Genre, Imagination, and J.M. Coetzee

The announcement that J.M. Coetzee has won the Nobel Prize for Literature is welcome news -- Coetzee is a brilliant, challenging writer, certainly one of the best alive -- and the response to his most recent book, Elizabeth Costello (due to be released in the U.S. October 16), which is sort of a collection of essays disguised as a novel with occasional elements of memoir, shows that the SF field is not the only one challenged and hampered by genre boundaries.

Though, because it hasn't yet been released, I haven't read all of Elizabeth Costello yet, three parts of it have been available for a few years: two chapters of the book The Lives of Animals are included in Elizabeth Costello as well as an essay/story, "What is Realism", part of which has been excerpted by The Guardian. I have read all of these, and look forward to reading the full book.

I thought about the SF world when I read Adam Mars-Jones's review for The Observer of Elizabeth Costello, a review titled, "It's very novel, but is it actually a novel?"

I knew from the title that I would hate the review. It's exactly the sort of question which annoys me most: the attempt to foist a label on something which clearly cannot be labelled.

Coetzee is quite familiar with 18th century literature, literature which acknowledged few genre boundaries. He has even written a book, Foe, which reimagines DeFoe's Robinson Crusoe, a work of fiction originally sold as nonfiction. Hence, Coetzee is not a writer for whom genre boundaries much matter.

Clearly, then, the question in the headline of the Observer review is absurd. No, the book is not a novel in any conventional sense of the term. So what? The question for any reader is, Does this book inspire my imagination, does it raise questions I had not thought of, does it provoke me?

The three chapters of the book that I've read provoke, frustrate, and astound me -- much in the way good contemporary poetry does. I cannot pin them down, they imply more than they state. The problems they raise are not solved, the questions not answered. But they get under your skin if you approach them with an open mind.

Hermione Lee has a far more astute review in The Guardian, a review which engages the ideas of the book without trying to pigeonhole it. We would expect nothing else from the author of the best biography of Virginia Woolf, since Woolf was a writer herself unfettered by boundaries, and the biography quite brilliantly pushes some boundaries itself.

What can the SF field learn from the misunderstandings of Coetzee? Perhaps nothing, except that we are not alone in our struggles against being labelled and stuck in the cross-hairs of the most recent movement of the moment. Writers write, readers read. That is the only law. Let us praise the writers who challenge us and disdain the writers who treat us like small children, easily manipulated, easily fed familiar pap, easily consigned to the shelf of commercial complacency.

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