'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.
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?"
Coetzee built his literary reputation on the eight novels he published between 1974 and 1999. None was less than unusually good, but three in particular have carried his work into the realm of lasting things. The first was Waiting for the Barbarians, a parable about the use of falsely imagined enemies for social control. Substitute "terrorists" for "barbarians" and you have a history of Britain and America since 2001. (Coetzee's book came out in 1980.)
Coetzee won the Booker with his fourth novel, Life and Times of Michael K, an eerily colour-blind account of its eponymous hero's odyssey from the city to the wilderness and back in a South Africa enduring an imaginary war.
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