What’s that smouldering, sulphurous smell? No, not mischievous Eyjafjallajökull, doing for air travel what Lady Gaga has done for the underpants industry. I'm talking about something closer to home. Ah yes: it’s just the literary world singeing its skirts on the limelight again. Flaming trousers, knickers in a twist, scoops, scandals, feuds and frauds… I say! It’s almost as if literature matters.
I have mixed feelings when bookish types hit the entertainment pages. Is it a welcome boost for a dying medium – after reality TV, reality books (or, as we used to call it, non-fiction)! Or is it a useful reminder that reports of the death of the author have been wildly exaggerated, and were never countenanced by the marketing department anyway? Or is it yet another sign of the apocalypse?
Sometimes it’s just damned fine reporting. Last week, Matt Nippert managed a nifty scoop while profiling a new book by a US author that hinges on a supposedly true story about a chap whose wife and children were kidnapped by Maori in the mid 19th C. Something didn’t smell right about the inspiration for the novel, and Matt cleverly tracked the story down to its surprising source. An admiring Watson to his Holmes, I insist you read it.
I was happy to contribute this thought to the article: "It doesn't really matter whether the inspiration comes from real life or from an urban legend ... What matters is that the author transforms it into an original, persuasive and affecting work of fiction." But the best and last word went to Bill Manhire: “All the good stories are too good to check.” True dat.
I might have been more nuanced in my comment if, when I spoke to Matt, I’d already assimilated the brewing Stead-Cox brouhaha. Which has turned out to be more brou than haha.
My first thought (and indeed tweet) when I heard that C. K. Stead had won the world’s most generous short story prize was that he had probably broken the local record for dollars-per-word obtained in the pursuit of literary glory. By my rough calculation, about NZD$7.50/word, which is nice work if you can get it. He sure got it. Stead is on the money when he suggests that there's a measure of envy in the flutter that followed; I doubt we'd be as avidly interested if the story had won a book token and a year's subscription to the Times.
I didn’t think much more, other than to wonder who the other finalists had been. You can see the long list here, which included Helen Simpson’s terrifyingly funny "Diary of an Interesting Year". The final shortlist of six featured five blokes, as it happened; an interesting contrast to the formerly most generous short story award in the world, the BBC National Short Story Award, whose finalists last year were all women.
Then Stephen Stratford, editor of the defunct -- but dead funky -- literary mag Quote Unquote, linked the Stead story to its apparent biographical inspiration -- a historical grudge match with the late Nigel Cox, who wrote a disappointed mid-career assessment of Stead in 1994 -- and suddenly it was ON.
I realize I’m late to this tea party, but it turns out to be one of those tea parties that orders a pizza and some beers and calls some mates, and rumbles on well past the point where Noise Control show up. The story has not just legs, but (thanks to its international origin) wings, with the latest round appearing in Private Eye and the Guardian.
At which point the Sunday Star-Times trawled its drift-net across the blogosphere again, and went back to Stead for further comment. He boldly fired off a few rounds at Stratford and also at Keri Hulme, insisted that the parallels between life and fiction are "not obvious" to him, and eschewed all "moral responsibility for mistakes that other people make in reading [his] work."
It would be nice to take Stead at his word -- except that there isn’t a single word, but several. On the one hand, Stead insists the story is not in any way about Cox. On the other, he tells the Sunday Times: "The reason I set this story in Croatia, rather than in New Zealand, was because everybody would have tried to work out who the characters were, and I didn’t want that."
These are not mutually exclusive statements, by any means: try setting any story in New Zealand and see how long it takes someone to start guessing who’s who, even or especially if they’re not. I’m still fruitlessly trying to figure out, for example, which of the contemporary Girl’s Own Show DJs – uniformly smart, sexy, and skinny - was the inspiration for the fat, sweaty, bossy lesbians who run a similar show on campus radio in a novel by one of our acclaimed young writers. Because authors don't just conjure characters out of thin air, do they? Or order them from catalogues of clichés?
