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J. M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading

Literature in the Event

Nobel Prize-winning novelist J. M. Coetzee is one of the most widely taught contemporary writers, but also one of the most elusive. Many critics who have addressed his work have devoted themselves to rendering it more accessible and acceptable, often playing down the features that discomfort and perplex his readers.

Yet it is just these features, Derek Attridge argues, that give Coetzee’s work its haunting power and offer its greatest rewards. Attridge does justice to this power and these rewards in a study that serves as an introduction for readers new to Coetzee and a stimulus for thought for those who know his work well. Without overlooking the South African dimension of his fiction, Attridge treats Coetzee as a writer who raises questions of central importance to current debates both within literary studies and more widely in the ethical arena. Implicit throughout the book is Attridge’s view that literature, more than philosophy, politics, or even religion, does singular justice to our ethical impulses and acts. Attridge follows Coetzee’s lead in exploring a number of issues such as interpretation and literary judgment, responsibility to the other, trust and betrayal, artistic commitment, confession, and the problematic idea of truth to the self.

240 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2004

African Studies

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory


"An introduction for readers new to Coetzee and a stimulus for thought to those who know his work well."


"An important milestone in the critical reception of Coetzee’s ongoing oeuvre."

Peggy Kamuf | Year's Work in Critical and Cultural Theory

"An accessible, readable analysis of Coetzee’s oeuvre. . . . [Attridge’s] overall theoretical argument, that modernism holds some insights worth revisiting in the contemporary global context, is powerful. He provides a strong example of how we might move toward a deeper consideration of the ethical force that literature can have for both the reader and the critic."

Antonia Smith | H-Net Book Review

"Attridge’s study is not simply a comprehensive and up-to-date discussion of Coetzee’s writing but also a compelling meditaiton on what literature is and what it does to its readers. [It] not only convinces us of the significance of Coetzee’s novels but also of the significance of Attridge as a literary critic."

Mark Libin | English Studies in Canada

Table of Contents

1. Modernist Form and the Ethics of Otherness
Dusklands and In the Heart of the Country
2. Against Allegory
Waiting for the Barbarians and Life & Times of Michael K
3. The Silence of the Canon
4. Trusting the Other
Age of Iron
5. Expecting the Unexpected
The Master of Petersburg
6. Confessing in the Third Person
Boyhood and Youth
7. Age of Bronze, State of Grace
Epilogue: A Writer’s Life
Elizabeth Costello
Works Cited


Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

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