps rough; and she begins to think of it as an alternative home. Perhaps here is the site for a real outdoors adventure.
                     End of Part One.
                     Part Two introduces the second woman, Chance, a very unhappy 15-year-old schoolgirl. Chance is frequently bullied by the cool girls at her high-school, including the vicious Michelle. Worse, Chance’s parents are useless. Her full name is Porsche Chance. That’s because her book-obsessed mother Trudy wanted to call her Portia after the wise woman in The Merchant of Venice; but when her dozy petrol-head father Bruce went to register the name, he didn’t know how to spell it and thought it was the name of the car, so Porsche she became. See, oh perceptive reader, how the author gives the poor girl a name neatly symbolising what she has to labour under? Chance is the one who has to make the dinner, be a household drudge and earn her pocket money at a boring job while her brothers are allowed to fool around with go-karts and the like. Oh the gender-inequity of it! Oh the stereotypical roles into which girls are forced!! Anyway, while Chance’s father is a dead loss (he doesn’t believe in anthropogenic global warming, so he must be), Chance’s mother Trudy is a controlling bitch. She wants Chance to be an intellectual, so she forces her to read intellectual and Nobel-Prize-winning novels and discuss them with her. Chance hates this. Chance rebels against her mother declaring:
I asked you to stop. Please. Don’t do that guilt-trippy stuff on me any more. It’s not fair. It’s not my fault I don’t like your books. If you want it to be fun, why don’t you let me choose what we read? And why do you always insist I read bits aloud and then criticise the way I speak? You’re always sniggering when I mispronounce words, and you spend heaps of time questioning me so you can tell me I’m wrong, and then correct me. It’s not fun. It’s never fun. It stresses me out and makes me feel stupid and I hate it.’ (p.135)
But when Chance seeks a book she would really like reading and discussing with her mum, she gets stuck. (At p.150 Laurence Fearnley has fun listing the type of books that pushy parents might deter their children from reading.) She needs help and discusses the matter with her school librarian. Who is of course Loretta. In no time, Chance is being adventurous and skinning animals to get into taxidermy and those other neat, adventurous things boys can do as it says in her brother’s discarded copy of The Dangerous Book for Boys. Also, venturing into the same wetlands that Loretta ventured into, she gets to meet the third member of the trio…
…Who is Riva, the single woman who is renewing the wetlands and who built the “den” that attracted Loretta. So to the third part, where we hear Riva’s backstory, which is filled with [literal] sisterly solidarity. Riva’s sister Irene had a masectomy and later died. Riva’s renewing and preserving the wetlands, and constructing a “den” there, are her tributes to her dead sister, honouring her wishes and especially her promise to do something “spectacular” on the anniversary of her death.
So it comes to pass. The menopausal woman who lacks adventure in her life and the bullied schoolgirl forced into stereotypical gender roles and the free-spirited lone woman all get together in the wetlands. And girls can do anything if they have good women to mentor them. And the oneness of women with nature is affirmed. And the caring of women for nature is contrasted with destructive males who are interested only in shooting birds rather than saving them. And the blurb (using a crass cliché I have rebuked before – see the posting Using the Shells of Genres) tells us that the novel “subverts notions of ‘man vs. wild’ ” by having women in the wild rather than wild-pork-and-watercress men, and women communing better with nature than men could. And we have all grown and affirmed the journey that is life and the quiet and constructive adventurousness of which women are capable.
I apologise that I have lapsed into something close to sarcasm in giving you this resume, but it was very hard to avoid. This is a book without nuance, without subtext, without psychologically credible characters – and it makes no difference that the author's note at the end tells us she has scrupulously visited real wetlands and spoken with their preservers.
That I have been able to summarise so easily what the novel says is because everything sits on the surface in loud, clear didactic colours. Dialogue is crowded by what amount to lectures – especially when Loretta and/or Riva are talking to young Chance. Thus we get conversational lectures on the preservation of wetlands, on women reading too many books by men and so forth. There are neat lessons in human relationships. When fifteen-year-old Chance speaks of her difficulties with her mother, wise middle-aged Riva tells her how she used to argue with her mother too:
Well, once I got older I let go of my feelings of shame and found it easier to detach myself emotionally from her outbursts. I also realised that my crappy childhood was nothing compared to hers and that she was a deeply troubled person, and so I was able to make sense of certain things.” (pp.182-183)
Take note, children.
