Serious Fiction

J.M. Coetzee and the Stakes of Literature

by Duncan McColl Chesney (Author)
©2016 Monographs 216 Pages


Serious Fiction explores the novels of J.M. Coetzee, in dialogue with key works of the European literary tradition and several contemporary masterworks of world literature, in order to flesh out an ethico-aesthetic ideal for the contemporary novel. «Serious» refers back to the Aristotelian definition of tragedy to revive a certain communal, political-ethical task of the artwork; «fiction,» also referring back to Aristotle and the subsequent poetic tradition, stresses the element of play in the artwork in contrast to the seriousness of the world of daily survival, business, and life. Following post-Enlightenment thinkers from Schiller and Arnold to Leavis and Auerbach, as well as more contemporary literary theorists, the argument maintains a delicate balance between seriousness as a sort moral criterion of literary assessment and playfulness as a necessary stage in the creation of any artwork, adding the formal and epistemological obligations of the realist novel as the dominant literary genre of the long nineteenth century. Coetzee is presented as a contemporary model of serious fiction writing, balancing elements of realism and play/imagination, tragedy and the prosaic, aesthetic semi-autonomy and ethical responsibility. Major works by Coetzee are discussed – Waiting for the Barbarian, Life & Times of Michael K., Disgrace, Diary of a Bad Year – as well as other of his works, fictional and non-fictional, along with important traditional and contemporary works by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Joyce, Kakfa, and Beckett as well as Imre Kertész, W.G. Sebald, Eimear McBride, Cormac McCarthy, Jiang Rong, and others.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Abbreviations
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Models: Coetzee and the (Late) Modernist Legacy of Kafka and Beckett
  • 3. Form: Generic Hybridity and the Claims of Fiction
  • 4. Foucault, Coetzee, and the Power of Fiction
  • 5. Humans Among the Other Animals: Planetarity, Responsibility, and Fiction in Disgrace and Wolf Totem
  • 6. On the Road: The Childhood of Jesus and The Road
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Index
  • Series index

← vi | vii →



The research for this project, and the conference travel for the initial airing of the work, was supported by the National Science Council of Taiwan and subsequently by a Taiwan Ministry of Science and Technology grant. I am very grateful for this funding, which has allowed me to look into Coetzee’s papers in Texas and to discuss his work with many scholars and artists, both established and up-and-coming, in Africa, Europe, North America, and Asia west and east. I had a particularly fertile sojourn at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin—simply a model of how best to run a research library, from their incredible holdings through their efficient and open system and all the way to the friendly and knowledgeable staff. I was also very hospitably hosted by Carrol Clarkson and the Coetzee Collective at the University of Cape Town. My thinking about Coetzee and about serious fiction has benefitted from discussion in Poland with Patrick Hayes and Piotr Jakubowski as well as David Attridge, Bożena Kucała, and Robert Kusek. In Japan I received helpful comments on linking Beckett and Coetzee from Andy Fitzsimons, Joseph O’Leary, and David Burleigh. My graduate students here at National Taiwan University have played an important role in helping me develop the concept of serious fiction, generally in my 2013 seminar on the topic, and more specifically through the tutorials and the thesis work on Coetzee with Alice Shih and Celia Ian. Thanks for all your efforts! I am also indebted ← vii | viii → to my colleagues here at NTU, notably Guy Beauregard, Chi-she Li, and Tien-yi Chao for feedback about my developing work. Finally I want to thank my long-term intellectual partners Marco Roth, Maya Jasanoff, and Steven Bourke for discussion, encouragement, and useful criticism at various stages of the project.

Early versions of some of the following chapters have appeared in article form, and I thank the following journals for permission to reprint. Some material in the introductory chapter appeared in the Tamkang Review. An earlier version of part of chapter two appeared in the Journal of Irish Studies 24 (2104): 32–41, and is reprinted here by permission. Different material for chapter two appeared in Travelling Texts: JM Coetzee and Other Writers, eds. Bożena Kucała and Robert Kusek (Frankfurt-am-Main: Peter Lang, 2014, 147–162). Finally, a shorter version of chapter five appeared in Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies 40.2 (2014), 175–201.

