Symposium 1 : Literary Activism

The Critic as Lover

The Lovers II (1928) by René Magritte

The Critic as Lover: Literary Activism and the Academy


Many years ago – in the days before email – I found myself engaged in correspondence with the postcolonial critic Benita Parry. She had visited Rutgers University, where I was teaching, and had given a paper on the fiction of J.M. Coetzee, in which I too had an interest. We had a friendly disagreement about the question of silence in Coetzee’s novels: Parry argued that in representing oppressed and marginalised figures such as Friday in Foe or Vercueil in Age of Iron or K in Life & Times of Michael K as silent, or taciturn, or suffering from a speech impediment, Coetzee was perpetuating their oppression and marginalisation. (I am simplifying a much subtler argument, which Parry has developed in an important essay.)1 My approach to Coetzee’s fiction started from different basic principles: rather than scrutinising it for its ideological failures, I was attempting to do justice to what I saw as its remarkable achievements, registered as powerful effects upon me as a reader.

Parry summed up what she took to be my approach to Coetzee, and to literary works more generally, by saying – I’m quoting from memory – ‘If I were to write a piece on your critical practice, I would call it “The Critic as Lover of the Text”’. She meant this as a gentle reproach, but I was happy to embrace the appellation.2


I start with this anecdote because I want to discuss the role of what we somewhat unfortunately call ‘academic’ literary studies within what Amit Chaudhuri has termed ‘literary activism’. To begin with, it will be useful to distinguish between two ways of commenting on literary works in the academy, which we can call literary criticism and literary scholarship. (I leave aside literary theory, which may draw on, or provide grounds for, commentary on specific works, but is in itself a philosophical discourse.) The two are not entirely separable, of course; the best examples of the former are informed by work in the latter mode, while the best examples of the latter evince skills in the former mode. But by and large one can say that the university study of literature (I’m referring to what is called ‘research’, not teaching) takes place today under the aegis of scholarship, at least in the Anglophone world. Such study is characterised by a preference for the empirical, the evidence-based, the data-driven, the historical, the archival; it conforms, or attempts to conform, to the ‘science model’ of research, which is where the bulk of funding is to be had. It is reflected as in a distorting mirror by the media frenzies occasioned by the ‘discovery’ of new ‘ facts’ such as the diseases (preferably venereal) suffered by artists or – to take a recent example – the claim that the sketchy engraving on the title page of an Elizabethan study of botany is a portrait of Shakespeare. At its best, on the other hand, as dozens of examples in all periods testify, it is richly illuminating of literary history and biography.

Literary scholarship is not – at least explicitly – concerned with value (though there are some significant exceptions), whereas value is a central concern in literary criticism.3 Such criticism involves a close engagement with works of literature as literature, not as historical documents, biographical evidence, or material objects. It is linked with the processes of canon-formation and the practice of reviewing. It is fundamental to the teaching of literature in schools and undergraduate literature courses, though much less evident at the level of graduate study.

For several decades, much of the literary criticism practised in the pages of academic literary journals and monographs has been carried out under the aegis of what has been called ‘the hermeneutics of suspicion’. Critics working in this vein see their task as exposing hidden faultlines that reveal ideological biases, showing how literary works surreptitiously encode the ethical and political iniquities of their time and place (or the iniquities of the dominant classes of their time and place), and reading ‘against the grain’ to counter the explicit content and moral claims of the work.4 Benita Parry is an outstanding example of a critic in this mode: to take the example of Coetzee, she argues that, although his novels ‘interrogate colonialism’s discursive power’, they ‘inadvertently repeat the exclusionary colonialist gestures’ they criticise.5 Parry undertakes readings such as this from a Marxist perspective; others read suspiciously as advocates of the rights of women, oppressed racial groups, non-human animals, or sexual minorities. Such critical activity starts from the assumption that cultural products are necessarily complicit to a greater or lesser degree with the governing ideology of the social and political formation within which they are produced, or, at best, engage with it in complex ways that never achieve complete autonomy.