Then there is Riva’s concise summary of her work, filling in backstory without effort:
I bought this land and created a wetlands sanctuary, invested in several businesses, became a mentor for women starting up a business, created a trust for environmental projects and land restoration….” (p.184)
Something for you to aspire to, children.
I admit that the novel does not divide its sympathetic and unsympathetic characters only by gender, and is not therefore a hard-core battle-of-the sexes work. The most consistently nasty character in the novel is Chance’s awful, manipulative mum Trudy; and Chance is taunted by the horrible Michelle (who earns a scene of neat come-uppance that seems to have strayed out of teen lit). There is also a very brief scene towards the end where Chance’s dodgy guardian Bruce does get one half-sympathetic moment where it’s clear that he’s afraid of the ferocious Trudy. Even so, men in the novel are mainly noises off or dead losses. This makes it easier to push the polemic about adventurous and caring women.
And then, with the subtlety of charging elephants, there is the symbolism. The partnered woman, the girl and the lone woman together in the wild make an “alternative family” unlike that suburban nuclear family in which women are cruelly trapped. Ah, dear old Hollywood. This “alternative family” motif as old as James Dean and Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo getting away from the grown-ups and forming their subversive “alternative family” in Rebel Without a Cause. Riva’s brainstorm, to make wild-weather gear that fits ample-bosomed women, is the old salvation-through-entrepreneurship that has fuelled a thousand bestselling novels and movies [start with Imitation of Life and move forward].
And oh dear! – the symbolism of that James Bond cut-out with which Riva adorns her “den”. See this icon of irresponsible male adventurousness? Well note how the women “subvert” it by covering in with flowers and painting its lips and putting a crown on its head to at once feminise it and neutralise it and deny its iconic power.
You do get the point don’t you? I hope you have been taking notes as there will be questions afterwards.
Now let me anticipate some possible responses to the review you have just read.
(a.) The reviewer is male and is older than the author. Therefore he’s a grumpy old baby-boomer who doesn’t “get” what the younger and female author has written.
ME: Bullshit. I get it. In fact I get it so loud and clear that it comes with a lot of distortion – which is the author’s dead obvious preachiness, symbolism and so forth.
(b.) The reviewer must disapprove of the author’s ideas.
ME: Again, bullshit. I’m happy to read a book singing the adventurousness of women and their desire to assert themselves somewhere free of men. I just don’t want to read one as stylistically clunky as this one.
(c.) The reviewer must have a grudge against the author. He must be acting from malice and trying to destroy her reputation. Doesn’t he realise she’s won awards and held academic posts?
ME: For the third time, bullshit. It’s my task to review or criticise the book itself, and not to make judgments on the author herself. In this task, the matter of previous acclaim is irrelevant. I believe that Laurence Fearnley has written better than this before, and I certainly hope that she does so again. So may this novel be an aberration.
I have the impression that The Quiet Spectacular will be praised by those who ignore the actual writing and approve of the message. But then this will be the propagandistic approach to literature which any balanced criticism should avoid.

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 

“CONTESTED WILL – Who Wrote Shakespeare?” by James Shapiro (first published 2010)

            I am not naturally a cynical person and I really do delight in books that are both readable and right-headed. For this reason, averting my gaze from the dross I often have to read, I was delighted, six years ago, to be sent a copy of Professor James Shapiro’s Contested Will – Who Wrote Shakespeare? This was in the days, now apparently gone, when some newspapers gave reasonably generous space for book reviews. My review appeared in the Sunday Star-Times on 25 April 2010, and I reproduce it below, without alteration, as it appeared in the press.

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Imagine you really like a writer who shows knowledge of a wide variety of trades and occupations, gives plots that involve much foreign travel and many adventurous actions, shows a broad and sympathetic understanding of the way people feel and think, is acquainted with some foreign languages and knows how law courts, the army, politics, medicine and royalty work. You might be inclined to think that a writer who knows and understands so much must have experienced so much and lived a fairly adventurous life.
So what if you discover that the author in question lived a fairly humdrum sort of existence? You’ll feel a little disappointed, won’t you? In fact you might even be inclined to say that this author couldn’t possibly have written these various and brilliant works.
