Debating JM Coetzee

RESPONSE TO SHAUN DE WAAL’S ARTICLE ON JM COETZEE BY DI KILPERT

Although you’ve been reasonably fair to Colin Bower of the Sunday Times, I think you’ve underrated his critique. It seems to me more penetrating than you’ve allowed for.

For example, you say he’s being subjective: “At any rate, Bower’s is a personal response.
To which anyone is entitled, but Bower, as he realises, needs to go beyond that if he is to make a literary argument rather than just express his own distaste—or his yearning for something uplifting.”

But all literary criticism is inevitably a personal response. It’s not a science. You say: “He has read them [Coetzee’s books] carefully and has engaged with them from the position of his own subjectivity.”

But that’s what we all do! How do we “go beyond that”, as you put it? Even if we align with other critics, it’s because their response resonates with our own. My response to Coetzee is no less a personal response just because I agree with Bower. The fact that two of us say we think Coetzee is a bad writer doesn’t make our claim objective. Or even if a hundred of us say so. And if a professional literary critic says so that doesn’t make it objective either.

The only way we can achieve some measure of objectivity in literary criticism is to turn to the actual language of the text to support our views. This is exactly what Bower has done, unlike many others who maunder on about Coetzee without quoting from his works.

He says: “I have searched in vain for evidence of literary craftsmanship in Coetzee, the kind of craftsmanship that might justify a Booker or two. In fact, I find the opposite: writing that is disengaged, wooden and lifeless … ‘Blood flowed in a sheet into the boy’s eyes ... Time seemed to stop and then resume ... Like [a body] risen from the dead ... The horse vanishes from sight like a phantom ... The wind rises to a scream ... The soul is yanked out of the body.’ I am here seeking only to demonstrate a point that seems self-evident to me: Coetzee’s writing is entirely lacking in verve or originality of expression.”

The bits he quotes are the kind of dull and clichéd stuff one would condemn if creative writing students produced them. Bower finds this language flat and unoriginal, and so do I. Are these bits atypical? I don’t think so.

I struggled to read Disgrace, not because it’s difficult but because I found it so deadly dull. The language failed to engage me. It’s now up to those who think that book is brilliant to quote some bits themselves and tell us what exactly they find brilliant. A work of literature is made of language. It’s no use offering any opinions unless you’re paying attention to the language.

You say: “All we have, in the end, is Bower’s personal ‘experience’ of reading Coetzee, his way of writing himself into Coetzee’s oeuvre, like Crampton’s pupils.”

Well, no. We have Bower’s evidence from the language. That’s the big difference. He’s not “writing himself into” the book; he’s asking us to look at what it’s made of: language. He finds it defective. I’m rather sorry he is obliged to mention the bleak subject matter, because inevitably he will be misread as disliking bleak subject matter per se.

Of course plenty of great literature is about bleak subjects. It’s the language that makes it uplifting rather than depressing. For example, there could be few bleaker subjects than that of Nabokov’s Lolita. But look at the language!

“I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art.” No “refuge of art” in Coetzee.

And it doesn’t have to be flamboyant. At the opposite extreme (but another bleak subject) take William Golding’s The Inheritors. The writing is brilliant. Spare and lean, but astonishingly vivid and original. Every word seems precisely right. You couldn’t replace it with another and mean much the same thing (which is the same as meaning nothing much), as you could with the Coetzee examples quoted by Bower.

You talk about wanting to read something “wildly inventive”, “‘overflowing with verbal exuberance”, but whether extravagant or parsimonious the language must be rewarding to read. (Or, as Bower puts it, “the only thing that matters in respect of a novel is the experience of reading it”.) I find Coetzee’s language repellent in its emptiness and dullness rather than admirable in its restraint and precision.

To return to the point about “writing yourself into” the novel: that’s one of those expressions that collapses when you probe its meaning. What exactly are the pupils doing when they “write themselves into” Disgrace?

It’s my guess that they’re talking about their own experiences and offering their half-formed opinions about topical matters such as rape statistics in South Africa, rather than paying attention to the book. A newspaper article would do just as well to set them talking. That’s not proof that Coetzee is a great writer.

You/Michael Crampton say that “the ‘democratic’ text of Disgrace allows readers to project themselves into the hypothetical space of fiction and thus argue with it”. But you can’t argue with a space!

What Crampton sees as the virtue of the book I see as its essential failing, which it shares with much postmodern writing: the writer doesn’t appear to hold any opinion that you can argue with.

As Bower rightly says, “only Coetzee can know what he means by it”. You can’t argue with his text; only with other readers of the text. It’s a blank wall with no footholds. The literature of emptiness.

I continue to believe that Disgrace is a most unsuitable book for a school set text. A good teacher like Michael Crampton can probably get kids talking about even the most worthless book. The fact that this one is about rape and violence and harsh treatment of animals, and is set in Salem, near Grahamstown, where he teaches, is enough to set them going.

