Bite Size Criticism

“International scholarship on Coetzee, with some exceptions, involves walking one step behind the novelist, collecting the allusions he scatters to Foucault or Levinas or Derrida and arranging them reverently in his honour, which is also to the honour of pure literature.

Imran Coovadia, 2012, Transformations: Essays.

Bite Size Theory

“The presence/absence of mobile phones in one’s fictional worlds is going to be, I suspect, no trivial matter. Because so much of the mechanics of novel writing, past and present, is taken up with making information available to characters or keeping it from them, with getting people together in the same room or holding them apart. If, all of a sudden, everyone has access to more or less everyone else – electronic access, that is – what becomes of all that plotting?”

John Coetzee, in Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee, 2013, Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011.

Coetzee reading from his new novel

Via @Stilllife0 on Twitter, here is JM Coetzee talking last month at Penn State, including a reading from his forthcoming new novel, as well as from a collection of letter between him and Paul Auster, being funny, sort of, about the arbitrariness of the sign and the degree to which names shapes our character and destiny.

Browsing as ethnography?

Does book-browsing in a foreign country count as a way of doing ethnography of the public intellectual culture of that place? I like to think so. Bloemfontein, where I have been spending this week at a workshop, and doing other bits and bobs, has a decent range of bookshops – at least two branches of Exclusive Books, the nation-wide bookstore, but also a good University-related Protea bookstore. There are a lot more Afrikaans-language books here than in Durban, where I have spent most of my time in South African before now, not surprisingly (including a Christian family bookstore called CUM books, believe it or not). The politics of Afrikaner identity is very much alive a live issue in the Free State, it seems.

Anyway, on my observation, there are a few publishing trends which seem interesting. One is the blossoming of SA-based and authored crime fiction – although more interesting, I think, is the work of Lauren Beukes, who writes sci-fi, of a sort, but really dystopic urban noir about South African cities the day after tomorrow – I am half way through Moxyland,  based in a near-future Cape Town, and have Zoo City, about Johannesburg, packed in the bag to take home.

There are also a lot of books about contemporary ANC politics, more than there were a decade ago or less even, some of them histories or biographies, and an interesting series of short books on current hot topics published by Jacana press, as well as lots of things about ANC politics right now, a month or so away from the big Indaba to be held here in Mangaung, where the conflicts about the Zuma leadership will be settled, one way or the other.

If I were here longer, I’d be reading all these – South African TV is designed to encourage reading. But I’m here just for a fleeting visit, enough only to start the newly published biography of JM Coetzee (600 pages, and he doesn’t write a novel ’til 200+ pages in – and nor had he led an exciting life before that), and the ever wonderful Ivan Vladislavic’s short collection The Loss Library, about writing-projects imagined and/or started but never completed – a topic close to my own heart.

Literary Geographies at Society and Space

Society and Space has a new virtual issue available, on the theme of ‘Literary Geographies’ (also the name and focus of a newish blog) – ten oldish and newish papers available on open access, until November:

“These ten papers, ranging from the 1980s to the present decade showcase just some of the papers in this journal that have contributed to discussions of literary geographies. As well as being of considerable interest in their own right, we hope they inspire future explorations in this area.”

Amongst the papers, including pieces by my former or  current colleagues John Silk, Juliet Fall, and Parvati Raghurum, one of the papers, this one, is by me – on postcolonial theory, Spivak, Benita Parry, Coetzee, speech and silence and the work of representation, that sort of thing. It’s nice to be included. This might have been a citation classic by now if I’d not used that particular title, but never mind, I was warned (and it’s still a great song, and it still captures the essence of the paper’s argument).

Coetzee on cricket

From Africa is a Country, an interesting discussion of a recent essay by J. M. Coetzee on cricket when he was growing up in South Africa, in a collection of essays entitled Australia: Story of a Cricket Country edited by Christian Ryan. Ryan is the author a very wonderful book about Kim Hughes, famous now mostly for crying which is unfair, Golden Boy, a book which unpicks the sometimes absurd machismo behind a particular moment of modern cricket transformation.

Favourite Thinkers IV: J.M. Coetzee

I was idly surfing for videos of philosophers giving talks, and find that Robert Pippin, who you can watch ‘live’, has a recent essay in a collection of philosophical reflections on the work of J.M. Coetzee (Pippin is also writing about Westerns, a fun juxtaposition with his work on Hegel, Nietzsche, and the like). Coetzee has become a favourite of English-language philosophy with a Continental bent recently, with writers such as Stephen Mulhall, Stanley Cavell, Cora Diamond and John McDowell all finding resources for philosophical reflection in his work – in particular, it is Coetzee as an ethicist of sorts that seems to attract philosophers’ attention. The idea that Coetzee’s fictions add up to a sustained oeuvre of ethical thought is not a new one – the literary theorist David Atwell was making that argument more than a decade ago – but philosophical interest in Coetzee seems to be a ‘post-Disgrace’ phenomenon, related to the more explicit engagement with issues of animal rights and ethical propriety that Coetzee has been elaborating through the recurrent figure of Elizabeth Costello in a number of works.