There have been extraordinary writers who have lived extraordinary lives. But as literary history shows again and again, there have also been authors whose lives were outwardly unremarkable, but whose reading and imagination allowed them to wrote brilliant and varied works. And there, of course, is the key word. Imagination.
Why is Shakespeare such a great writer? Because he had the imagination to be one – aided by his reading, his acquaintances, his experience as a working actor and playwright in real theatres and (naturally) by some of his other life experience. Was it from personal experience that he knew how it felt to murder a king like Macbeth, smother a wife like Othello, go transvestite like Rosalind, plot assassination like Brutus or even agonise over assassination like Hamlet? Of course not. It was his imagination, knowledge of working theatre and sympathetic understanding of human nature that allowed him to dramatise these things.
As James Shapiro shows in this elegant, witty and compulsively readable book, all “alternative authorship” theories of Shakespeare are based on a fundamental confusion between autobiography and imaginative literature. Ever since the Romantic era (approximately 200 years ago) there has been a compulsion to believe that the author’s life and the author’s writings are indistinguishable. Novels, plays and poems are read for “clues” to the author’s self-revelation. In the age of literary biography, this compulsion has become a plague.
We get people who think you can read a good biography of Dickens and skip actually reading Dickens’ novels to know why Dickens is worth remembering. The author is stripped of the credit for having an imagination at all and his works are stripped of the very thing that made them memorable in the first place.
With Shakespeare, the “alternative” arguments usually take the form of wondering how a lower-middle-class small-town provincial guy, who never went to university, could possibly have written Hamlet and King Lear and the like. With naively snobbish assumptions, there then follows a hunt for more respectable candidates – usually aristocratic and university-educated. Francis Bacon, the Earl of Oxford, the Earl of Derby, the Earl of Southampton, Christopher Marlowe, Henry Neville and others. Like teenagers who confuse movie stars with the roles they play, “alternative authorship” advocates want the playwright Shakespeare to be one of his own noble characters (though oddly enough they never want him to be Shylock, Nick Bottom, Falstaff or Richard III).
Shapiro, who teaches at New York’s Columbia University, is scrupulously fair as he deals with the alternative theorists. He does not go for cheap shots and he treats their major writings with as much respect as he can. In Contested Will there is none of the wildly abusive language you find from all sides on the internet whenever you look up sites on the supposed “Shakespeare authorship problem”.
Yet there must have been times when Shapiro’s courtesy was near to breaking point. To read his account of 19th century attempts to “prove” Francis Bacon’s authorship of the plays by complex and fabricated ciphers and codes is to enter the world of irredeemable crackpottery. To read J. T. Looney’s rationale for believing Oxford wrote the plays is to discover a man whose snobbery approached fanaticism.
Shapiro’s coup de grace is his brilliant final chapter in which he marshals all the good documentary evidence for Shakespeare’s authorship. Among other things, he shows that there is a wealth of solid contemporary references to Shakespeare as playwright. There is no such documentary evidence whatsoever for any of the proposed alternatives.
All alternative advocacy depends on a subjective (and very selective) reading of the plays and a good deal of fantasising. It makes no difference that at various times the likes of Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Henry James and Derek Jacobi have approved “alternative” theories. Luminaries though they may be, none of these people was, or is, an expert on Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre. None (with the exception of Jacobi, who should know better) had access to the modern scholarship, which shows the real conditions in which Shakespeare learned, worked and sometimes collaborated with other playwrights. The working life that is revealed by genuine textual analysis is a far cry from the notion of some aristocrat popping in to the Globe occasionally to drop off a play for Will Shakespeare to pass off as his own.
It is noteworthy that there is hardly one professional Shakespeare scholar who takes alternative authorship theories seriously. But then, with their love of conspiracy theories, the alternative advocates say this merely proves there is an academic conspiracy against them.
Shapiro makes another powerful point – just as much nonsense has been written about Shakespeare by alternative theorists, so has much nonsense been written by people who believe Shakespeare wrote his own plays. Remember, for example, that the Stratford-on-Avon tourist industry lives by taking people around places that have no proven connection with Shakespeare at all (the so-called Anne Hathaway’s cottage, Shakespeare’s Birthplace etc. etc.). We probably wouldn’t have had this whole argument over authorship if “Bardolators” in the 18th and 19th centuries hadn’t built up the image of Shakespeare as such a superhuman titan that virtually no human being could live up to him – let alone the real Shakespeare. But none of this alters the fact that real scholarship and real documentary evidence prove Shakespeare as the author.