But the literature class shouldn’t be for the students to air their off-the-cuff, immature opinions. As a former literature teacher myself, I know only too well how readily they start looking at you, or up in the air, or out of the window, when expressing opinions about their setwork, instead of at the book itself. My response has always been: “Look at the page. Read the words. It’s the language you have to pay attention to.” But the language of Disgrace is nondescript. What is there to pay attention to?

The literature class is for paying attention to what great writers have had to say and particularly to the language in which they said it. Which comes to the same thing. You can’t separate form and meaning. It makes no sense to suggest there’s some brilliant meaning in Coetzee’s work when the actual language is mediocre and unrewarding.

The meaning doesn’t lurk somewhere “behind” the words. If we believe that, then we must believe that only privileged persons have access to it, which leaves us at the mercy of “intellectual pretension masquerading as privileged knowledge”, as Bower puts it. This form/meaning split is typical of an age that has ceased to value language. The language no longer matters: we can just guess at what’s “behind it”, and the best guessers will be those with the highest academic status.

An example of this kind of guessing instead of reading comes up in Crampton’s article, which you refer to: “They obviously struggle with literary questions, and instead focus on the central character, David Lurie, as if he were a real person whose morals they are called upon to adjudicate. They are asked, in the old EM Forster formulation, whether Lurie is a ‘flat’ or a ‘round’ character.

“One pupil condemns him as ‘flat’ because he is ‘stubborn, arrogant and self-serving’, going on to describe him, as does another pupil, in terms that indicate clearly that he must in fact be a pretty ‘round’ character—or there would not be so much to say about him. He would not have elicited such a complex response.”

There’s a failure of logic here. The point is not whether we can round off the character; it’s whether the author has done so. In other words, how long a list of qualities and behaviours can we compile from the novel itself to support the claim of “roundness”?

Not a very long one in the case of Lurie, I suspect. And a complex, rounded character in literature should produce an emotional response in the reader. My response to Lurie was that I couldn’t care less about him one way or another. (A personal response of course. If I had the book here I’d quote from it, but I gave my copy away. I keep on my shelf only the books I want to read over and over.)

You say: “For the mass media in this country, Coetzee is, like Lurie, a screen on to which to project their own concerns and needs.” That’s exactly the problem. He’s made his public persona as empty and blank as his writing. The logical conclusion is that neither he nor his books matter much at all.

To conclude, I want to repeat: it’s the language that matters. If the language isn’t special and different in some way then it’s not literature. It may be a clever literary trick to deliberately write in a nondescript fashion, but it’s ultimately a self-defeating one. As Bower says, “it represents the defeat of the human spirit”.*

(* From personal e-mail communication: “Coetzee supporters might say that a book like Disgrace is about the defeat of the human spirit ... but I say no, if this were the case it would be legitimate—instead it represents the defeat of the human spirit.”)

EDITED VERSION OF AN E-MAIL DISCUSSION BETWEEN SHAUN DE WAAL AND DI KILPERT, 20-24 OCTOBER 2003

DK:

I’d like to respond to your article on Coetzee, specifically to your response to Colin Bower’s article in The Sunday Times. Although you’ve been reasonably fair to Colin Bower, I think you’ve underrated his critique. It seems to me more penetrating than you’ve allowed for.

For example, you say he’s being subjective: “At any rate, Bower’s is a personal response. To which anyone is entitled, but Bower, as he realises, needs to go beyond that if he is to make a literary argument rather than just express his own distaste—or his yearning for something uplifting”. But all literary criticism is inevitably a personal response. It’s not a science. You say: “He has read them [Coetzee’s books] carefully and has engaged with them from the position of his own subjectivity”—but that’s what we all do!

How do we ‘go beyond that’, as you put it? Even if we align with other critics, it’s because their response resonates with our own. My response to Coetzee is no less a personal response just because I agree with Bower. The fact that two of us say we think Coetzee is a bad writer doesn’t make our claim objective. Or even if a hundred of us say so. And if a professional literary critic says so that doesn’t make it objective either.

The only way we can achieve some measure of objectivity in literary criticism is to turn to the actual language of the text to support our views. This is exactly what Bower has done, unlike many others who maunder on about Coetzee without quoting from his works.

He says: “I have searched in vain for evidence of literary craftsmanship in Coetzee, the kind of craftsmanship that might justify a Booker or two. In fact, I find the opposite: writing that is disengaged, wooden and lifeless, which make the task of specific demonstration invidious. But let me try: “Blood flowed in a sheet into the boy’s eyes . . . Time seemed to stop and then resume . . . Like (a body) risen from the dead . . . The horse vanishes from sight like a phantom . . . The wind rises to a scream . . . The soul is yanked out of the body.” I am here seeking only to demonstrate a point that seems self-evident to me: Coetzee’s writing is entirely lacking in verve or originality of expression.”

The bits he quotes are the kind of dull and clichéd stuff one would condemn if creative writing students produced them. Bower finds this language flat and unoriginal, and so do I. Are these bits atypical? I don’t think so. I struggled to read Disgrace, not because it’s difficult but because I found it so deadly dull. The language failed to engage me. It’s now up to those who think that book is brilliant to quote some bits themselves and tell us what exactly they find brilliant. A work of literature is made of language. It’s no use offering any opinions unless you’re paying attention to the language.

