The Outlaw Novelist as Literary Critic

Benjamin Ogden in the New York Times:

14Ogden-superJumboIn a 2010 letter to his friend and fellow novelist Paul Auster, J. M. Coetzee made a remark that would not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with his work: “I must say that I get impatient with fiction that doesn’t try something that hasn’t been tried before, preferably with the medium itself.” Coetzee has long believed that art is superior to sport because the artist gets to make up the rules of the game as he goes along, while the sportsman must stick to the rules agreed upon by others. The writer who reinvents the rules of the genre in which he writes is an outlaw — a dangerous, romantic, if marginalized figure of mysterious intentions — while a writer who writes as he is expected to is under the control of the artistic circumstances into which he was born. Coetzee has been an outlaw novelist since 1973, when “Dusklands,” a pair of genre-defying novellas that helped introduce elements of postmodernism to South African writing, was first published. His experiments with what can be done with the novel form have continued for more than 40 years, most eccentrically in “Foe,”Elizabeth Costello” and “Diary of a Bad Year,” most ingeniously in “Life and Times of Michael K,” “Disgrace” and “The Childhood of Jesus.”

“Late Essays: 2006-2017” brings together most of the literary criticism Coetzee has written during the last 11 years. Of the 23 essays that make up the book, nine (most notably a brilliant discussion of Philip Roth’s “Nemesis”) first appeared in some version in The New York Review of Books. Nine others are introductions to books Coetzee has chosen for his Biblioteca Personal, or personal library, a collection of 12 books (one an anthology of world poetry) issued in Spanish translation by the Argentine press El Hilo de Ariadna. Coetzee has explained that he selected for this personal library works that “played a part, major or minor, in my own formation as a writer.”

More here.