And on the third hand, there’s the story about the Janet Frame story, mentioned by Fergus Barrowman in the comments here. This historical anecdote leaves our author looking a little bit like a one-legged man in a boot-on-the-other-foot contest. As a legendarily careful and close reader, he would recognise the irony.
Irony - or just common-or-gardeny. Writers, like most of us, are paper-skinned beasts who persist in the delusion that everyone else is a pachyderm. That familiar author-photo pose, gazing intelligently into the middle distance with chin in hand? Is really just the writer carefully shielding a glass jaw with their iron fist.
There’s a fashionable quote from Czeslaw Milosz, most often deployed as a pre-emptive excuse: “When a writer is born into a family, that family is finished.” Duck and cover, friends and relations! But it’s also fashionable to argue that a nation is a kind of family, and without a literature, a nation hasn’t even gotten started. Turns out you can’t make a truly tasty omelette without giving Humpty Dumpty a bit of a bruising, and as the literature tells us, it's awfully hard to put that together again.
Where do stories come from? I think the more interesting question is, having come from there, where do they go? At my house, we have an art cupboard for the kids, the bottom shelf of which is devoted to “inspiration.” Curiously shaped bits of packing cardboard, egg boxes, broken kitchen tools, a disemboweled clock, the old egg beater, contact lens containers, rainbow coloured string, cotton wool, cellophane. Out of these raw materials, the boys make objects - a Viking ship, a remote control robot, a hovering battleship - that utterly transcend their origins.
Croatian backdrop aside, Stead’s scenario hews closely enough to the known world to feel a little too personal. Certainly Cox’s widow and friends legitimately felt so; they can still see the parts from the art cupboard for what they are, which makes it hard to see the whole for what it is. And even if, like me, you didn't know the back story, once it's pointed out, the front story rather loses its gloss.
Would it have been kinder for Stead to knead the germ of inspiration into the dough of the story a little more industriously? Absolutely. And, given that guessing games are irresistible and unavoidable in stories about authors, by authors, it would definitely have been more sportsmanlike to bury the likenesses under a few more layers of costume.
It might even have made for a more complicated story. Two rival women writers, say, and a bereaved husband ripe for the wooing -- a gender flip would neatly have obviated Private Eye's wicked comment that the story read like "one of Jeffrey Archer's cast-offs". Or you could take it out of the artsy realm altogether: a couple of muscular Olympians battling for the gold, and the grieving boyfriend of one of them? Now, that would certainly have been a little less luvvie and a lot more saucy.
Stead argues that the story is purely fiction. As novelist-poet-critic, he’s professionally entitled to that opinion. But it's hard to believe the man whose job it is to notice every single word didn’t permit himself a tiny smile as he typed this sentence:
Steadily, as peace returned, Mario re-established himself in the theatre, and was reinstated to his old place of respect and, gradually, of dominance.
That’s a £25,000 adverb right there.
Perhaps it will all be sorted out in the great boozy book launch of the hereafter, which is bound to be, to quote the immortal Douglas Adams, not so much an afterlife, more a sort of an après-vie.
But then again, what could be more dull than a civilized post-everything handshake over cocktails and canapés. As a character in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia puts it, contemplating the prospect of a “great celestial get-together for an exchange of views”: “If the answers are in the back of the book, I can wait, but what a drag.”
When you’re tossed out of the bar for brawling, there’s only one place to take it: to the street. By which I mean the Amazon review pages. If possible, have your spouse do it. (A busy week for the Times, to be sure, which broke the story). And when your spouse has finished tearing strips off your rivals, perhaps they can have a go at Fisher and Paykel, too.
She doesn't need the money, and freely admits it, but if there were a prize for best literary use of a true story, I’d give it this month to J.K. Rowling, for her blistering op-ed on the British Conservative Party’s risible social welfare proposals. Entitled "A Single Mother’s Manifesto", it's a veritable Avada Kedavra of a missive. Am I the only one who wanted to print this out, roll it up, and deliver it to our own Minister of Social Development and Employment?