Coetzee, and suffering in fiction

In the current New York Review of Books, John Lanchester tracks some of the concerns that have increasingly preoccupied J.M. Coetzee since Disgrace, and considers the function the author character, Elizabeth Costello, serves in the latest novel.

When a writer turns up in his own fiction it is often to pose questions about the arbitrariness and artificiality of narrative. That doesn’t seem to be the main focus of Coetzee’s interest here. It is more, perhaps, a question of ethics, touching on the morality of making people up, and then devising trials and torments for them, designed to expose and test their deficiencies. Is there anything of ethical content to be said about the fortunes of these imaginary people? Does making things up have an effect on the maker, and on the reader? At one point in Elizabeth Costello, she speaks of the terrible effects books can have on their writers. (“Certain books are not good to read or to write.”)

This seems to be the concern Coetzee is continuing to investigate in Slow Man, which is a novel about the difficulty of writing novels, and especially about the peculiar sense in which the creatures in novels can be said to exist. A cartoon version of this would be to say that Coetzee has moved from a concern about human beings to a concern about animal beings to a concern about fictional beings. A reader who has followed Coetzee’s books since Disgrace, and followed the thread of ethical inquiry that runs through them, might pose Slow Man’s central question differently: Why should we care about fictional characters when the world is so full of real suffering?


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