Writers on Writing and the World

Terry Eagleton is always fun to read, and his TLS review of the correspondence of Paul Auster and JM Coetzee ( Here and Now: Letters (2008-2011) ) is no exception.

He begins: “”t is a Romantic delusion to suppose that writers are likely to have something of interest to say about race relations, nuclear weapons or economic crisis simply by virtue of being writers. There is no reason to assume that a pair of distinguished novelists such as Paul Auster and J. M. Coetzee should be any wiser about the state of the world than a physicist or a brain surgeon, as this exchange of letters between them depressingly confirms. In fact, there is no reason why authors should have anything particularly striking to say about writing, let alone about Kashmir or the Continuity IRA. Their comments on their own work can be even more obtuse than those of their critics. If T. S. Eliot really did believe that The Waste Land was merely a piece of rhythmical grumbling, as he once claimed, he should never have been awarded the Order of Merit.”

He doesn’t think much of Coetzee’s grasp of current events:

“Coetzee’s comments on the current economic crisis are not only wrongheaded but fatuous. Nothing has really happened to the world economy, he writes airily to Auster, other than a change of statistics. It is unlikely that the Bank of England, not to speak of those who have had their homes or livelihoods snatched from them by financial gangsters, would be over-impressed by this argument. Neither, judging from his circumspect reply, is Paul Auster, though he is too respectful of his renowned colleague to say so outright. Mysteriously, Coetzee goes on to suggest that putting this right requires an entirely new economic system, a piece of logic that his correspondent wisely leaves untouched. The truth is that neither man knows anything about economics, and there is no reason why being skilled in handling a metaphor should grant you such insight. Only those who have inherited a belief in the artist as sage, prophet and visionary are likely to feel discomfited by the fact that neither of these bien-pensant liberals has much that is profound or original to say about the body politic.”

And he says that there’s much more about sport than about lit: “One might excuse talk here about the idiomatic meanings of the word “basket” or whether the entire population of Israel should be transported to the state of Wyoming, if it simply cropped up as a set of asides in an intense communion of artistic souls. This, however, is far from the case. Those who turn to this book for literary illumination (and what else would one turn to it for?) are likely to be sorely disappointed. There is probably more in the volume about sport than there is about fiction. Both men are sports fanatics; both fail to recognize that sport these days is the opium of the people; and both keep trying to stop talking about it while suffering severe bouts of recidivism. In fact, no sooner have they launched out on some other topic than boxing or baseball returns like some ghastly King Charles’s head to dominate their discourse. There is some buddy­like talk of sport as breeding heroism and nobility of spirit. Rather nerdishly, Auster even sends his friend a photocopy of a page from The Baseball Encylopedia , and a photograph taken of him at the age of five in his football kit.”

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