Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Writing about writing, part 494

My brow was particularly furrowed when I read Scott Esposito, in providing a link to the extract from JM Coetzee's forthcoming novel, saying that he's "a little concerned that it's a book about a writer writing a book". I wondered how many crime fiction blogs worry that PD James' new one will feature a murder, or a horror fiction blog that Stephen King's latest has supernatural elements, or that ... well, supply your own third.

Even the link Scott supplies has The Literary Saloon expressing unease "about the turn the book is described as taking" (that is, the text being in part contributions to a book called "Strong Opinions" - a title, I might point out, used by Nabokov for a non-fiction miscellany). I know literary novels cannot be defined as 'metafiction' alone - a term I barely recognise as every novel refers to itself and the whole of literature at every turn, to and fro; it's just a matter of acknowledgment - but it's a good starting point.

Scott adds that Coetzee's metafiction hasn't thrilled him, which is fair enough, though for me Elizabeth Costello was, in the Paul West section, one of the most thrilling books I have ever read. Slow Man, on the other hand, in which Ms Costello appeared again, left me unmoved. Metafiction seems to be a guarantor of nothing in itself, so there's no need to be concerned over it.

Nor perhaps to be drawn by it. Yet I wonder if I'm the only reader who experiences a frisson at the prospect of book about a writer by such a fine writer as Coetzee? Why should novels consciously avoid a subject by which we're otherwise so fascinated?

10 comments:

  1. Indeed!

    As though a book about a detective solving a murder represents nothing but a detective solving a murder, and nothing at all about the author working out how to solve the mystery of writing of a novel about a detective solving a murder!

    This is less a claim about the limitations of "metafiction," than a special plea for the genre bound reader and critic, who wants a clear window to content, without evidence of refraction, fog, finger prints or digital coding--as though to imagine it possible to contemplate an unmediated view in this medium which is all artifact and mediation.

    Let me qualify that... I don't mean to claim there is nothing but self-referentiality, only that there is no way to get beyond it, but to go through it.

    Jacobrussellsbarkingdog

    ReplyDelete
  2. Maybe the problem is that the NYRB was asking us to read an extract from a novel which is already complex and multi-layered and that gave it an extra distancing effect. I can't wait to read the new novel but I want to read it in its full context. I'm surprised that Coetzee released a fragment in this way. Let's hear it for whole works rather than gobbets.

    ReplyDelete
  3. "I don't mean to claim there is nothing but self-referentiality, only that there is no way to get beyond it, but to go through it."

    I think that that is absolutely right. It isn't some crass judgement like metafiction good / fiction bad; it is to suggest that the best fiction has a self-awareness that is played out in the text itself -- covertly or overtly.

    It is that, somehow, in the writing, we are made privy to the fact that the author saw the writing as a something that first needed some interrogation. That writing had to be negotiated before writing could begin. That all writing is writing about writing even if it doesn't refer to itself as such.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Anonymous2:04 pm

    "That all writing is writing about writing even if it doesn't refer to itself as such."

    Mark: Nail. Head.

    Lee Rourke.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Anonymous4:47 pm

    For beginning writers, writing about the protagonist writing is vehemently discouraged by those trying to protect the beginning writer from him/herself. But this is Coetzee, for crying out loud. I like what marktwaite said: the best fiction has a self-awareness that is played out in the text itself -- covertly or overtly.

    I have added this book to my wish list. Thanks.

    Meg

    ReplyDelete
  6. I guess I should have been clearer -- I'm thrilled by the promise of the "Strong Opinions" part of the book, it's what follows in the description that worries me: "In the laundry-room of his apartment block he encounters an alluring young woman. When he discovers she is 'between jobs' he claims failing eyesight and offers her work typing up his manuscript.
    Anya has no interest in politics but the job provides a distraction, as does the writer's evident and not unwelcome attraction toward her." It's this part that has 'potential-to-be-awful' written all over it, and which I'm worried about.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Anonymous12:20 pm

    This theme is somewhat common in Coetzee, no? Not all secretaries, perhaps, but the idea, you know, of the imbalance of power and the power of sex.

    Meg

    ReplyDelete
  8. Harry Redknapp10:28 pm

    You don't think Coetzee is a miserable auld bastard?

    ReplyDelete
  9. Isn't that why we like him?

    ReplyDelete
  10. You might have a point, Nicholas. One often hears, or sometimes at least, of getting in touch with one's inner child. Maybe there's also a case for getting in touch with one's inner grumpy auld bastard, every now & again.

    ReplyDelete

Contact

Please email me at steve dot mitchelmore at gmail dot com.

Blog Archive

Followers

Contact steve dot mitchelmore at gmail.com. Powered by Blogger.