In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section J. M. Coetzee

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Essay Collections
  • Bibliographies
  • Biographies
  • Databases
  • Special Journal Editions
  • Style and Narrative Techniques
  • Coetzee’s Critical Essays

African Studies J. M. Coetzee
Sue Kossew
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0160


John Maxwell Coetzee, born in Cape Town on 9 February 1940, has become one of the world’s most celebrated novelists; one of only two South African writers (with Nadine Gordimer) to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (2003). He left South Africa in 1962 to work as a computer programmer in London, simultaneously working on his master’s thesis on Ford Madox Ford (awarded by the University of Cape Town in 1963). He obtained his doctorate, a linguistic study of the work of Samuel Beckett, in 1968 from the University of Texas. His first novel, Dusklands (1974) was written while he was living in Texas. Initially, his literary work received a somewhat uneasy reception in his native country, posing as it does uncomfortable questions about power and authority in often-allegorical form. In apartheid South Africa (that is, prior to 1994), this somewhat oblique approach to resistance writing attracted criticism from a range of mostly South African scholars and writers, who believed that literature should be committed to the political struggle against apartheid. Early critical overviews of Coetzee’s work therefore responded by defending it against such claims; pointing out that it could be both formally experimental and political at the same time. His later South African novels, such as Age of Iron and Disgrace, seemed to fulfill this expectation, though Disgrace, for which he won his second Booker Prize, attracted some adverse criticism from the African National Congress for its bleak depiction of the “new” South Africa. With his migration to Australia in 2002, Coetzee continues to challenge his readers and critics who wondered what he would write about after leaving South Africa. He is an incisive literary critic and has published four collections of essays to date and a trilogy of memoirs, Scenes from Provincial Life. Coetzee’s densely cerebral literary work both invites and resists interpretation. As a result, it has attracted ever-increasing numbers of scholars, critics, and commentators. New waves of scholarship have discovered previously unexplored aspects of his work so that fresh perspectives are constantly being applied to his entire oeuvre, not just to his most recent writing. Known initially as a South African writer, and analyzed within this very particular national and political framework, Coetzee’s more recent work bears traces of his new homeland while maintaining a universal and often allegorical dimension that defies national categories. Coetzee’s literary works pose difficult and sometimes impenetrable questions about the nature of writing and reading, and of the ethics of living in the world. In particular, they raise issues of authorship and authority and of the fluid borderlines between “fictions” and “truths.” Thus, for Coetzee, “all autobiography is storytelling, all writing is autobiography” (Attwell 1992, p. 391, cited under Coetzee’s Critical Essays). Critical interest in Coetzee’s work has had several peaks: notably, after Coetzee’s two Booker Prizes for Life & Times of Michael K (1983) and Disgrace (1999). The award of the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature stimulated another wave of critical appraisal. A casual bibliographic search for Coetzee criticism yields thousands of entries, including blogs, theses, and online responses. This article aims to provide a pathway through these multifarious critical responses.

General Overviews

Early overviews of Coetzee’s fiction (1988–1997) were published by South African presses, such as Dovey 1988; by American presses, for example, Penner 1989 and Gallagher 1991; and jointly by both, for instance, Attwell 1993, published by University of California Press and by South African publisher David Philip. These early studies provide useful introductions to Coetzee’s first five or six novels and sketch out the ways in which his writing represents a decisive break with the traditional realist South African novel in English. A number of early critical essays on Coetzee’s work read his theoretical sophistication and the works’ postmodern or poststructuralist discourses of textuality as being apolitical and ahistorical. They were, this argument suggested, out of place in what was then apartheid South Africa where political commitment was regarded as essential in both fiction and criticism. Each of these early full-length critical studies argues against this critique by situating Coetzee’s fiction within its textual and historical frameworks. Attwell is one of Coetzee’s most incisive commentators, and his description of the fiction as “situational metafiction” (Attwell 1993, p. 3) that is in the nexus of history and text has become foundational to Coetzee criticism. The end of the apartheid state in April 1994 and the emergence of the “new South Africa” prompted a reassessment of “white writing” (the term Coetzee used as the title for his 1998 collection of essays on South African writing). Two critical works that respond to this major political change, Jolly 1996 and Kossew 1996, consider Coetzee’s fiction alongside that of other South African writers (both cited under Comparative Studies). Both of these studies use postcolonial theory in reading aspects of Coetzee’s fiction, as does Head 1997, a monograph on Coetzee that provides an excellent overview of his first seven novels. Attridge 2004 is the most frequently referenced book on Coetzee and is essential reading for an overview of the experience of reading Coetzee’s complex texts. Mehigan 2011 provides a very useful overview of individual texts in a collection of edited essays. Further edited collections of essays appear under Essay Collections.

