Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Book review: On JM Coetzee, Ceridwen Dovey (2018)

This book is mercifully short but it still seemed to me to be flabby and self-important. In reality it’s a memoir of the writer’s own mother, who wrote a monograph on the Nobel-prize winning author JM Coetzee in the 1980s. Dovey makes much of her mother’s interest in the South African writer but unfortunately  none of her mother’s original ideas about Coetzee’s work have survived the writing process.

I felt as though the publishers had assembled a checklist of talking points to accompany this book. You can imagine them ticking them off one by one as they assess the book’s suitability for a supine and unimaginative market: “Postmodernism!” Tick. “Postcolonial theory!” Tick. “Feminism!” Tick. One by one the main points are rounded off like the facile quotes that famous authors give hopeful marketers who want to ensure strong sales for the latest piece of insipid fakery they are packaging for the trade market.

The only interesting thing in the book is where Coetzee tells Dovey’s mother, in a letter, that postmodernism had been “done” a long time ago by Cervantes and Sterne. Occasional insights like this one are a tonic in the routine flow of the narrative, which was in general of the same standard as the blurbs written by staff at publishing houses, trying to entice consumers in Australia’s tiny market to chance a few dollars on some new work of fiction that is self-reflexive or that has metafictional aspects.

The fact that Coetzee’s most recent work is not up to scratch will not have occurred to Dovey, for whom every syllable that escapes from the master’s word processing program is a source of childlike wonderment. This is the problem with prizes like the Nobel. I don’t unthinkingly share Dovey’s enthusiasm, and certainly would never aspire to write anything as predictable and lacking in real merit as this book. I had my favourite authors when I was a young man, so I can understand the sentiments that this book retails in, but I think that anyone with a modicum of good sense would have understood that this work is just not up to scratch. Its editors should have known better than to cynically fleece the public by giving them second-rate thinking on a name author.

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