You say: “All we have, in the end, is Bower’s personal ‘experience’ of reading Coetzee, his way of writing himself into Coetzee’s oeuvre, like Crampton’s pupils”. Well, no. We have Bower’s evidence from the language. That’s the big difference. He’s not ‘writing himself into’ the book; he’s asking us to look at what it’s made of: language. He finds it defective. I’m rather sorry he is obliged to mention the bleak subject matter, because inevitably he will be misread as disliking bleak subject matter per se. Of course plenty of great literature is about bleak subjects. It’s the language that makes it uplifting rather than depressing. For example, there could be few bleaker subjects than that of Nabokov’s Lolita. But look at the language! ‘I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art.’ No ‘refuge of art’ in Coetzee.

And it doesn’t have to be flamboyant. At the opposite extreme (but another bleak subject) take William Golding’s The Inheritors. The writing is brilliant. Spare and lean, but astonishingly vivid and original. Every word seems precisely right. You couldn’t replace it with another and mean much the same thing (which is the same as meaning nothing much), as you could with the Coetzee examples quoted by Bower. You talk about wanting to read something ‘wildly inventive’, ‘overflowing with verbal exuberance’, but whether extravagant or parsimonious the language must be rewarding to read. (Or, as Bower puts it, ‘the only thing that matters in respect of a novel is the experience of reading it’.) I find Coetzee’s language repellent in its emptiness and dullness rather than admirable in its restraint and precision.

To return to the point about ‘writing yourself into’ the novel: that’s one of those expressions that collapses when you probe its meaning. What exactly are the pupils doing when they ‘write themselves into’ Disgrace? It’s my guess that they’re talking about their own experiences and offering their half-formed opinions about topical matters such as rape statistics in South Africa, rather than paying attention to the book. A newspaper article would do just as well to set them talking. That’s not proof that Coetzee is a great writer.

You/Michael Crampton say that “the ‘democratic’ text of Disgrace allows readers to project themselves into the hypothetical space of fiction and thus argue with it”. But you can’t argue with a space! What Crampton sees as the virtue of the book I see as its essential failing, which it shares with much post-modern writing: the writer doesn’t appear to hold any opinion that you can argue with. As Bower rightly says: “only Coetzee can know what he means by it”. You can’t argue with his text; only with other readers of the text. It’s a blank wall with no footholds.

I continue to believe that Disgrace is a most unsuitable book for a school set text. A good teacher like Michael Crampton can probably get kids talking about even the most worthless book. The fact that this one is about rape and violence and harsh treatment of animals, and is set in Salem, near Grahamstown, where he teaches, is enough to set them going. But the literature class shouldn’t be for the students to air their off-the-cuff, immature opinions. As a former literature teacher myself, I know only too well how readily they start looking at you, or up in the air, or out of the window, when expressing opinions about their setwork, instead of at the book itself. My response has always been “Look at the PAGE. Read the WORDS. It’s the LANGUAGE you have to pay attention to”. But the language of Disgrace is nondescript. What is there to pay attention to?

The literature class is for paying attention to what great writers have had to say and particularly to the language in which they said it. Which comes to the same thing. You can’t separate form and meaning. It makes no sense to suggest there’s some brilliant meaning in Coetzee’s work when the actual language is mediocre and unrewarding. The meaning doesn’t lurk somewhere ‘behind’ the words. If we believe that, then we must believe that only privileged persons have access to it, which leaves us at the mercy of ‘intellectual pretension masquerading as privileged knowledge’, as Bower puts it. This form/meaning split is typical of an age that has ceased to value language. The language no longer matters: we can just guess at what’s ‘behind it’, and the best guessers will be those with the highest academic status.

An example of this kind of guessing instead of reading comes up in Crampton’s article, which you refer to: “They obviously struggle with literary questions, and instead focus on the central character, David Lurie, as if he were a real person whose morals they are called upon to adjudicate. They are asked, in the old EM Forster formulation, whether Lurie is a ‘flat’ or a ‘round’ character. One pupil condemns him as ‘flat’ because he is ‘stubborn, arrogant and self-serving’, going on to describe him, as does another pupil, in terms that indicate clearly that he must in fact be a pretty ‘round’ character ñ or there would not be so much to say about him. He would not have elicited such a complex response”.

There’s a failure of logic here. The point is not whether WE can round off the character; it’s whether the AUTHOR has done so. In other words, how long a list of qualities and behaviours can we compile from the novel itself to support the claim of ‘roundness’? Not a very long one in the case of Lurie, I suspect. And a complex, rounded character in literature should produce an emotional response in the reader. My response to Lurie was that I couldn’t care less about him one way or another. (A personal response of course. If I had the book here I’d quote from it, but I gave my copy away. I keep on my shelf only the books I want to read over and over.)

You say: “For the mass media in this country, Coetzee is, like Lurie, a screen on to which to project their own concerns and needs”. That’s exactly the problem. He’s made his public persona as empty and blank as his writing. The logical conclusion is that neither he nor his books matter much at all.

