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Serious Fiction

J.M. Coetzee and the Stakes of Literature


Duncan McColl Chesney

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.

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Studies on Themes and Motifs in Literature

The series is designed to advance the publication of research pertaining to themes and motifs in literature. The studies cover cross-cultural patterns as well as the entire range of national literatures. They trace the development and use of themes and motifs over extended periods, elucidate the significance of specific themes or motifs for the formation of period styles, and analyze the unique structural function of themes and motifs. By examining themes or motifs in the work of an author or period, the studies point to the impulses authors received from literary tradition, the choices made, and the creative transformation of the cultural heritage. The series will include publications of colloquia and theoretical studies that contribute to a greater understanding of literature.

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