Category: Coetzee, J.M.

lost my religion


i heard a creative writing workshop horror story the other day. The student had turned in a narrative story in which the protagonist visits a hospital. She goes past the waiting room and turns into a hallway until finding the person she’s visiting. The class savaged it. Where is the hospital? what did the waiting room look like? how many people were in it? what did they look like? And, sure, details are nice. But the critiques missed what this minimalist story was doing. Is it the piece really better off with “Kelly heaved the revolving door of Bethlehem Royal, trudging through the waiting room with guady lavender sconces and past a man with dark medium-length hair, clearly trying to conceal his agitation from a female vibrator lodged deep in his rectum,” or is this minimalist piece doing something different that the class was not willing to engage with? I mean, maybe she just wanted Kelly (dont know the character’s real name) to get to that one hospital room; is that so wrong?

the number one criticism my work gets in the mfa program is: “Think about your reader more.” But like, i dont know the reader. this is main philosophical disagreement i have with the workshop ethos. We can’t have this kind of stripped down minimalism — details details! show dont tell! — but not too many details, then it’s verbose and masturbatory, like David Foster Wallace. Consider the reader’s patience, accommodate the reader, behave yourself in front of the reader. Reader as police.

im told Coetzee’s THE CHILDHOOD OF JESUS got awful reviews. they quipped that he’d gotten “tired” and complacent after winning the Nobel, “too lazy” to write a novel the right way. True, this is some carved down prose, even for him. It’s consumed with dialog, the sentences are simple. But of course if things arent conventional, the reviewers have licence to saunter past everything the novel’s actually doing.


in praise of barbarians


[CN: incarceration, torture]

Most of the really excellent novels ive read in the past few years i want to reread, in like a few years’ time. But WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS is one id like to reread right away, but im too damn busy. Much of it is strange and puzzle like. Why does the Magistrate narrate in first person present tense? People always say present tense has more “immediacy,” or that it brings us closer to the action than past tense. ive never seen it that way. Present tense is weird and artificial, as if the story is outside historical time, which might tempt the allegorical/thematic reading. im told this book is what put J.M. Coetzee on the map, and it came out after the murder of Steve Biko. There’s absolutely a referential aspect to the novel, but finding some kind of allegorical 1 to 1 correspondence at the risk of jettisoning the book’s actual material is high school business. The prose is so rich and immediate in details — and what are you supposed to make of all the dreams, which are all really creepy? The Magistrate at one points drops the world “allegory.” We have to recognize that there are things more subtle and elusive behind that type of reading going on here.