To conclude, I want to repeat: it’s the LANGUAGE that matters. If the language isn’t special and different in some way then it’s not literature. It may be a clever literary trick to deliberately write in a nondescript fashion, but it’s ultimately a self-defeating one. As Bower says, “it represents the defeat of the human spirit”.

(From a personal e-mail communication from Bower: “Coetzee supporters might say that a book like Disgrace is about the defeat of the human spirit…but I say no, if this were the case it would be legitimate ñ it instead it represents the defeat of the human spirit”.)

SdW:

Thanks very much for this. The point about criticism being a justification of personal taste is important. Of course it’s always a subjective judgement, but there is a common critical language (yes, it’s about the language!) that we can use to make our case in a number of different ways, and that’s what is there to be argued with. I can’t adjudicate your taste, but I can find your argument for the aptness of that taste weak or strong.

I would, though, disagree with you and Bower on the issue of Coetzee’s language. I don’t think the bits Bower quotes are useful in deciding that Coetzee is a good or bad writer (on the level of prose alone). I think you’d need much more than that ñ a sense of whether his overall design in Disgrace, say, works, etc. Perhaps it is just a matter of taste ñ whatever my after-reactions (needing the sorbet, as it were, of another writer) to Disgrace, for one, I found it riveting. And I found the cold, hard, precision of the prose, eschewing almost all ornament, very good to read, in the way a long walk up a chilly mountainside may be invigorating. By the same token, there are countless other writers who are deemed to ‘write well’ (just on the level of prose) whom I can’t read because it all sounds like someone else already said/wrote it. Coetzee, for me, has a unique tone that is, in my view, a sign of a great writer.

And to ‘write well’ is not just a matter of prose - a writer such as Iris Murdoch, for instance, can be very clumsy as a prose stylist, while still maintaining an unstoppable narrative momentum. Other writers write very plainly, with no unique tone, as I call it, but still create very readable and interesting artefacts.

DK:

I’ve now read Bower’s article in Scrutiny2 (the full version of his piece in The Sunday Times). He makes his case very clearly, supported by evidence from several of Coetzee’s works. This is more than just a personal response: it’s a serious bit of pedestal-rocking.

I like a lot of what you say, but still want to argue. Allow me one or two further comments, please.

You say: ” I don’t think the bits Bower quotes are useful in deciding that Coetzee is a good or bad writer (on the level of prose alone)”.

Well, quoting any of the text at all is a good start. (I can’t resist pointing out that you haven’t yet quoted a single word from Coetzee’s work, so you’re asking me to take the worth of your opinions on trust.) In the Scrutiny2 article, Bower gives ample evidence for his views, quoting whole paragraphs from several of Coetzee’s works and discussing them at length.

You speak of “the cold, hard, precision of the prose”.

Bower gives many examples of what he considers the imprecision of much of Coetzee’s phraseology. To make a counter-claim it’s up to you now to give some examples you consider precise.

I’m not sure what you mean by ‘on the level of the prose alone’. You mean perhaps ‘at sentence or paragraph level rather than whole chapters or the whole book’? (Bower does in fact address the ‘overall design’, though of another of Coetzee’s works, not Disgrace.) However, although we can’t quote the whole book we can at least quote small bits, which is one way to keep focused.

You say “there is a common critical language (yes, it’s about the language!)”

Well, not exactly about the language, because now you’re talking about the METAlanguage. That’s something different. Does a specialist terminology make our views more objective, or at least more valid, worth taking notice of? A shared, clearly defined critical vocabulary is a useful tool. It can save us from talking at cross-purposes. It can make it easier for us to compare texts, talk more clearly and explicitly, make better sense to each other. But on the downside it can also distract from what should be our primary focus, to which we must keep returning time and again to ground our argument: the language of the work under discussion. And it can become not so much a tool as a badge of membership of an elite, a way to sound authoritative.

You say: “Coetzee, for me, has a unique tone that is, in my view, a sign of a great writer.”

He’s unique, all right, but I don’t think that proves he’s great. A writer can also be uniquely dreadful! And I don’t know what you mean by ‘unique tone’ until you show me some examples.

You say: “And to ‘write well’ is not just a matter of prose—a writer such as Iris Murdoch, for instance, can be very clumsy as a prose stylist, while still maintaining an unstoppable narrative momentum. Other writers write very plainly, with no unique tone, as I call it, but still create very readable and interesting artefacts.”

I know what you mean, and would be prepared to be convinced should you show me some bits.

Just a little more about the ‘common critical language’, which is important, of course. If you are arguing with another person who is interested in literature, will you both understand exactly what you mean by ‘tone’ or will you be talking at cross-purposes? I remember being asked at school to write about Sense, Intention, Feeling and Tone, and not being at all sure what Tone was or how it differed from Feeling. Lit crit vocabulary isn’t always a great help. Crampton uses the terms ‘flat’ and ‘round’ for the characters, as you point out. Those terms can be reasonably precise and helpful.