I found myself reading this book from cover to cover over a couple of days. In fact I found it fairly un-put-downable.
I can’t finish without a distinctively New Zealand note.
Five years ago I reviewed a singularly silly book by Brenda James called The Truth Will Out, which argued, with the usual suspect reasoning, that Henry Neville wrote Shakespeare’s plays. I gave it the flick with some of the same arguments I’ve used here.
But for a couple of weeks the letters column was hot with people taking me to task for not mentioning the University of Auckland’s own Professor Emeritus MacDonald Jackson, who has done as much as anyone to prove how Shakespeare worked in the theatre company of which he was part.
So I’m delighted to report that when he comes to listing reliable modern scholars on Shakespeare’s texts, James Shapiro places Mac Jackson’s name at the top of his list.
Congratulations Mac.
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Update and for the record: Having given you, unaltered, the original review, I have to make some clarifying remarks. As you will see from the postings From Bard to Worse and Conspiracy Theories Yet Again, I have dealt before on this blog with conspiracy theories concerning the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. When I posted From Bard to Worse, I allowed myself to be lured into a not-very-illuminating discussion with one conspiracy theorist, which you can see in the “Comments” section under that posting.
I refer (in the above review) to my review of Brenda James’ remarkably silly book The Truth Will Out. That review appeared in the NZ Listener on the 26 November 2005. It was part of an article on three books about Shakespeare, the other two being Clare Asquith’s plausible, but unfortunately overstated, Shadowplay, which argued that Shakespeare was a Catholic; and Peter Ackroyd’s pompously-titled Shakespeare: The Biography, which is no better nor worse than all the many other biographies of Shakespeare that have appeared in recent years.
            Further details: Before he wrote Contested Will, James Shapiro had also written 1599, examining closely one year in Shakespeare’s working life.  More recently he produced 1601:William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear which I reviewed (positively) for the NZ Listener 23 January 2016. I have some misgivings about the latter book, not because I fault Shapiro’s historical and literary research, but because it could lead some readers to think that the historical situation in which Shakespeare wrote his plays encapsulates the main meanings of the plays. Incidentally, conspiracy theories about the “real” authorship of the plays still thrive in their rabid way on the internet and some conspiracy theorists claim to have “trashed” Shapiro’s reasoning in Contested Will – but all this means is that they have thrown some abuse his way without plausibly refuting anything he has written.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.  

All readers of this blog are most welcome to attend the launch of Nicholas Reid’s second collection of poetry, Mirror World.

It is being launched at the Gus Fisher Gallery – top of Shortland Street, Auckland – on the evening of Thursday 14 July.

Be there for drink and nibbles at 6pm with the formal part of the launch at 6:30.

Dr Iain Sharp will act as MC and a good time will be had by all.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Something New

[NOTICE TO READERS: For five years, Reid's Reader has been presenting an entirely free service to readers with commentary on books new and old. Reid's Reader receives no grants or subsidies and is produced each week in many hours of unpaid work. If you wish to contribute, on an entirely voluntary basis, to the upkeep of this blog, we would be very grateful if you made a donation via the PayPal "DONATE" button that now appears at the top of the index at right. Thank you.]
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“SHELF LIFE: REVIEWS, REPLIES AND REMINISCENCES” by C.K.Stead (Auckland University Press, $NZ45)

            The 440-odd pages of Shelf Life: Reviews, Replies and Reminiscences are the third (or is it the fourth?) time C. K. Stead, now in his 84th year, has produced a collection of his reviews, longer critical pieces, magazine and newspaper articles and general public controversy.
            They at once present me with a dilemma as a reviewer.