I don’t wish to dispute this picture of the relationship between cultural production and the force of ideology; artworks are separable neither from the culture that produced them nor the one in which they are received, and those cultures are in turn part of a set of broader social, political, ethical, and economic forces. Much work of this type is highly illuminating, both of the works analysed and the context within which they were written; it can be carried out (as in Parry’s case) with great sophistication and a clear sense of value. And it has been a healthy antidote to easy claims about literary ‘greatness’, ‘genius’, and ‘transcendence’. But one of the weaknesses of this approach has been its tendency to relegate criticism that tries to read with the grain to mere ‘impressionism’, the product of a naïve and untheorised approach to literature. As for contemporary writing, it’s often regarded as something that should be left to reviewers, the lack of historical distance rendering it less susceptible to ideological analysis. Hence Parry’s characterisation of my approach: I’m not the steely, clear-eyed uncoverer of ideological bias but a ‘lover of the text’.

The notion that the work of literature is something one might love has a long history, one which has been ably chronicled by Deidre Shauna Lynch in her recent book Loving Literature: A Cultural History. Lynch starts by asking how we reached a position in which the academic involved in literary studies finds herself caught up in a conflict between the rigorous study of literature as a mode of publicly acknowledged science and the private, intimate, affective, non-institutional relationship to literary works that we call the ‘love of literature’. She tracks what she terms ‘redefinitions of literary experience’ from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, but ends the story just as English literature emerges as a university subject.6 This is the moment at which the tension between the two conceptions of literature becomes most marked; as Lynch notes, the campaigners for university English stressed its claims to be a serious, methodical, rigorous subject on a par with history or philology, yet in emphasising at the same time its usefulness in moral education and character-building they were appealing to a very different aspect of the activity of literary study. She continues:

Given this dualistic setup, it is understandable that our pursuits of rigor or campaigns for a new professionalism have often been shadowed by expressions of nostalgia for a past ostensibly readier to acknowledge that the project of really understanding literature necessarily eludes the grasp of expert cultures – readier to acknowledge that literature involves readers’ hearts as well as minds, and their sensibility as well as training.7

In recent years these demands for rigour and professionalism have become ever stronger as universities find themselves having to justify their existence in economic terms and by measurable criteria, and the place of the more intimate dimension of literary engagement is more uncertain than ever – perhaps more so than it has been since those early decades when the subject had to be demonstrated to be worthy of legitimate university study.

In this context, and by contrast with ideological exposure and reading against the grain, I want to argue for what I would call an affirmative criticism, one that operates – with as much sophistication and care as any other approach – to understand, explore, respond to, and judge what is of value in works of literature. (I would rather avoid altogether the term ‘criticism’, with its connotations of a negative, fault-finding attitude, but no satisfactory alternative comes to mind; the word favoured in analytic philosophical circles, ‘appreciation’, seems to me too weak to capture the activity I am discussing.) This is a critical approach that has the potential to play an important part in academic literary activism, especially in relation to contemporary literary production, and it is this aspect that I wish to explore. It is worth quoting at some length a comment made by J.M. Coetzee in his critical collection White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa, which made a strong impression on me when I read it on publication in 1988:

Our ears today are finely attuned to modes of silence… Our craft is all in reading the other: gaps, inverses, undersides; the veiled; the dark, the buried, the feminine; alterities… Only part of the truth, such a reading asserts, resides in what writing says of the hitherto unsaid; for the rest, its truth lies in what it dare not say for the sake of its own safety, or in what it does not know about itself: in its silences. It is a mode of reading which, subverting the dominant, is in peril, like all triumphant subversion, of becoming the dominant in turn. Is it a version of utopianism (or pastoralism) to look forward (or backward) to the day when the truth will be (or was) what is said, not what is not said, when we will hear (or heard) music as sound upon silence, not silence between sounds?8

Affirmative criticism is an engagement with the literary work which, while not ignoring the silences, pays most attention to the sounds, to what is actually being said.