Just for fun I’ve hunted for examples of ‘common critical language’ in your crit. Some I think I recognize as typical of post-modern metalanguage:

a fictional nexus

this is indeed ‘hard’ to articulate (the quote marks are symptomatic)

an ‘alienated patter’

an alienated voice on the radio

adduced as the real matter behind his work.

a sort of fictional space

its own kind of autonomy

supremely modernist godlike gesture of self-erasure

the texture of the books

embedded in the very role of author

And the following bit suggests the metalanguage of semiotics, linguistic theory ...?

You write: “Bower sees language as purely connective, as a transparent window on experience and the world. He does not wonder whether Coetzee may, in fact, be contesting this naturalistic view, to ask whether language doesn’t mystify as much as it clarifies, to propose that language has its own power games. Maybe we, like Coetzee’s characters, are more constructed by language and discourse than we like to think.”

(This is the only bit of your crit, incidentally, that I think is unfair. I couldn’t find any suggestion that Bower takes that view of language.)

Perhaps we should give as much critical thought to our metalanguage as we do to the language of the texts we critique. Is it sufficiently precise and effective for our purposes? You’re right in a sense that ‘what is there to be argued with’ is the other person’s case posed in terms we recognise.

SdW:

Let me address a general point you make below, and make a couple of other comments—I’ll interpolate them into what you say below, not in an attempt to ‘fracture’ your text, but dialogically.

[DK] (can’t resist pointing out that you haven’t yet quoted a single word from Coetzee’s work, so you’re asking me to take the worth of your opinions on trust.)

You are right; I’ve quoted nothing. The space originally provided for the piece (the longer version that then went on to the Net) was restricted; then the piece as it went into the paper was cut even more. I’d've liked the space to quote, but wasn’t given it. May do so if we continue this discussion on the Net.

[DK] now you’re talking about the METAlanguage. That’s something different.

A metalanguage, yes, but also a rhetorical performance. Criticism, in my view, is as much a rhetorical performance (and a less self-concealing one) than the ‘primary’ fictional text. A specialist terminology grows out of the specialist needs of any particular ‘discursive formation’ (you see my symptomatic quotation marks) ñ in my case, obviously drawing on so-called post-structuralist discourse.

I’d also go so far as to say that in a way we’re always talking at cross-purposes, but that part of the necessity of dialogue is to work through that and even if we don’t agree come to some common understanding of what we’re talking about and what the other is saying. To my mind, there is an irreducible degree of ‘misprision’ (as Harold Bloom calls it) involved, but that’s part of the exciting business of producing (swimming in the stream of) discourse.

[DK] You say: ‘Coetzee, for me, has a unique tone that is, in my view, a sign of a great writer.’ I don’t know what you mean by ‘unique tone’

You have a point; again, hard to discuss without extensive quotation. And, yes, ‘tone’ is as hard to pin down as, perhaps, ‘voice’.

[DK] You say, ‘Iris Murdoch, for instance, can be very clumsy as a prose stylist’—would be prepared to be convinced should you show me some bits.

A difficult business, in a way ñ I can quote many a sentence or paragraph to show that Murdoch can write badly sometimes, but how do I convince you of her narrative momentum, etc, without convincing you to read a whole novel of hers?

[DK] a fictional nexus

this is indeed “hard” to articulate (the quote marks are symptomatic)

an “alienated patter”.

an alienated voice on the radio adduced as the real matter behind his work.

a sort of fictional space

its own kind of autonomy

supremely modernist godlike gesture of self-erasure

the texture of the books

embedded in the very role of author

Yes, all ‘typical’ post-modern, if that word means anything, metalanguage. But also simply language, [words] with diverse histories - one simple example would be the way one can trace the uses of ‘alienation’ from Marx to Sartre and onward. No such term exists purely within its metalanguage, and many get absorbed into a more general discourse. The idea of ‘autonomy’ is not an invention of the post-structuralists; goes back to Leavis et al. Do I get the sense that you have a problem with such specific ‘metalanguages’? With this kind in particular? And we quote because so much of what we say is already a quote.

I’d put what I do in the category of ‘discourse analysis’, in the broad sense - certainly, it is informed, deeply, by Foucault’s sense of how discourse works.

[DK] (This is the only bit of your crit, incidentally, that I think is unfair. I couldn’t find any suggestion that Bower takes that view of language.)

He wants JMC’s characters to be more than linguistic constructs, to be ‘real’ in some way, to answer to his ‘experience’. Is this not an appeal to authenticity in some way? Which is appropriate only in a realist fiction. He attacks Coetzee for not being a realist, in a way; he doesn’t consider what the effect is if you don’t read Coetzee as a realist. And with the realist view of fiction comes the naturalist view of language. I said, I think, that in fact I’m of the view that, fictional or not, we are all, in important ways, “linguistic constructs”.

[DK] Perhaps we should give as much critical thought to our metalanguage as we do to the language of the texts we critique. Is it sufficiently precise and effective for our purposes?