← viii | ix →



Adorno, Theodor W. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. and ed. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997. [AT]

———. Minima Moralia. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. London: Verso, 1978. [MM]

———. Negative Dialectics. Trans. E.B. Ashton. New York: Continuum, 1973. [ND]

———. Notes to Literature. Vol 1. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen. New York: Columbia UP, 1991. [NL1]

———. Notes to Literature. Vol 2. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen. New York: Columbia UP, 1992. [NL2]

Coetzee, J.M. Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews. Ed. David Attwell. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992. [DP]

———. Elizabeth Costello. London: Vintage, 2003. [EC]

———. Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996. [GO]

———. Waiting for the Barbarians. New York: Penguin, 1982. [WB] ← ix | x →

← x | 1 →




What can, without stirring up the musty odors of idealism, justly be called serious in art is the pathos of an objectivity that confronts the individual with what is more than and other than the individual in its historically imperative insufficiency. The risk taken by artworks participates in their seriousness; it is the image of death in their own sphere. This seriousness is relativized, however, in that aesthetic autonomy remains external to suffering, of which the work is an image and from which the work draws its seriousness. The artwork is not only the echo of suffering, it diminishes it: form, the instrument [Organon] of its seriousness, is at the same time the instrument of the neutralization of suffering. Art thereby falls into an unsolvable aporia. The demand for complete responsibility on the part of artworks increases the burden of guilt; therefore this demand is to be set in counterpoint with the antithetical demand for irresponsibility. The latter is reminiscent of the element of play, without which there is no more possibility of art than of theory. As play, art seeks to absolve itself of the guilt of its semblance. Art is in any case irresponsible as delusion [Verblendung], as spleen, but without it [ihn = Spiel, play] there is no art whatsoever. The art of absolute responsibility terminates in sterility, whose breath can be felt on almost all consistently developed artworks; [but] absolute irresponsibility degrades art to fun; [yet] a synthesis of responsibility and irresponsibility is precluded by the concept itself.

—T.W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory [GS VII, 64; AT, trans. Hullot-Kentor, 38–9; translation modified] ← 1 | 2 →

This book approaches J. M. Coetzee’s literary work as a project of serious fiction. The term, if not exactly the deliberate ethico-aesthetic program I designate by it, comes from Coetzee himself. “Seriousness,” he writes in an article on Catherine MacKinnon and the “Harms of Pornography,” “is, for a certain kind of artist, an imperative uniting the aesthetic and the ethical”.2 Very basically the aesthetic, as I will explain, involves the most uncompromising devotion to formal construction and style—words—and is removed, by virtue of more or less beautiful semblance and more or less serious play, from everyday concerns and endeavors. The ethical involves a responsibility to the world of suffering. Because the artwork is caught in the semi-autonomous world of the aesthetic, its serious address of the ethical cannot be simply thematic, political, propagandistic, or what have you.3 Any ethical commitment is mediated through advanced aesthetic technique. My description of serious fiction may already sound somewhat familiar: it is based on Theodor W. Adorno’s conception of the (modernist) artwork. I understand Coetzee to take up a model of artistic vocation inherited from certain European modernists (above all Kafka and Beckett), and—despite his occasional exploration of post-modern self-reflectiveness (Foe, Master of Petersburg) and his—to me—more compelling blurring of the boundaries of novelistic discourse in the Elizabeth Costello works and the Diary of a Bad Year—he pursues this European inheritance to very rigorous ends. While according to Adorno politically significant art must encode “correct consciousness” (which he defines as “the most progressive consciousness of [social and other] antagonisms on the horizon of their possible reconciliation” [AT 191]), for the serious artist this consciousness is, to repeat, always artistically mediated, never straightforwardly political.4 On the other hand, pure detachment from society and engagement in formal concerns is not sufficient for the “true” artwork.5 The work must engage the world in the first instance in autonomous, formal concerns, but these concerns themselves have a negative and mimetic relation to the contemporary world as well. As Adorno argues, “artworks exercise a practical effect, if they do so at all, not by haranguing but by the scarcely apprehensible transformation of consciousness” (AT 243), by staging contradictions in the hopes of an “irruption of objectivity into subjective consciousness” (245) and opening on to a utopian hope of their reconciliation.6

