Writers’ Groups: An Interview with J. M. Coetzee

(This copyrighted interview forms part of the AHRC-funded ‘Writers and Free Expression’ project—see https://writersandfreeexpression.com/. Do not reproduce all or any part of it without permission. If you wish to quote it for academic purposes, please reference the project blog.)

Peter McDonald: The South Africa of the 1970s and 1980s, the first decades of your career as a published author, was a place of many writers’ groups. The most established—PEN South Africa (1927) and the Afrikaanse Skrywerskring (1934)—were still in existence, albeit in variously fragile or altered states. By the time the Afrikaans group severed its ties with PEN International in 1967, for instance, the local, English-language branch was split between two often rivalrous centres, one in Johannesburg, the other in Cape Town. However, the former was more or less defunct when Dusklands appeared in 1974, leaving only the latter then under Mary Renault’s presidency. From then on, a wide array of younger, more active local groups began to emerge, including the white-led Artists’ and Writers’ Guild (1974), the Afrikaanse Skrywersgilde (1975), the Medu Art Ensemble (1977), a revived, short-lived, black-led branch of Johannesburg PEN (1978), the African Writers’ Association (1981), the Writers’ Forum (1985), and the Congress of South African Writers (1987). To what extent were you aware of these various groups and their activities? And did you formally join or simply associate with any of them?1

J.M. Coetzee: Of the organizations you mention, (a) I was aware of PEN but never thought of joining, it seemed too Anglo and too tame; (b) I can’t remember whether I was actually a dues-paying member of the Skrywersgilde, but I certainly attended some events and was friendly with André Brink and Elsa Joubert as well as with the secretary of the Gilde, Amanda Botha; (c) I was aware of COSAW but didn’t like its politics.

PMcD: What concerned you about COSAW’s politics?

JMC: COSAW conceived of itself as an arm of the Struggle. I was not part of the Struggle.

 

PMcD: What about the later decades from the 1990s onwards?

JMC: I don’t recall relations with any writers’ organizations in the 1990s. At a certain moment I began to be courted by PEN International, but that may have been after the 2003 Nobel Prize.

 

PMcD: As a contribution to the vast body of writing about censorship, Giving Offense (1996) stands out in part because you take issue, as a writer, with ‘the craft-solidarity of men and women of letters’ (44).2 You point, for instance, to the ‘dynamic of escalation in which the rivals, writer and censor, become less and less distinguishable’ and you challenge the commonly-held ‘myth’ among writers—even ‘intellectuals as a class’—that they will ‘outlast their foes and even write their epitaph’ (44, 118). Underlying this self-aggrandizing narrative, you also see a larger story at work, the origins of which you trace to ‘the Judaeo-Christian teaching of the vindication of the truth in the fullness of time’ (44). State censorship was a pressing concern for you more or less from the start of your career, given the circumstances in South Africa at the time. Yet it appears this particular turn in your thinking—your move to a certain style of auto-critique—happened sometime in the late 1980s. Was this a self-generated intellectual shift on your part or were there particular events or experiences that prompted you to start questioning the ethos, perhaps even the ‘groupthink’, of your own profession?

JMC: I believe it was self-generated (to use your term). I don’t remember that there were any events or experiences that prompted the shift. It struck me that the orthodox position taken by the profession—that ‘the word’ would ultimately triumph—failed to take into account those (many?) writers whose word the state had successfully stifled and/or expunged—and who had therefore failed to become part of the historical record—to say nothing of those (many?) projects that had been abandoned or less than wholeheartedly tackled because their authors could foresee no way in which these would see the light of day, by which I mean be published in a normal way.

PMcD: In the introduction to Giving Offense you note—presciently from today’s perspective—that ‘the bans effected by monopolies or near-monopolies can in practice be no less complete than those implemented by bodies of censors with the force of the law behind them’ (x). In the book itself you focused on the latter, that is, on the way state censorship deforms not just public life but the ‘inner drama’ of writing (38). Since the collection appeared, however, the digital revolution has given renewed impetus to the former—I have in mind the rise of private corporations (monopolies?) like Google, Facebook, and Twitter. It also created the conditions for a new breed of self-appointed cyber-censor to emerge who sometimes works in concert with the state, sometimes outside it. Do you think these technological developments, all of which give more power to non-state actors, oblige us to re-think our guiding assumptions about censorship: what it is and how what you called its ‘contagious power’ affects writers (37)?

JMC: You ask: “Do you think these technological developments [social media in particular], all of which give more power to non-state actors, oblige us to re-think our guiding assumptions about censorship: what it is and how what you called its ‘contagious power’ affects writers (37)?”