We should; but sometimes it’s not. Sometimes one is groping toward something. I’m not enough of a positivist to believe that that groping is meaningless until we’ve grasped what we’re groping for. Let me say, though, that I am a little wary of claims for ‘precision’ as necessarily a virtue in its own right. It’s a fetishization of certain scientific claims that are often dodgy; frequently, what’s claimed as precise in a particular would-be-scientific way appears, a while later, to in fact be very fuzzy. Language is always escaping from the bonds we try to put on it.

DK:

A few further comments on your comments:

[SdW] Criticism, in my view, is as much a rhetorical performance

Well, I agree with the ‘rhetoric’ bit, because rhetoric is using language to persuade, and of course when we write a critique we want others to think we’re right. But ‘performance’? That doesn’t feel right to me. I believe the critic’s primary duty is to illuminate the work, not him/herself.

[SdW] I’d also go so far as to say that in a way we’re always talking at cross-purposes, I think it was Popper who said one of the things that distinguishes scientists from non-scientists is that they try not to talk at cross-purposes. One of the ways they do this is by ensuring that they define their terms carefully and don’t use them to mean anything they like. Critics are not scientists, but they should try to emulate scientists in this regard. If we talk about ‘tone’, for example, we must have a clear, mutually agreed definition of what we mean. Otherwise what’s the point?

[SdW] how do I convince you of her narrative momentum, etc, without convincing you to read a whole novel of hers?

That is a problem, but not an insuperable one. It would take a bit of work explaining what the ‘narrative momentum’ consists of, but it could be done by referring to specifics of the structure of one of her novels. I haven’t read Coetzee’s The Age of Iron, but Colin Bower has done a pretty good job of convincing me, with quotations, that its structure is flawed (“The book lurches unsuccessfully between epistolary and narrative.”). I could now read it and see whether I agree. The technical terms ‘epistolary’ and ‘narrative’ are pretty specific.

[SdW] No such term exists purely within its metalanguage, and many get absorbed into a more general discourse.

Well, a lot of the technical terms we use are not new words but commonsense terms used with a specialist meaning. (The fact that specialist terms get used erroneously in commonsense discourse needn’t concern us.) If we are specialists we should be careful to ensure that we’re not using our metalanguage loosely and carelessly. If I was talking to a fellow grammarian he/she would know exactly what I mean. Do literary critics understand each other clearly when they use the term ‘alienation’? Do they pause to say “Hang on, do you mean that in the Marxist or the Sartrean sense?” If they don’t, then they should, because otherwise the metalanguage isn’t much use other than for posturing.

[SdW] Do I get the sense that you have a problem with such specific ‘metalanguages’?

No, not at all. I respect them. How else can we talk sense about language?

[SdW] With this kind in particular?

Pomospeak? Yes, a bit, because it seems to me to deliberately muddy the waters, whereas my preference is to filter out the mud and get the water as clear as possible. I understand the inevitability of some fuzziness, but I don’t like vagueness. Just because precision is not always entirely attainable doesn’t mean we must give it up altogether.

[SdW] And we quote because so much of what we say is already a quote.

Pardon? I’m not aware of quoting anyone, unless I do it deliberately. (Well, I know more or less what you mean, but that’s one of those post-modern slippery slides I don’t like. Ends in plagiarism being excused as ‘intertextuality’.)

[SdW] he doesn’t consider what the effect is if you don’t read Coetzee as a realist.

Okay, then how do you read him? For example, Bower quotes and comments on a number of extremely repellent graphically detailed descriptions of dysfunctional sex in Coetzee’s works. If not intended to be realistic (and Bower points out that Coetzee’s word choice is particularly careful in these scenes, whereas elsewhere it is often rather careless) then what are these scenes for? How should I read them?

SdW:

[DK] You say, ‘Criticism, in my view, is as much a rhetorical performance’.

Well, I agree with the ‘rhetoric’ bit, because rhetoric is using language to persuade, and of course when we write a critique we want others to think we’re right. But ‘performance’? That doesn’t feel right to me. I believe the critic’s primary duty is to illuminate the work, not him/herself.

I think both have to happen at the same time; if we don’t know where the critic is ‘coming from’ the analysis is compromised. It’s necessary, in my view, for any writer to embed in his/her work a sense of his/her positions. This is just basic honesty, and avoiding ideological manipulativeness. Nail your colours to the fence, as they say.

[DK] one of the things that distinguishes scientists from non-scientists is that they try not to talk at cross-purposes. … we must have a clear, mutually agreed definition of what we mean.

There will also be, always, argument about what those ‘mutually agreed’ definitions mean. I don’t think language as a signifying system is stable enough to achieve perfect harmony of definition. As soon as one nails something down, it starts to slip away. A single name or noun can contain a whole lot of meanings ñ the old denotative/connotative thing. And meaning is provided by the system within which a word or term operates, not by any supersystem that allocates and then stabilizes meaning. And the system itself is unstable. The rules keep changing, a process generated by internal and external forces.

[DK] Colin Bower has done a pretty good job of convincing me, with quotations, that its structure is flawed.