The philosophical framing of Coetzee is a new stage in the variable reception history of his writing, which I wrote about way back in the late 1990s – then, you could discern both a geographical difference in how Coetzee was read in South Africa and South Africanist circles, and a generic difference in how he was read by academic theorists and generalist critics. In the late 1980s and 1990s, Coetzee was a favourite novelist for literary theorists, particularly those of a poststructuralist inclination,and especially amongst postcolonial theorists. There was a circular relationship involved here, in so far as Coetzee’s novels are of course highly ‘academic’ in their form and content, so they are kind of ‘always already’ available to be mined for evidence of certain literary theoretical axioms. I wonder if the same circularity isn’t involved in the philosophical interest in his work too? There is something odd about the supreme allegorist, Coetzee, having his novels read as allegories of certain theoretical, philosophical arguments.

I used Coetzee in my PhD back in the early 1990s, as a way of making sense of Spivak’s account of subaltern representation – not least, because at that time, she often invoked Coetzee’s Foe as an exemplar of her thesis. This engagement with Coetzee’s work was an important influence on my own intellectual and academic trajectory – it was a way into debates about South African cultural policy, and I ended up doing research on these issues from 1996 onwards; this was also a way out of a certain kind of dead-end of cultural theorising that 1990s human geography was sending me down. My initial interest was in the fact that Spivak’s invocation of Coetzee in support of her theoretical position was rather de-contextualised, in so far as it was detached from Coetzee’s rather controversial status at that time within debates about anti-apartheid cultural politics. Coetzee had always resisted incorporation into the forms and norms of ‘political’ writing that defined so much South African fiction in the 1980s (One of my most cherished ‘bookshop moments’ is coming across a copy of Upstream, a little magazine published in Cape Town in the ’80s, from 1988, in Ike’s bookshop in Durban. This edition, which cost me 10 Rand, contains an essay by Coetzee called ‘The Novel Today’ in which he tries to articulate the validity of the idea of the novel as an autonomous form not to be reduced to the imperatives of ‘historical’, that is political, expediency). At that time, the early 1990s, though, the settled models of cultural politics in South Africa were coming apart, both through ‘official’ revision in ANC circles and amongst academic writers such as Rob Nixon. Coetzee’s international reputation has grown and grown of course since the end of apartheid, and the end of that particular framing of South African writing – though of course, domestically he remained and remains a controversial figure, being denounced as racist when Disgrace was published (by a very high-ranking ANC politician no less) and then following a more general trend amongst white South Africans of emigrating (though he went to Adelaide, not Perth, or London). The Oxford based literary scholar Peter McDonald, in his book The Literature Police and elsewhere has uncovered the fascinating story of apartheid-era censorship systems in which Coetzee was, personally and as an author of fictions, ambiguously embroiled.

I haven’t worked on or written about Coetzee for more than a decade – as I say, it turned out that he was route away from literary theory and work on textuality (although I think these fields of research remain rather more valuable than they are given credit for in geography these days – a two decade metaphysical odyssey from postmodernism to ‘speculative realism’, affect theory and materialities has managed to pass by the flowering of all sorts of sociologically inflected, ethnographically informed accounts of the institutions and political economies of reading publics, publishing, popular literacy, national cultures, and educational practices, which might cash-out the promise of a materialist imagination rather better than repeated ontological assertions about materiality per se). I still read his books regularly, from a sense of duty and familiarity – they do have a ‘serial’ quality to them in their repetition of certain themes of high literary modernism. I like some of them more than others – Slow Man, his first novel after leaving South Africa, I enjoyed reading, while in South Africa, because it almost had a proper story in it. The multi-perspectival approach of The Diary of a Bad Year was a bit too didactic after a while. But Summertime, the most recent not-quite-autobiographical fiction managed to pull off the ‘where is the author?’ trick while also being funny, touching, and prosaically tragic (I know a South African who did a Masters dissertation on Coetzee’s fiction, Orli Bass, who wrote a letter to him to ask for an interview – she got a lovely, brief note in response, words to the effect that he believed that ‘books deserve to make their own way in the world’ – this is pretty much the theoretical premise that Coetzee’s fiction and his public profile seeks to systematically enact, which is why it proves so difficult to pin him and his work down in standard modes of critical interpretation. In turn, it’s why the fiction can be presented as exercises in ethical practice).

One of the things that seems to get lost in the theoretical-philosophical allegorization of Coetzee’s fictions is the brilliance, I think, of his work as a theorist and critic. He is after all, or was, a professional, academic, theorist. His conceptualization of the dynamics of censorship and offence in Giving Offence is wonderful and compelling; I think his consistent engagement with the problems of authentic expression in contexts saturated with ‘political’ imperatives, through the figure of Erasmus’ fool for example, is a deeply important contribution to thinking about the politics of free expression, ethics, and political responsibility; and one of my favourite pieces by him is an essay on The Misfits, which is as significant as anything written by Coetzee on the ethics and justice of human-animal relations through the figure of Elizabeth Costello I think, and which turns on the observation that a movie full of wonderful actorly performances by Monroe, Gable, Clift, and Wallach revolves around a purely deictic presentation of the suffering and fear and passion of horses. Sometimes, the real theoretical and philosophical force of Coetzee’s writings might be much better registered in these non-fictional genres – the essay or review – than in the fiction; but oddly, these texts don’t provide the same authority as the ‘stories’ which often enough write out the same arguments in fictional form.