            I had already read (or heard) between a third and a half of the contents of this book before it came into my hands. This collection of Stead’s critical work over the last decade includes his essay “World War I – Close Up from a Distance”. It appeared in the collection of essays How We Remember, which I reviewed on this blog. The long interview he gave to Lawrence Jones was part of the 2010 collection of author interviews Words Chosen Carefully, edited by my esteemed friend Siobhan Harvey, in which I was the interviewer of Stead’s novelist daughter Charlotte Grimshaw. I was part of the audience when Stead delivered his autobiographical talk “One Thing Leads to Another”, at the Maidment Theatre in 2008. Many other pieces in Shelf Life I read in the various publications in which they first appeared. On top of this, as I have already noted elsewhere (when I reviewed, for Landfall,#220, November 2010, Judith Dell Panny’s once-over-lightly 2009 “literary biography” of Stead, Plume of Bees), I once had the slightest of nodding acquaintances with Stead. Forty years ago he was, for two years, my tutor when I was an undergraduate student of English at the University of Auckland. I remember him as an excellent teacher who emphasised the importance of reading a text closely (“the words on the page” etc.).
            So where’s the dilemma for this reviewer?
Just this – should I take much of this book as already read, and then read only those pieces I have not met before? Or should I read it whole, as all its parts are now presented to the public? I chose the latter course and over a week read (or re-read) all 49 articles. I read with pleasure, amusement, enlightenment and only occasionally with mild annoyance.
            Stead divides his work here into four sections: articles and reviews pertaining to Katherine Mansfield and her circle; reviews of specific books; what could be called “confessional” pieces, being public controversy, interviews to which he has submitted and bits of autobiography; and finally opinion pieces about writers, which he has contributed to the Poet Laureate blog. Of this last section I will say that I enjoyed the more unbuttoned tone in which Stead discusses people with whom he has dealt in more scholarly terms elsewhere. He gives pointed views on major twentieth century poets and his verdicts go something like this: Ezra Pound? Potentially a brilliant poet but ruined by the idiotic ideas he embraced and stifling his own best poetic instincts by too much reading. Ted Hughes? A tireless self-promoter who, whether he liked it or not, was overshadowed by the intensity of the verse of his first wife Sylvia Plath. (In this I think he grossly underrates Hughes.) W. H. Auden? Genial, skilful and thoroughly good guy – but how dare he re-edit his poems to take out their original political colouring!! (Goodness! I remember Stead expressing exactly the same sentiments in tutorials forty-odd years ago.) Stephen Spender? Ah, well here Stead goes into personal gossip and “as I remember him” mode, as he does in other pieces where he records his personal acquaitance with remnants of Modernism.
            As an overview of this book, I think there are too many interviews with Stead (four of them), which inevitably have some overlap and replication. An earnest postgrad student asks questions (pp.360-366) that have already been answered elsewhere in the book, and gets appropriately clipped replies. Answers to the New Zealand Herald’s “Twelve Questions” (pp.367-369), on the occasion of Stead’s 80th birthday, are not particularly enlightening. I am amused, however, that – at p.339 – one Hawke’s Bay student interviews Stead with the opening gambit “I had the impression that you were the grumpy old man of New Zealand literature.” Stead rapidly refutes this notion and good for him. I also note a few oddities. Why did Stead include the interview he conducted with Sylvia Ashton-Warner’s American editor, Robert Gottlieb (pp.273-286)? It is Gottlieb who does all the talking and provides all the interview’s interest. Also, there is the obvious fact that articles were written for very different audiences. Unlike more detailed essays, Stead’s short piece “Poetry: Formalists and Freedom Fighters” (pp.292-295) seems to have been written for people who are not au fait with the very rudiments of modern poetry.
            Thus much for a general overview.
The strengths of Stead’s writing are obvious. In discussing literature, he always writes clearly, and specifically rejects the type of specialised, mandarin vocabulary affected by many Postmodernists. (Is the word “Postmodernism” used even once in this collection? I don’t think so. Stead is insistently a Modernist.) In praising the critic Hugh Kenner, he could be describing his own method: “His criticism is demanding, yet it is also open and available, without needless and pretentious obscurity.” (p.124). In “World War I – Close Up from a Distance”, he suggests that as a student he was attracted first to the study of History and “I might have become one of those narrative historians who are enjoyable to read and who are often derided by the unreadable ones.” (p.328) The emphasis on readability means that if you disagree with Stead, you at least know what you are disagreeing with.