Yes. But whatever Bower demonstrates, he can’t replace his experience of reading a text with mine. He can only convince me of the fact that his experience is valid for him. But part of what we’re doing here, and what we do all the time in all our dialogues, with everyone, is try to convince others of the truth of our experience - that’s how we create communal meanings, ways of understanding each other. Coetzee’s way of putting this is to talk about ‘empathy’. This is what David Lurie is groping towards, perhaps achieving, at the end of Disgrace.

[DK] If we are specialists we should be careful to ensure that we’re not using our metalanguage loosely and carelessly.

This is right; note, though, that ‘speaking to a fellow grammarian’ means two people participating in a single system with its own internal rules etc, by which you are both abiding. (You’re both playing in the same key, as it were.) The odd area of journalism crossing over with academic criticism, in which I find myself, is harder to deal with in that one is at a strange kind of crossroads in which different discourses mix. (We are playing together, as it were, like two musicians, without being entirely sure what key we’re in ñ the playing itself is an attempt to work out if we’re in the same key, and what that key might be.)

Nonetheless, I’d say that the ‘ideal speech situation’ (Habermas), notionally that of the two grammarians speaking the same language above, is exactly that - ideal. In reality, it seldom happens, just like no pure movement of forces does in physics. In fields like lit crit, which by their nature borrow from all over, I think it’s legitimate to use a word like ‘alienation’ and let its precise meaning float - let the Marxist and Sartrean senses, say, hover in the background. This is the use of connotation, which no language can avoid. Also an area traditional linguistics, as I understand it, has found it very hard to deal with.

[DK] Just because precision is not always entirely attainable doesn’t mean we must give it up altogether.

See comment about playing in key, above. I think it’s seldom that we’re all playing in an already-agreed key. Like free-jazzers, we play to discover what key we’re in.

[DK] one of those post-modern slippery slides I don’t like. Ends in plagiarism being excused as ‘intertextuality’

I certainly wouldn’t go that far; intertextuality is something else, the way texts speak to one another, not simply the author’s appropriation and incorporation of bits of others’ texts. That, in a sense, is a refusal to allow a text to speak to another - it’s silencing it by pretending it is one’s own.

I’d say also that one ‘quotes’ because certain terms are still up for grabs in terms of what precisely they mean ñ another instance of meaning instability. Meaning is a consensual allocation, as it were, so we’re always fighting it out, and it keeps changing. So we put quotes around things that we have agreed we don’t fully agree on the meanings of.

[DK] You ask ’ what the effect is if you don’t read Coetzee as a realist’.

Okay, then how do you read him?

Now this is a very big question, and one would need to go back into all the debates about what realism is and isn’t. Very broadly, though, one can say that classic realism has as its stated project the accurate (and meaning-producing) representation of a real world ‘outside’ the text. But many a theoretician and lit critic (Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, et al) have shown how this operates - the ‘realism effect’ is something produced by a particular kind of text following the rules of a particular kind of discourse.

It’s the ‘window’ thing again ñ is the text a transparent surface through which we glimpse an external truth? No, it isn’t. It is in fact a trompe l’oeil painting, as it were, of something apparently standing beyond it. What ‘truth’ it contains is produced by the text itself rather than what lies ‘beyond’. This is a fundamental Derridean principle that I accept.

In terms of Coetzee, you could argue that he is not, primarily, trying to produce an accurate portrait of a world, though that may be in some ways an effect of the text. For him, I think, in the post-Derridean way, a fictional text is in fact a hypothetical space in which the writer can ask ‘what if’ questions. Thus the characters are not representations of real people but constellations of ideas; the story is not an account of real events but an attempt to deal with the ramifications of all the ‘what if’ questions set in motion - narrative as well as ‘moral’ questions.

We don’t ask of fairytales that they be realistic. But we can ask what their shapes and movements say about us and our worlds. That is the real question.

“Stories are defined by their irresponsibility ... The feel of writing fiction is one of freedom, of irresponsibility, or, better, of responsibility toward something that has not yet emerged, that lies somewhere at the end of the road.” - Coetzee, Doubling the Point

DK:

You say, ” There will also be, always, argument about what those ‘mutually agreed’ definitions mean. I don’t think language as a signifying system is stable enough to achieve perfect harmony of definition. As soon as one nails something down, it starts to slip away.”

The problem I see with your position is that you are leaning too far in the direction of the ‘language is slippery’ position. Language is also remarkably stable, otherwise it just wouldn’t work. So what we need is a balance: an insistence on precision while at the same time recognizing and making allowance for mutability and fuzziness. TS Eliot recognizes both:

...Words strain,

Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,

Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

Will not stay still.

(Burnt Norton)

... And every phrase

And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,

Taking its place to support the others,

The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,

An easy commerce of the old and the new,

The common word exact without vulgarity,

The formal word precise but not pedantic,

The complete consort dancing together)

(Little Gidding)

You say, ” And meaning is provided by the system within which a word or term operates, not by any supersystem that allocates and then stabilizes meaning.”

No, there I think you’re wrong. There are forces that work to stabilize meaning, and without these language goes adrift, becomes meaningless, loses its value. That’s my unhappiness with post-structuralism: it leans too far to the one side; it doesn’t give a balanced picture of language. And it’s dangerous. It suggests that because it’s hard to be precise we shouldn’t try; we should just wallow in imprecision.

