Why I write, Christina Stead

ANZLitLovers Christina Stead Week Nov 14-20 2016

note the misplaced apostrophe!

Lisa at ANZ LitLovers has been posting the opening pages of Christina Stead novels. She suggested I put up an excerpt from Cotters’ England (1966), which I am planning to review. Here on pp 37-38 Stead’s protagonist Nellie, talking to her friend Caroline, gives a pretty good definition of the Social Realist novel:

“You’re all alike, you amateurs. Everything is grist to your mill. You don’t see the warm natural human material. You see a subject …  I understand the urge [to write]. But you’ll need more experience. That’s not enough, the seamy side. You can’t butcher them to make a holiday in print. Writing’s not just a case of self-expression or conscience clearing. The muckrakers did their work. Now we want something constructive. You see, sweetheart, just to photograph a refuse yard with its rats, that wouldn’t help the workers one tiny little bit. It would only be glorifying your own emotions.”

“What would you write about, I mean given your experience? Of course, I can never rival your experience.”

“No, I’ve been up to my ears in it all my life. I always knew reality.”

“Well, what would you begin with, say?”

“You just write what you see, Caroline sweetheart. Stick to reality; and when you’ve got the hang of it, you’ll be all right. I knew I had something to say when I started out, pet; but when I saw the paper-spoilers, I said, I’ll never do that, so perhaps something great is lost; but that’s my feeling.”

“I have to see it myself, I know.”

“Aye, but you don’t want to dress it up in romantic illusion or disillusion. You want to give stark staring reality, straight in the face. And no destruction, nothing depressing. The lives of the workers are depressing enough. You want to cover it with a rosy veil, a mystery.”

“No destruction. Yes, I said to myself I never heard talk about retreat and failure from Nellie Cook. And I wanted to come and learn from you.”

Nellie was charmed. “Did ye, pet? That was wise and good of you, sweetheart. The workers, pet, were walk-ons in all this glorious history. Their play has got to begin.”


Christina Stead, Cotters’ England, first pub. 1966. This ed. Sirius, Sydney, 1989 (cover above from another edition)

See also ANZ LitLovers Christina Stead Week Nov 14-20 2016 (here)

Chris Williams, Christina Stead: A Life of Letters (my review here)

Christina Stead, Cotters’ England (my review here)

2 thoughts on “Why I write, Christina Stead

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s