This emphasis goes with Stead’s rejection of literary theory.  His introduction claims that his “robust and undisguised scepticism in religious matters” was one of the reasons for his once arousing controversy, but so also his “rejection of French (and consequently Anglophone) literary theory as pointless obscurantism brought grumbles from the groves of academe while its fashion lasted.” (p.5) This, he says, was because “I affirmed both Virginia Woolf’s ‘common reader’, which recent critical theory had declared a meaningless term, and insisted on the life of the author in the text, also denied by the theorists.” (p.5)
He goes to town on this in the interview with Lawrence Jones, saying of literary theory: “There was a period here in New Zealand when it washed over us. If you were young you proved your Eng. Lit. credentials by writing in a professional argot that no one but other like-minded academic pros could understand; and since I always insisted that there was no excuse for critics who couldn’t make themselves understood, this put me at odds with some highfliers who have since vanished into the sun, or Australia. Critical fashions come and go, like fashions in anything. In the end the writing survives if it’s intelligible and contains real intelligence.” (pp.240-241)
(“Vanished into the sun, or Australia”? Apart from saying “Miaow! Miaow!” this suggests academic squabbles to which I am not privy.)
There is the admission in the Takahe interview: “Literary criticism is partly a matter of persuasion. If you are a real writer rather than just an academic, you write more persuasively, readers enjoy what you have to say and are more inclined to listen. Reading academic writing can sometimes feel like eating blotting paper: and there was a recent fashion for literary theory which substituted wallboard for blotting paper.” (p.319)
As he rejects academic gobbledegook and theory (and explicitly presents himself as a "real writer" as opposed to those academics), Stead also repeatedly advocates respect for the “canon” and the importance of writers studying, and learning from, what has gone before.
While praising Alan Roddick, he remarks “I’m reminded of the best qualities of our poetry in the 1950s and early ‘60s, the discipline that went into it then, the care and attention to form that became almost unfashionable as the 1960s rushed on into the ‘70s and ‘80s, when so much of poetry was given over to (or perhaps flower-powered into) self-expression, confession and even self therapy.” (pp.134-135)
In his short Listener piece on the critic James Wood (pp.145-147), he seems to admire Wood most for liking the “Great Tradition” and rejecting the all-style-and-no-subject of French experimentalists like Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute and others.
In his little article for Booknotes he shows (p.295) his respect for tradition thus: “Poetry is an art with a history, and the poet needs to tap into that without being overborne by it. You are on your own; but it’s best if the poets who have gone before you are looking over your shoulder.”
So the critic is a Modernist who insists on a grounding in good earlier writers before younger writers launch into experimentalism. He is also – apparently - allergic to the culture of promoting literature by mean of prizes. In the Takahe interview he declares:
The literary prizes and awards culture is almost totally geared to commerce; it distorts literary values, creates false reputations and is pernicious – here and overseas. Judge Time….will sort it out; but meanwhile too many readers let the literary judges (always a mixed bag) do their thinking for them. If there had been a Booker Prize in the first half of the twentieth century, would Henry James or D. H. Lawrence or James Joyce have won it. I doubt it. Yet the winner would by now have been forgotten.” (p.321)
There are similar comments elsewhere.
I think I have fairly indicated how Stead approaches literature and the style he chooses, but this is not the same as my personal response to this collection. Whether critics or reviewers openly acknowledge it or not, the hard fact is that we respond most warmly to those things that support or vindicate our own judgments. There are times in this collection, then, when I applaud simply because Stead reaches conclusions that I had already reached myself.
 In the field of public controversy unconnected with literature, “The case of David Bain” (pp.302-307), Stead’s letter to the New Zealand Herald in 2013, argues that David Bain’s innocence has not been proven, that there is much real evidence pointing to his role as murderer, and that all the Privy Council appeal demonstrated was that the police investigation had botched certain elements of the case for the prosecution. I agree. In “Only Connect…” (pp.370-378), Stead refutes a foolish misinterpretation of Honore de Balzac’s great story Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu in a way which I can only applaud because it is how I interpret the story too. (See my comments on Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu in my recent post on Balzac’sSelected Short Stories).