A more recent comment by Coetzee shows that he is willing to use the word ‘love’ in talking about a powerful response to a work of art. In The Good Story he describes the experience of turning on the radio and hearing Bach’s Goldberg Variations. He realised he was listening, in the company of unknown others, to a live performance (by Angela Hewitt, as it turned out):

We were gathered to hear a pianist whom we knew and admired as she exposed herself to the music, and through her we were in turn exposing ourselves to it, letting it take us over. For the duration of the performance we were, so to speak, one soul, united in – I can’t find a better word – love. From our communal body – and, bear it in mind, we were not all in the same physical space – there fl owed a love directed through the priestly performer, bent over the keyboard, to Johann Sebastian, and beyond him to whoever or whatever directed his hand. And of course through the music we felt some sort of love flowing toward us (otherwise why would we have been there?).9

Two further points need to be made. The first is that the type of critical approach I have in mind can only be effective if it takes place in the context of dialogue and discussion. Reporting on one’s own response to a literary work, even when doing all one can to take account of individual prejudices and predilections, is an act limited by a variety of factors to which one is unavoidably blind. The best way of overcoming this limitation is through an exchange with other readers of the same work, past and present. Reading earlier criticism helps to sharpen one’s own response, and sharing that response with others will further sharpen – or perhaps correct – one’s understanding, and quite possibly increase one’s enjoyment, of the work in question. Being made to justify one’s response to other readers is an excellent way of escaping impressionistic accounts that rely on stock reactions or irrelevant associations. No final, agreed account of the work is likely to emerge from this dialogue, but this is not something to be regretted: works continually remake themselves in new contexts. It is this continued affirmation by way of debate and adjustment that keeps literary works alive.10

The second point is that what I’m calling affirmative criticism isn’t only a matter of celebrating literary successes; the critic shouldn’t be afraid of making negative judgements where these seem appropriate (though – as I have just implied – he or she should always be ready to give serious consideration to opposing views). Such judgements, like positive judgements, are necessarily made in a particular time and place, and are not meant to be for all time; one is saying, in effect, ‘For me, given my specific cultural and historical situation, this metaphor or this line or this characterisation, doesn’t work – and I invite others to convince me that it does.’


If I may turn to the autobiographical mode, with apologies for repeated self-reference, I would like to trace the route by which I came to this understanding of literary criticism: one which, in my published work, I have tried to justify both theoretically and in readings of writers I admire. In doing so, I hope to be able to specify more clearly what I take literary activism in the field of academic literary studies to be.

Growing up in South Africa during the epoch of apartheid’s strongest hold on the country, I was sensitised early on to the impingement of politics on daily life, and I became aware at a young age of culture’s capacity to reinforce the distortions and disparities of social and economic life for individuals and communities. I was, therefore, very open to the methods of ideological criticism. However, my training in literary studies at the University of Natal was strongly influenced by the critical practice and example of F.R. Leavis and the Scrutiny project, an influence that had both good and bad aspects. On the one hand, I was given a strong sense of literature’s importance and encouraged to engage with literary works in detail, paying attention to form as much as to content, and I was taught that judging the quality of the works I read was a central part of literary criticism. On the other hand, the set of values to which I was trained to appeal was extremely limited and the range of works deemed valuable according to those values was worryingly narrow. There was, moreover, a suspicion of the popular that smacked of a certain elitism. And the critical procedure itself was mystified: it seemed to boil down in the end to the critic’s possession of a certain type of sensitivity, without which proper judgements could not be made.

Partly as a reaction against this narrowness, I found myself drawn to the work of James Joyce – not a favourite of the Leavisites. And I wanted to celebrate Joyce, to share my enjoyment with others, and through Joyce make a claim for the value of literature. Teaching Joyce – which I began to do around 1980 – was immensely satisfying, as I watched students discover for themselves the particular pleasures and insights offered by his work, and often carry this awareness over to their study of works by other authors. At about the same time as I started teaching Joyce I discovered the work of Jacques Derrida, which spoke to me directly: here was a philosopher who valued literature, seeing it as a gateway to understanding in ways to which philosophy was blind. However, Derrida’s early reception in the Anglophone literary world was not consonant with this view of his work. He was seen, rather, as the inventor of something called ‘deconstruction’ (or sometimes ‘deconstructionism’, which sounded even worse), understood as the undermining of all certainties about language and the repeated demonstration that texts have hidden meanings that contradict their overt sense. In the toils of Derridean deconstruction, it was said, the critic reigned supreme, and the author was cut down to size as ignorant of his own meanings. In other words, Derrida was appropriated as a proponent of the hermeneutics of suspicion, and ‘deconstructions’ of literary texts along these lines filled the academic journals.