My sense is that the contemporary cultural dominant, the post-modern (that is, alongside unchallenging variations on the old-fashioned nineteenth-century realist tradition still very much operative in what James Wood calls “commercial realism” [How Fiction Works 230], as well as other residual and emergent forms [cute, zany, twee; the “metamodern,” and so forth]), is definable precisely by a turn away from this negative critical force of the artwork, accentuating other ← 2 | 3 → aspects of the modernist work: self-reflexivity, pastiche, play, paradox, and the like. At the same time many politically motivated, earnest works continue to be produced which to my mind fall short of the aesthetic standards established by the literary and artistic traditions they cannot help but respond to, however indirectly, by offering themselves as artworks or literature, in particular forms or genres. Against these two trends, modernist and late-modernist works—and this alone is what I mean by insisting on calling them that7—engage perhaps in the ludic, the aesthetic, and, what—the auto-affective, always in critical dialogue with tradition—but also always with an eye to the extra-literary world, a world for Adorno, for Beckett, and for Coetzee characterized primarily (though of course not exclusively) by suffering, injustice, and wrong.8 The work that denies this or ignores it is…well I won’t say no art at all, but simply: not serious.


“Seriousness”—a critically underdeveloped but constant value in the Western artistic tradition—was a key moral-aesthetic term for Matthew Arnold, for example in “The Study of Poetry” (1879) and, as noted there, it dates as far back as the famous claim by Aristotle in Poetics, chapter 9, that the superiority of poetry over history consists in the former’s possessing a higher truth and a higher seriousness than the latter (dio kai philosophōteron kai spoudaioteron poiēsis historias estin) [1451b5–6]. In referring to this insight (“Study of Poetry” 21), Arnold follows, among others, Sir Philip Sidney who in “The Defense of Poesy” (lines 471–496) cites the same passage to similar effect (pp. 223–24),9 although it should be noted that this crucial characteristic in Aristotle’s definition is often neglected in canonical and contemporary studies of tragic drama, to say nothing of literature or art more generally.

For Arnold, truth and seriousness are wedded to superior “diction and movement” (which themselves can be derived from Aristotle’s definition of tragedy in Poetics 6 and elsewhere), harmoniously characterizing the best poetry. Coetzee would doubtless not see himself in an Arnoldian tradition, and I don’t mean by the term “serious” to put him there, except insofar as something of Arnold’s conception of the social role of “poetry” can be retained, mutatis mutandis, in a post-humanist as much as post-Christian world, a secular and beschädigt world “after Auschwitz” (to again place things in an Adornian frame). For the later Arnold of “The Study of Poetry,” we—as individuals, as a culture—“turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us” (2).10 In fact I do not see a great difference in this ← 3 | 4 → claim and one we find in various places in Coetzee (in his own name in “What is a Classic?” and other essays or fictionally mediated in Elizabeth Costello). While Coetzee is doubtless not committed to “sweetness and light,” or moral earnest and perfection in the way Arnold conceived them, he does value beauty (of a kind) and intelligence, elevated by what can be called a “vertical dimension”11 of some sort that certainly overrules simply “doing what one likes.” (This can be seen particularly in Disgrace, but indeed in many novels from Waiting for the Barbarians to the Childhood of Jesus.) Arnold is frustratingly circular in this overly famous piece, but as we eventually see in his judgments of Chaucer, Dryden, Pope and Burns, seriousness is a key element in defining the classic, in differentiating the good (like the writers just mentioned) from the better (like Villon or Gray) and from the best (Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and so forth [33]). Arnold ends the essay, having passed through seriousness to “the truly classic,” with the claim that even in the face of the nascent literary and cultural “industry”—expanded and debased (“common”) reading for an expanded reading public—he is confident that the serious, the best, the classic will not lose supremacy: “Currency and supremacy are insured to it, not indeed by the world’s deliberate and conscious choice, but by something far deeper,—by the instinct of self-preservation in humanity” (55). This is surprisingly resonant with Coetzee’s claim, regarding Bach,12 and explicitly against T. S. Eliot, that “what survives the worst of barbarism, surviving because generations of people cannot afford to let go of it and therefore hold on to it at all costs—that is the classic” (Stranger Shores 19).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (August)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. IX, 215 pp

Biographical notes

Duncan McColl Chesney (Author)

Duncan McColl Chesney is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures of National Taiwan University in Taipei. He has a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Yale University and has published articles on Proust, Faulkner, Joyce, Beckett, Kafka, Coetzee, and various topics in film studies. His first book, Silence Nowhen: Late Modernism, Minimalism, and Silence in the Work of Samuel Beckett, was published in 2013 by Peter Lang.


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