You say, “And the system itself is unstable. The rules keep changing, a process generated by internal and external forces.”

Again, it’s important to recognize that it’s also stable. The lexis is pretty changeable, but the grammar is remarkably stable.

You quote Coetzee: “Stories are defined by their irresponsibility ... The feel of writing fiction is one of freedom, of irresponsibility, or, better, of responsibility toward something that has not yet emerged, that lies somewhere at the end of the road.”

Yes, well, Michael Crampton (in his English Academy Review article) quotes a similar sentiment of Coetzee’s, to the effect that writing (presumably he means writing that is worth anything, or that is to be considered great literature) is not pre-planned, written to a formula: “It is naive to think that writing is a simple two-stage process: first you decide what you want to say, then you say it. On the contrary, as all of us know, you write because you do not know what you want to say” (from an interview in 1999 with the Financial Mail).

One of the strongest criticisms Bower makes of Coetzee is that his writing DOES appear to be pre-planned. (The fact that Coetzee suggests he hasn’t done this cannot be taken as a reliable judgement. Writers can be deluded about their own work.) I’ll quote the relevant piece in full, highlighting in caps the bit I want to focus on.

Bower writes: “It is at this point that my distaste for Coetzee’s work hardens into something else, a sense that it is something more objectionable than just bad art; it seems to me that it is dishonest and fraudulent. A serious writer expresses what to him or her is real ñ real in the sense of lived experience, an authentic testimony to life as it is discovered. Coetzee’s artistic vision is a contrivance, something invented in order to demonstrate what I take to be a personal insistence that life is grotesquely horrible, and having decided so, that this is the life that will be rendered, at any price, so to speak. Instead of artistic exploration, we encounter fixed positions and special pleading, and in my view, dishonesty. …:”

Let me approach my target from a different angle. I would take it as common cause that a writer or an artist has a self-evident obligation to represent the world as he or she finds it, to account for his or her experience honestly. To say this is not to define the total nature of an artistic or an imaginative enterprise. Moreover, I take it as equally self-evident that what one finds to be true is unlikely to be immutably so; this means that AN ARTIST—indeed even a human being who does not claim such a status—WILL BE FORCED TO RE-APPRAISE WHAT HE OR SHE TAKES TO BE TRUE ON A CONTINUOUS BASIS.

The outcome of such an appraisal can by definition never be known beforehand. For these reasons, and perhaps for others in addition, it would seem to be so that a work of the creative imagination comes about by means of an act of original exploration, and that this act of exploration is heuristic, by which I understand that the act of doing is itself part of the process of arriving at the sought after truth …

When therefore I encounter writing of a tired and clichéd nature, the repetition of known effects and meanings, or when characters are devoid of inner, meaningful life, I have no doubt that the writer is marching in the general body of the army rather than riding scout. In essence, therefore, I am not receiving an explored and authentically discovered perception, I am receiving instead what amounts to a re-ordering of known truth. But such a representation can be worse than merely second-hand. A perception arrived at in an exploratory, heuristic manner represents a discovery. Such a discovery cannot serve a preconceived purpose. However, the writer who does know his goal or destination before the commencement of an artistic enterprise, and who writes in order to secure our acquiescence in the value he attaches to that goal or objective, is engaged in an exercise of manipulation.

This, it seems to me, is Coetzee’s procedure. He offers no unique or individually arrived at vision or understanding of horror, or of human failing, or even quite simply of a bleak view of things. He simply gives us the necessary details of plot, character, time and place that nominally add up to horror, failure or bleakness. It is a matter of some amazement to me that he has garnered such an impressive reputation for candour and moral courage in so doing, because to me it is patently obvious that what we are offered is not courageous exploration, but predetermined position-taking ñ in short, posture.”

Bower has given ample evidence from Coetzee’s work to back up his contention. He complains about the tedious repetition from book to book of the same theme: “It was instructive to glance again at Dusklands, and to note the similarities in tone, vocabulary, and characterisation between Eugene Dawn and Age of Iron‘s Mrs Curren, all of 16 years later. How appalling the paralysis is”. And my response to this is: “Yes, there’s a difference between re-exploring a theme and re-hashing it”. Many examples spring to mind, but let’s take Nabokov again, and consider the variety of his oeuvre: Pale Fire, Ada, Lolita, Pnin, Speak, Memory...

Anyway, since I’m using Nabokov as a foil to Coetzee (and wouldn’t it be interesting to know what he would say about Coetzee’s work!) , let me quote a comment of his on what writing is:

“For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm. There are not many such books. All the rest is either topical trash or what some call the Literature of Ideas, which very often is topical trash coming in huge blocks of plaster that are carefully transmitted from age to age until someone comes along with a hammer and takes a good crack at Balzac, at Gorki, at Mann.” (From his commentary on Lolita, 1956)

Also read

Nobel laureate lets his work speak for him (from the Chicago Tribune)

Colin Bower’s original piece on JM Coetzee (from the Sunday Times)

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