This view of Derrida involved a fundamental misconstrual. Derrida himself said at a round table in 1979: ‘I love very much everything that I deconstruct in my own manner; the texts I want to read from a deconstructive point of view are texts I love, with the impulse of identification which is indispensable for reading.’11 (The French word translated here as ‘love’ is aimer , which could imply a strong liking rather than a feeling with erotic overtones, but in any case the force of Derrida’s approval of the works he analyses is clear. This passage came to my mind when Benita Parry categorised me as an example of the critic as ‘lover’.) However, it’s not hard to see why Derrida’s readings of philosophical texts were misunderstood as evincing hostility towards them rather than love or liking; he did, after all, show that Plato, Hegel, Saussure, Austin, and many others were not fully in control of the meanings of what they wrote – even though this analysis could be seen as a demonstration of the richness of their thought rather than of its poverty. His discussions of literary texts are quite different, however: they treat literature as an ally of deconstruction, because literary works (at least the ones Derrida valued) push thought and language to the limits of what is possible. There is something ironic about the widespread use, in the 1970s and 1980s, of Derrida’s deconstructive readings of philosophical texts as models for the interpretation of literary works, and it was partly my dissatisfaction with this situation which led to my proposing to Derrida in 1984 a collection of his readings of literary works, a project which finally bore fruit in the volume I called Acts of Literature, published in 1992. One of the texts I wanted to include in full, since it is one of Derrida’s most brilliant treatments of literature and deals with the author who was most important to me at the time, was his extended discussion of Joyce’s Ulysses, given the English title ‘Ulysses Gramophone: Hear Say Yes in Joyce’.12

Joyce was an extremely important author for Derrida: the young philosopher took advantage of his exchange year at Harvard University in 1956/7 to make a systematic study of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, and often came back to Joyce later in his career when considering the importance of literature. So it is not surprising that I found my side-by-side engagements with Joyce and of Derrida enriching one another, and when I began to give conference papers and publish essays on Joyce it was with a strong Derridean slant. In other words, I wanted to demonstrate that Joyce, far from being an exhibit in a literary museum, was actually ahead of his readers in his testing of what language is capable of – and that there was much pleasure to be gained from opening ourselves to his experiments.

I’m not sure my championing of Joyce in this way can be called literary activism, however, except in a loose sense. Joyce’s reputation in the United States was firmly established by this time, and although his reputation in the United Kingdom was shakier – the attacks of F.R. Leavis and his followers still resonated to some degree – he was by no means a marginal figure in need of activist support. And as post-structuralism became established as a major force in the academy, Joyce’s star rose further (though this connection did him few favours outside the academy).


The term ‘literary activism’ becomes more appropriate for my critical practice in relation to a South African writer whose fiction I first encountered in 1979. When in that year a South African friend, then a student at Berkeley, lent me a book entitled Dusklands by one J.M. Coetzee, suggesting that I might find it interesting, I was struck by its originality and power; here was something quite unlike any South African fiction I had read. (Having grown up in South Africa, I had continued to read a certain amount of the country’s literary output, though not with any idea that I might teach or write about it.) It was only later that I learned that the friend, Jonathan Crewe, in what was indisputably an example of literary activism, had been instrumental in getting the book accepted by Ravan Press, a small progressive publisher in South Africa.13 I followed up my reading of Dusklands by reading In the Heart of the Country, which had been published in 1977, and thereafter read each of Coetzee’s novels as they appeared. In 1985 I encouraged the Principal of Strathclyde University, where I had recently been appointed as a professor, to off er Coetzee an honorary degree; somewhat to our surprise, he accepted. (Our surprise was partly because Coetzee had very recently declined to travel to London for the award ceremony for the Booker Prize, which he won for Life & Times of Michael K.) Perhaps I can claim this acknowledgement of his stature as a writer as an instance of literary activism, as Coetzee was at that time only beginning to be known internationally (and since then has, of course, received a large number of honorary degrees).