I was surprised by some things I found here. Given how I have hitherto heard him speak respectfully of Janet Frame, it is a surprise that Stead rejects most vigorously Frame’s posthumously published (and clearly unpolished) novel In the Memorial Room. But it is soon evident that Stead believes the novel was published only to keep the Frame industry going and “the claims made for the novel are grossly exaggerated. It arouses interest because anything by Frame does. It certainly deserved preservation, and attention by scholars and critics. But I seriously doubt it was wise, or will serve her public reputation well, to have put it in the commercial marketplace promoted in these extravagant terms.” (p.92) Further, he says, In the Memorial Room is a work of malice (a term Stead has used elsewhere as in “Such malice, such malice” etc.) because Frame was lampooning real people and showing complete ingratitude to all who helped her, as she habitually did: “… there is too much unfiltered resentment and malice, too much self-pity, unevenness of tone and uncertainty of direction – and in the end, no shape.” (p.99)
In this case, then, Stead’s negative judgment is justified by his reasoning. Another apparent surprise was what seemed at first like a hard blow at his longtime friend and colleague Allen Curnow. In a generous and largely affectionate piece on Kevin Ireland (“Kiwi Kevin” pp.125-133), there is what seems a sniff and a biff thus: “Curnow’s literary nationalism, though ‘of its time’, was something of a mistake, especially in his later years when he clung to it like a dog with a favourite stick. Nationalism is tribal – something genetic which, in the world as it is now, we need to unlearn, or at the very least to confine to sport and other non-lethal areas.” (p.132)
When read in the larger context of this book, however, Stead fully justifies this comment. The blog-piece “Allen Curnow – ‘Poet Laureate’ ” (pp.381-388) argues, cogently and accurately I think, that much of Curnow’s youthful New Zealand “nationalism” was melancholy because it was really disguised longing for the comforting arms of Mother England.
Throughout my reading of Shelf Life, I was, as a reviewer, looking at Stead’s style as a reviewer and noting some of the dodges and tricks of the trade. In “A Note on Larkin on Mansfield’ (pp.84-88), Stead discusses what Philip Larkin had to say about Katherine Mansfield simply by presenting long quotations – much as I am doing with Stead in the review you are now reading.
After what amounts to a sober resume of the novel, with critical asides, Stead concludes his piece on William Golding’s Rites of Passage [which won the Booker in 1980] with this: “To me it is not a novel that has any one of the qualities – great originality, exceptional vision, stylistic purity, intellectual brilliance, dangerous political integrity, risk – that one feels ought to define the winner of such a global prize.  But the works of only a few Nobel laureates do. Literary prizes are for the most part a nonsense, at one level a critical distraction and at another simply a distortion of the market.” (p.154) In a way, this review reassures me, as I often find myself, as reviewer, simply giving a resume raisonne when I am reviewing, and then concluding with a verdict of some sort. But I realise this is not a very elegant thing to do.
Then there is the case where a recommendation at the conclusion seems to be at odds with a damning criticism in mid-review. Of Patrick Evans’ Gifted, Evans' Janet Frame and Frank Sargeson novel, Stead writes: “The problem for me is that the book is neither consistently fact nor fiction; and there’s a feeling that the novelist himself is uncertain where the boundary lies between them, and when and whether he has crossed it.” (p.156) (Naughtily I think that this same criticism could surely be levelled at Stead’s own novel Mansfield). Nevertheless, Stead goes on to recommend Gifted to his readers. Incidentally, in the review following this, Stead is not so positive about Patrick Evans’ later novel The Back of His Head. Fair enough. Neither was I when I reviewed it on this blog, again demonstrating that we approve most of critics when they concur with our own prior judgments.
Stead’s New Zealand Listener review of “The Letters of T.S.Eliot” (“T.S.Eliot as Letter-writer” pp.188-193) simply summarises (with a somewhat sardonic tone) what was happening to T.S., his then-wife Vivienne et alia when the letters were written. When he reviews for New Zealand Books Rachel Barrowman’s biography of Maurice Gee (“Moss”, pp.170-177), he does spend most of his space talking about his own impressions of Gee before he gets on to the book. The personal observation in the guise of a review? Yes, we’ve all done that.
I said near the beginning of this notice that I read Shelf Life with pleasure, amusement, enlightenment and only occasionally with mild annoyance.
I suppose I should now account for the mild annoyance.
