JM Coetzee is a wonderful critic: dos and don’ts of classic novel writing

Laura Elkin in The Guardian:

2500A writer of JM Coetzee’s stature needs no preamble, and Late Essays does not offer one, plunging the reader directly into the literary criticism that the novelist has accumulated over the past 11 years. Some are expanded versions of his articles for the New York Review of Books; others are published introductions to works of great literature, from Daniel Defoe’s Roxana to Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

Introductions to classic novels comprise an interesting genre of criticism, with its own formal mechanisms. I don’t mean critical pieces prepared by scholars, but “prestige” essays, written by famous writers with a fondness for the book at hand. Yet is there any form of writing more ripe for reinvention? While they are revealing about the culture in general, such introductions rarely tell us anything worthwhile about the text or the acclaimed author’s work. Coetzee’s essays are different; this book emerges as an engaging series of master classes in novel writing, from which we might distil a selection of dos and don’ts.

First, know why you’re writing. Coetzee tells us that Ford Madox Ford wrote a number of mediocre novels before The Good Soldier, when he was finally able “to plumb the obscure, more personal sources of his urge to write”. The answer may be the question mirrored back to you. According to Coetzee, Samuel Beckett, across books and languages, asks who is writing and “why whoever it is that is writing goes on writing”.

More here.