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C(hristian) K(arlson) Stead Biography - C.k. Stead Comments:

fiction writer stories question

For a good part of my writing life in New Zealand I have been known as a poet and critic who occasionally ventures into short stories; but in my own mind, since I began writing at the age of fourteen, I have thought of myself as a writer. It has never seemed to me that one had to choose between poetry and fiction (and there are honorable precedents—Goldsmith, for example, who also wrote plays; Thomas Hardy; and D.H. Lawrence). But novels require time; and until 1986, when I gave up my position as professor of English at the University of Auckland, my time was limited. As an academic I made poetry, in particular 20th-century poetry, my special field with the consequence that I could see my own work as a poet on a broad historical map. As a fiction writer I possess no such map and have proceeded more by instinct, or intuition, with the possible consequence that in fiction I may have been more original, or individual, or peculiar, than I have been as a poet.

Of my first two significant experiments in fiction, one "A Race Apart," is a Mandarin comedy set in rural England, and the other, "A Fitting Tribute," is a New Zealand fantasy and social satire about a man who achieves engineless flight and vanishes. Both have female first-person narrators. Both were published outside New Zealand, the first in England, the second in America (and the latter was almost at once translated into Spanish and Hungarian). These stories indicate, I think, an early preoccupation with the question of narrative voice and "point of view." I was troubled (without knowing that this was a current preoccupation of theorists of fiction) about the question of the authority of the information fiction offers. Not its authenticity, or its truth; but rather the question, Who is supposed to be giving us this supposed information; what is its provenance? I was not much interested in current British and American fiction; but I read, for example, in translation, everything by the Italian Alberto Moravia and the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges, writers whose approach to fiction seemed clever enough to overcome this problem of authority—Moravia by his intense clarity of "seeing" (in the sense both of visualizing and understanding) through the eyes of a single character, and Borges by signalling in various ways that fiction was a game with rules, an agreement between writer and reader to pretend that the story was true. These were sophistications I had already found in Fielding, Sterne, Emily Brontë, and Dickens, but which modern fiction writers in English (or those I tried to read in the 1950s and 1960s) had largely forgotten.

But it would be wrong to say that I thought clearly and historically about all this. I can now see, though I would not have seen it at the time, that what I wanted to do was to make the voice which gave the story its authority a part of the fiction; and the simplest—though certainly not the only, or always the best—way to do this, was first person narration. This is a problem which grows larger as the fiction expands in size, because it involves consistency of tone, of persona, of style, of manner; and a mercurial, or anyway protean temperament, such as suits the writer of lyric poems, must be damped down and made dependable and consistent in the writer of novels.

My other strong impulse in fiction has been the simple one towards narrative. I enjoy telling stories, and hearing stories well told, and admire narrative management, especially in places (such as Wordsworth's poems in The Lyrical Ballads) where it does its work largely unnoticed. The difference between Borges and his many recent imitators is that most of them acquire something of his sophistication without possessing any of his native skill as a storyteller.

I offer these remarks only as background, which the reader may find ways of applying to my novels and stories.

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