I am not the best person to whom to address this question. I belong to a generation (the last generation?) that can manage to live happily and successfully outside the ambit of social media. From my sketchy knowledge of what pressures social media are capable of exerting, I would guess that these pressures are better considered under the rubric of social conformity or groupthink rather than under the rubric of censorship.

 

PMcD: For a writers’ group, the International PEN Club, as it was called at its founding in 1921, is unusual because it was not established to oppose censorship or champion free expression. Those key commitments, which began to take shape in 1933 following the Nazification of German PEN, the book burnings and the persecution of writers in Germany, were formally codified as Article 4 of the PEN Charter only in 1948. At first the organization promoted international solidarity among writers as a counter to the malign nationalism that many felt had led to the First World War. John Galsworthy, the founding President, also believed that as ‘trustees for human nature’ (his phrase) writers had a special calling to act as a counter to politicians. Hence Article 1 of the Charter, which was ratified in 1927: ‘Literature, national though it be in origin, knows no frontiers, and should remain common currency between nations in spite of political or international upheavals.’ The phrase ‘national though it be in origin’ was dropped in 2003. On the same occasion, ‘should’ became ‘must’ and ‘between nations’ was changed to ‘among people’. So Article 1 now reads: ‘Literature knows no frontiers and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals.’

You never considered joining PEN South Africa, which was regularly criticized at the international level throughout the 1970s and 1980s for its inertia and lack of inclusiveness—it narrowly avoided being expelled on more than one occasion. But you were elected Vice President of what is now called PEN International in 2006, a capacity in which you continue to serve. What value do you see in this association and what good do you think writers can do collectively today?

JMC: As I remember it, the Cape Town PEN of my youth was more or less indistinguishable from the English Association,3 culturally conservative, disdainful of Afrikaners and the Afrikaans language, and a bit timid. I never considered joining. PEN International is a different story. It is a big organization whose word carries a certain weight. It speaks up on behalf of persecuted writers—in practice, in our day, mainly persecuted journalists—and does a lot of good work behind the scenes too.

PMcD: In 1986 you attended PEN International’s 48th Congress in New York, together with Sipho Sepamla, Nadine Gordimer and a host of other leading writers, including Joseph Brodsky, Günter Grass, Wole Soyinka, Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison, and Salman Rushdie. The Congress theme that year was ‘The Writer’s Imagination and the Imagination of the State.’ Looking back on the occasion in 2011, Rushdie commented: ‘In 1986 it still felt natural for writers to claim to be, as Shelley said, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” to believe in the literary art as the proper counterweight to power, and to see literature as a lofty, transnational, transcultural force that could, in Bellow’s great formulation, “open the universe a little more.” Twenty-five years later, it is harder to make such exalted claims for mere wordsmiths. Harder, but no less necessary.’ Do you agree? And, if so, what factors have made it harder in your view?

JMC: I would prefer not to frame the question in Rushdie’s terms, which seem to me extreme. I would prefer to rephrase the question as follows: Is it true that works of literature no longer carry as much weight, in the eyes of the public, as they once did? If it is true, why should it be so?

I am not going to attack the question frontally, but I will make four observations that relate to it.

One. If we are thinking of the effect of books on public opinion, then we must concede that some of the books that have had the greatest effect on public opinion have not been great books. Examples: The Jungle (1904) by Upton Sinclair; Gone with the Wind (1936) by Margaret Mitchell.

Two. If, on the other hand, we are thinking of the effect books can have on the way we see the world, then we may seriously have to consider that some books can indeed have this shaping power, even on people who do not read them but absorb them from the surrounding discourse. Example: War and Peace (1869) by Leo Tolstoy.

Three. There was a time (the time of Dickens, the time of Zola) when the printed novel was as good a medium as any for airing concern over pressing social issues. This is no longer true. The lag time between writing and publication is too long. There are too many competing media, of equal or greater immediate impact. Example: cinema.

Four. Because of the way the publishing industry operates (has been forced to operate) nowadays, the public has unprecedented access to writers in person, and is thus able to confirm quite speedily that there is nothing special about them. This has in fact always been true. There was nothing special about, for example, Leo Tolstoy.

Observations One, Three and Four go some way toward accounting for the declining prestige of the writer. Nevertheless:

Five. While there is nothing special about writers as human beings, there is (sometimes) something special about what they write.

©J. M. Coetzee 2019

____________________________________________

1For more details about these various groups, see Peter D. McDonald, The Literature Police: Apartheid Censorship and its Cultural Consequences (Oxford, 2009), Chapter 3.

2See J. M. Coetzee, Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship (Chicago, 1996).

3JMC notes: The English Association (Cape Town) saw its task as promoting English literature (understood in a fairly traditional sense) and the values associated therewith among the general educated public.

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