In his 2008 address “One Thing Leads to Another”, Stead throws out an aside, about one of his own fictional characters, that her research “is somewhat between scholarship and gossip (always a fine line!)” (p,261.) In the opening pieces about Katherine Mansfield and related Modernists, I found much of the “gossip” aspect oppressive, even as it was both informative and informed. When he calls one piece “Tom & Viv and Murry & Mansfield”, I wonder if Stead isn’t alluding to the long-ago movie about sexual mores Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. Stead charts the muddled relationships of T.S.Eliot, his first wife Vivienne, Katherine Mansfield and her husband John Middleton Murry. Murry comes out as a poseur, Eliot as a fussbudget, Vivienne as a problem and Mansfield as relatively sane. Such interesting gossip. But then I draw back and think – in spite of what Stead says elsewhere about the relevance of the life of the author in the text ” – does any of this really illuminate what these literary figures were writing? Or does it reduce their works – the only things that make them worth remembering, after all – to notes for the psychoanalyst’s couch?
One case where Stead is spectacularly wrong-headed is his London newspaper review of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. Basically he rebukes Catton for not writing a work of Modernist fiction. After taking the author to task for her pastiche Victorian prose, he goes on:
The history of literary fiction in the twentieth century was a struggle, never entirely successful, to escape from this kind of writing. It is the mode of the novel in its Victorian heyday, with something also of the twentieth-century murder mystery, which was always indifferent to literary Modernism. It is, you might say, Virginia Woolf’s nightmare of how many steps back a woman might take the form if given her head and a room of her own.” (p.141)
At which point I say: “So is there some Grand Cham who dictates that novels now have to be written as Virginia Woolf would have written them?” Eleanor Catton consciously chose to write in this style, superimposing a clearly modern sensibility on her characters and the situations they find themselves in. I think the technique achieves admirably what Catton set out to achieve. (See my more extensive review of The Luminaries in Landfall #226, November 2013 - where I do pay attention to Catton's language and do note the points where she inadvertently lapses into anachronisitc idioms).
Finally, there are a few moments where Stead’s prejudices are on his sleeve. His 2010 Landfall piece “At the Molino a Sesta, Gaiole, in Chianti” – basically reminiscences of a residency in Italy -  has Stead reflecting on the ancient monuments and history surrounding him thus:
There is the thought, inevitable here, where sheer ancientness presses upon one’s consciousness, that the claim to special status as ‘indigenous’ doesn’t mean much more than ‘we got here a bit before you’. Pakeha roots may be shallow; but Maori roots are hardly deep. In New Zealand we are all, Maori and Pakeha, inheritors of the gains and losses of dislocation.” (p.345)
I would not call this a prejudice, but certainly it is squeezing the occasion to make it reveal a view of New Zealand that Stead wants it to reveal.
Then there is his visit to the duomo in Siena. He is wandering around as a tourist enjoying the art and deprecating religion when he sees people praying and bursts out thus:
Such structures built on ancient and now discredited tenets are anthropologically interesting and often artistically wonderful in their consequences; but to see people fervently crossing themselves and putting themselves on the rack of prayer is, I think, to a clear mind, sad and even deplorable – like a bad habit, sucking the thumb.” (p.355)
Yes, peasants, your places of worship are “anthropologically interesting”, but you do not have “clear minds” and you are clearly children to my adult. After all, you are “sucking your thumbs”. And fancy using a church as a church instead of as an art gallery! Have you no culture at all!
This passage reminds me of a moment in Henry James’ early novel Roderick Hudson. Mrs Hudson and her wealthy tourist friends are at St Peter’s in the Vatican when James observes:
During this little discussion our four friends were standing near the venerable image of Saint Peter, and a squalid, savage looking peasant, a tattered ruffian of the most orthodox Italian aspect, had been performing his devotions before it. He turned away crossing himself, and Mrs Hudson gave a little shudder of horror. ‘After that’, she murmured, ‘I suppose he thinks he’s as good as anyone.” (Chapter 17)
Fancy a praying Italian peasant imagining he is as good as wealthy Americans! 
And fancy people not realising that they must bow to cultured agnostics rather than doing all this silly praying stuff!
There are moments when Stead can be dismissive in a superior, lordly and disdainful manner like this, and speak as if he really has appointed himself the Grand Cham of Culture. Fortunately these moments are rare in this volume. As I hope this review has made clear, Shelf Life is mainly a compendium of sane thinking and clear prose which is worth the week of evenings it takes to read.