The following year Coetzee published Foe, a novel that had an even more powerful and moving effect on me than his preceding works, and when I was invited to participate in a panel at the American Modern Language Association Convention on ‘the literary canon’ I decided to take it as my focus. Reflecting on this decision as the first move in what might be called a programme of literary activism with Coetzee as its object, I can see several factors leading to it. The operations of the market, together with my own personal interest in Coetzee’s fiction, had brought the novel to my attention, and among the other operative factors were my South African background, a position in the academic world that led to the invitation, and the peculiar appropriateness of Foe for a discussion of canon-formation (since the novel revisits the originary scene of the English novel, the writing of Robinson Crusoe, in order to raise questions about the processes of inclusion and exclusion involved in the canon). However, it was the impact that the work had on me that most obviously led to my decision to write about it. The result was my first published essay on Coetzee, followed by a generous response from him, and a desire to continue writing about his work that led, after the publication of a number of further articles, to a monograph, published in 2004.14 This study would not have come into being had each new book by Coetzee not stirred and impressed me with its originality, power, and remarkable use of language.

Coetzee now has as many readers as any serious novelist in the world, a Nobel Prize, and an unassailable position in the canon of English literature. It’s not unusual to hear him called ‘the greatest living writer of fiction in English’. Did my affirmative criticism of his work play a small part in this rise to literary fame? It’s an unanswerable question, of course. However, the increasing academic attention paid to Coetzee in the 1990s by others as well as by myself, rising to a flood in the new millennium, must have had some effect on publishers’ decisions, prize-awarding bodies, reviewers, and all the other agents in the literary marketplace.15 When writing about Coetzee I was only dimly aware that I might be contributing to his escalating reputation; I certainly wanted to share my enthusiasm, but I also found his work fruitful in developing my own theoretical approach to literature. Indeed, the book I wrote on Coetzee started life as a combination of theoretical argument and critical analysis, a combination which proved unsustainable and eventually resulted in a division into two books. The other book, The Singularity of Literature, owes a great deal to Coetzee, who is referred to more than once in support of a theoretical position.16


My next venture in this vein was more selfconsciously a case of literary activism. In 2007 I had a lunch date with a colleague, Kai Easton, at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) in London, and we found ourselves sharing our admiration for the fiction of the South African-Scottish writer Zoë Wicomb. In 1987 Wicomb, who grew up under the official racism of apartheid as a ‘Coloured’, had published a remarkable collection of linked stories, You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town. This was a considerable achievement in itself, and more so in the context of a literary establishment that was dominated by white male writers. In 2000 she published an even more remarkable work, the novel David’s Story, a book that, for many who read South African fiction, stands among its most ambitious and accomplished literary productions. Two more novels, Playing in the Light (2006) and October (2015), and another collection of stories, The One that Got Away (2008), followed, and sustained the high level of her literary output. In spite of her then twentyyear record of remarkable work, Wicomb’s international reputation, we agreed, was far less than it should have been. What was needed, clearly, was activism by others on her behalf. (I should mention that someone who encouraged us in this effort was Benita Parry.)

Being academics with no access to the world of marketing, we did what academics do: we planned a conference. This event took place at the University of London’s SOAS in 2008, with contributions by critics and writers, and opened with a reading by Wicomb herself (something that took a good deal of persuasion on our part). It was a stimulating and rewarding two days. Emboldened by this success, we planned two more conferences: one in Stellenbosch in 2010 and one in York in 2012. These were equally successful, bringing together academics who write on questions of transnational and trans-local movements as well as more traditional literary critics and creative practitioners. As I write this, Kai and I are in the process of putting together a volume of essays, some of which started life at one of these conferences, together with photographs, an interview, and a contribution from Wicomb herself. We hope this volume will attract more readers to Wicomb’s fiction, and help to correct the injustice of her relative obscurity as a writer.17

