'How can you be a great writer if you are just an ordinary little man?' asks a character in JM Coetzee's new book Summertime. This unsparing, autobiographical novel continues the intimate conversation the Nobel laureate has been having with a series of alter-egos in his work. James Meek listens in.
At some point during the past couple of years, an eminent South African writer now living in Australia wrote this dismissive appraisal of John Maxwell Coetzee's œuvre: "In general, I would say that his work lacks ambition. The control of the elements is too tight. Nowhere do you get a feeling of a writer deforming his medium in order to say what has never been said before, which is to me the mark of great writing. Too cool, too neat, I would say. Too easy. Too lacking in passion."
Even when a writer has achieved international fame and won the biggest trophies - the Nobel and two Booker prizes, in Coetzee's case - a bad review can't be easy to stomach. Harder if it is not just your book that is criticised, but the premise on which you have built your life: namely, that you can, must and should write. Worse still, if the reviewer impugns your character along with your novels.
It sounds hurtful, and perhaps it is, although the novelist who wrote it was JM Coetzee. The bad meta-review of Coetzee comes out of the mouth of one of the characters in Coetzee's new book, Summertime, which is about Coetzee. Summertime is full of harsh reviews of Coetzee by Coetzee, of Coetzee the writer and Coetzee the man.
The critics are four women, all once loved by "John Coetzee", the Coetzee character, three of them loving him back, in different ways. Another says: "... to my mind, a talent for words is not enough if you want to be a great writer. You have also to be a great man. And he was not a great man. He was a little man, an unimportant little man ... How can you be a great writer if you are just an ordinary little man?"
- James Meek, Guardian.co.uk
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