Cayuga Lake Scenic Byway, which was something I had been wanting to do for quite some time. When I got to Cayuga Lake State Park, a bit east of Seneca Falls, I decided to stop and get some reading done by the lakeside. It was a nice change of pace from the coffee shop - library - coffee shop - cafe gamut I normally run during the course of a "get out and read day."
At any rate, I would like to address the three essays (or, rather, the two essays and one review) that I read since I last posted anything about the Coetzee criticism with which I have been working, so I'll not spend any additional time rambling on about my little tour . . .
All right, getting to the criticism.
So, I finally got around to reading James Wood's review of Disgrace, which I found to be rather nasty, if occasionally insightful. If anything, the review reads like a catalog of the different backhanded compliments one might toss as Coetzee. For instance, Wood initially seems to praise the novelist because "Coetzee's vision is impressively consistent: his books eschew loosened abundance for impacted allegory," but the critic later laments that "most depressingly, people like allegory" because "people like novels that, however intelligently, tell them what to think." Coetzee, Wood continues, "is very subtle and refined, so that much of the time he does not really seem to be telling us what to think; better still, his novels self-consciously display an involvement in their own modes of presentation, so that Coetzee will often seem to be telling us what to think about being told what to think (which is still a species of being told what to think, of course)." In other words, Coetzee is didactic, but clever enough to trick us into thinking he's not really all that preachy. And this is only one of many such instances where Wood turns praise into vitriol. Elsewhere, Wood discusses a passage in Disgrace he feels "would not be out of place in a mass-market thriller. It is the sheerest conventionality . . . It is cheap writing, literally cost-saving." Furthermore, Wood argues, David Lurie "is little more than a conduit for Coetzee's taut language," essentially reducing the entire novel to an onanistic exercise in linguistic exhibitionism.
What bothers me most, in addition to the thinly-veiled disdain Wood seems to direct at Coetzee throughout the review, is the critic's entirely tangental and disarmingly acerbic attack on the Man Booker Prize, using the author of Disgrace as an excuse to air his opinions. Since the South African is, in Wood's unflattering assessment merely, "a very good writer and not a great writer, Coetzee emits prize-pheromones." All right. We get it: Wood thinks Coetzee is overrated. Fair enough. But he goes further and unaccountably attacks the critics who have considered Disgrace worthy of an award. Evidentially, such committees are drawn to the pheromones of mediocrity like tomcats to a queen in heat. Moreover, statements like "prize juries are known, more often than not, for their invincible wrong-headedness" sound exceedingly inappropriate coming from someone who, according to the Booker Prize's website, "recommended a novel by Clare Messud to his fellow judges, conveniently forgetting to mention that she was his wife" a full five years before Coetzee won his second prize.
It's a shame that Wood cannot contain his contempt because he is, in all honesty, one of the most insightful critics actively discussing literature today. It's a shame, too, because the half-formed insights into Disgrace could have been developed more fully in the space Wood devotes to his attacks on fellow critics. (Wood's reviews of Coetzee's other novels, in my opinion, are considerably more valuable contributions to the body of Coetzee criticism than the one currently under discussion.)
Still, Wood's response to Coetzee's novel does provide readers with several interesting points to consider, especially when contemplating the book's possibly allegoric nature. Interestingly, it is precisely "the limitations of allegory" Wood identifies as the "significant weakness" in Coetzee's text that David Attwell takes up in the essay I read this afternoon. Unfortunately, I will have to discuss Attwell's essay (as well as Michael Holland's fascinating essay on language in Disgrace) another day because I spent so much time writing this evening's post. I will catch up though, I promise.
For tomorrow: More reading or work on the bibliography.
Wood, James. "Parables and Prizes." The New Republic. 10 May 2001. Available online.