  • Attridge, Derek. J. M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading: Literature in the Event. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

    A companion piece to The Singularity of Literature (2004). In this invaluable study, one of Coetzee’s most insightful critics argues that his works illustrate literature as “an ethically charged event” (p. xii) that requires responsible, responsive readers. Includes chapters on novels up to Elizabeth Costello and on Boyhood and Youth. Essential reading.

  • Attwell, David. J.M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

    An authoritative and invaluable study that places Coetzee’s work within its historical, literary/intellectual, and political contexts and argues for a developmental reading of the novels up to and including Age of Iron. Attwell introduces the notions of positionality, agency, and authority that have become bywords of Coetzee criticism.

  • Dovey, Teresa. The Novels of J.M. Coetzee: Lacanian Allegories. Craighall, South Africa: Ad. Donker, 1988.

    The first full-length study published on Coetzee. Dovey uses Lacanian theory to argue for the novels as “criticism-as-fiction, or fiction-as-criticism” (p. 9), and performs deconstructionist readings of the novels from Dusklands to Foe as self-reflexive Lacanian allegories, counterbalancing politically focused analyses that had thus far dominated the critical field, particularly within South Africa.

  • Gallagher, Susan vanZanten. A Story of South Africa: J.M. Coetzee’s Fiction in Context. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674281462

    Reads Coetzee’s novels up to Age of Iron as illustrating non-realist postmodern allegorical narrative strategies while also tying them closely to their South African historical frameworks. However, Gallagher identifies Coetzee as an Afrikaner, a subject position that is far more complicated for him, and one that he himself has repeatedly problematized.

  • Head, Dominic. J. M. Coetzee. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

    An excellent introduction, including individual chapters on the first seven novels and a chapter, “The Writer’s Place,” that illuminates Coetzee’s complex white South African identity and summarizes early critical debates. The novels are read through the lens of Coetzee’s essays, particularly those in Doubling the Point and Giving Offense (see Coetzee’s Critical Essays).

  • Head, Dominic. The Cambridge Introduction to J. M. Coetzee. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511816901

    A highly recommended overview. It includes new material: chapters on Coetzee’s life in the form of his memoirs, on his intellectual and historical contexts, and analysis of his fiction up to and including Diary of a Bad Year. Has a useful chapter on the reception of Coetzee’s work.

  • Mehigan, Tim, ed. A Companion to the Works of J. M. Coetzee. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2011.

    An accessible collection of critical views that provides an overview of the range of Coetzee’s work, including chronologically organized essays on each of his novels up to and including Diary of a Bad Year, and essays on his autobiographical trilogy as well as his critical essays.

  • Penner, Allen Richard. Countries of the Mind: The Fiction of J. M. Coetzee. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1989.

    Penner argues that Coetzee’s writing, while symbolically illustrating aspects of the “South African situation,” can be read in more universal terms. Analyzing the first five novels chronologically, Penner attends to the issue of self and other and the dilemma of the colonizing subject in Coetzee’s themes, language, and self-reflexivity.

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