Sue Thomas reviews 'J.M. Coetzee And The Ethics Of Reading: Literature in the event' by Derek Attridge

Sue Thomas reviews 'J.M. Coetzee And The Ethics Of Reading: Literature in the event' by Derek Attridge

J.M. Coetzee And The Ethics Of Reading: Literature in the event

by Derek Attridge

University of Chicago Press, $38.95 pb, 240 pp, 0 226 03117 9

J.M. Coetzee and the Ethics Of Reading is both a deeply scholarly response to the work of a brilliant and challenging writer, and an act of advocacy for a particular mode of reading, which Derek Attridge characterises variously as ethical, literary, ‘attentive’ and scrupulously responsive to the text. This mode draws on practices of ‘close reading’, while proposing the ethics of ‘an openness to alterity, and acknowledgement of the historical and cultural situatedness of both writing and reading, a responsiveness to the work as invention, a sensitivity to the mediations through which we experience the world, and a registering of the event of a text in a performance of its own stagings of literature’s multiple powers’. Attridge’s arguments are motivated by a desire to redeem the ‘power and distinctiveness of literature’; to redeem Coetzee from worries over the political efficacy of his writing as a force for change in South Africa; and to salvage individual novels from misreadings.

Attridge argues that ‘[a] reading that does justice to what is literary in a literary work … is one that is fully responsive to its singularity, inventiveness, and otherness, as these manifest themselves in the event or experience of the work’. His location of the singular, the inventive, the other in a novel is grounded in an appreciation of modernist aesthetics, and his own reflections on issues raised by Coetzee’s fiction work to defamiliarise stock reading strategies.

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Published in April 2005, no. 270

Sue Thomas

Sue Thomas is Emeritus Professor of English at La Trobe University, and the author of the books Telling West Indian Lives: Life Narrative and the Reform of Plantation Slavery Cultures 1804–1834 (2014), Imperialism, Reform and the Making of Englishness in ‘Jane Eyre’ (2008), and The Worlding of Jean Rhys (1999), co-author with Ann Blake and Leela Gandhi of England through Colonial Eyes in Twentieth-Century Fiction (2001), and co-editor with Anne Collett and Russell McDougall of Tracking the Literature of Tropical Weather: Typhoons, Hurricanes, and Cyclones (2017), among others.

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