An opportunity to pursue the same goal by a different means arose in 2012 when I was invited to provide nominations in two categories for the first group of Windham-Campbell Prizes, administered by Yale University. These awards, created by Donald Windham in memory of Sandy M. Campbell, are presented every year in several categories, in each of which a grant of $150,000 is given to the selected writer. I was asked to nominate in two categories: a promising younger writer (I nominated Tom McCarthy) and a writer whose achievement hadn’t been adequately recognised (I, of course, nominated Zoë Wicomb). Nominations are passed to a prize jury, who select five nominations in each category, and a nine-member selection committee then makes the final decisions. To my surprise, both my nominations were successful. Receiving the Windham-Campbell Prize undoubtedly boosted Wicomb’s reputation, especially in the United States.

As with Coetzee, my efforts on Wicomb’s behalf stem from admiration of the published work, from a belief that it is better than a great deal of writing that gets more attention and that many more readers would share in the pleasure it offers if it were better known. They are, in other words, premised squarely on a judgement of literary value. (The same, incidentally, is true of Tom McCarthy’s fiction, though that has received much greater recognition.) But literary value alone is not enough to establish a literary reputation; apart from the factors I have already mentioned, there is also the question of the author’s own willingness or unwillingness to be an activist on their own behalf. Coetzee, for all his famous reserve and unquestionable integrity, has always been an astute guardian and promoter of his own reputation. He has worked hard to find the right publisher, encouraged translations of his work, made careful decisions about award ceremonies (Booker, no – twice; Nobel, yes), participated in television programmes (sometimes uncomfortably) and published interviews, and has for a long time given brilliant readings of his work followed (at least in recent years) by book signings. Having been known as an extremely private person for most of his career, he has more recently shown a willingness to expose a large part of his personal life to the public: he co-operated with John Kannemeyer in the production of a large-scale biography, and made a vast quantity of archival materials – including a great deal of personal material – available at the Harry Ransom Research Center at the University of Texas in Austin. He has travelled widely to participate in events with other writers or attend conferences on his own or other writers’ work.

Wicomb, by contrast, is reluctant to take part in the promotion of her writing. She doesn’t use an agent to get the best out of publishers; she dislikes giving readings (though she is a superb reader of her own work); she is a reluctant interviewee. Her choice of publisher depends not on global visibility or marketing skills but on who she feels comfortable working with and whose values she endorses – hence The Feminist Press for David’s Story , and The New Press (a not-for-profit public interest publisher) for Playing in the Light, The One that Got Away, and – although big-name publishers had shown an interest in her work after the Windham-Campbell Prize – her latest novel, October Wicomb’s own reluctance to go along with the market activists who hold the whip-hand in book promotion may in the end thwart the efforts of such literary activists as Kai Easton and myself.

Neel Mukherjee’s enthusiastic review of October in the New Statesman (one of very few reviews, a paucity which is itself indicative) begins with one of those sentences that simultaneously off er praise and register pessimism: ‘Last year the South African writer Zoë Wicomb won the inaugural Windham-Campbell Prize for fiction, along with James Salter and Tom McCarthy, leaving her $150,000 better off – and confirming her status as a major, if often overlooked, pillar of international writing.’18 The contradiction implicit in the notion of an overlooked pillar of international writing is an interesting one; perhaps we can unpack it as meaning ‘If Wicomb were given the attention she deserves she would become such a pillar, instead of what she is, an almost invisible presence on the global scene’. We have to recognise, too, that Wicomb’s writing is demanding; for all its colour and verve it is replete with sly ironies and complex tones of voice that don’t allow for rapid reading. As Eleanor Franzen remarks in her online review of the new novel,

October is extremely thought-provoking, though on a first read, it will probably not satisfy. It is the sort of book that requires time to percolate, and perhaps needs to be read in several sittings over the course of a week. It is not long, but there is a great deal packed into it, a complexity belied by the straightforward, rational prose, pocked with ‘surely’, ‘of course’, ‘must’ and ‘should’.19

All the more reason, perhaps, for academic critics to pursue literary activism to alert the reading public to the rewards of careful and repeated engagement with Wicomb’s work.


In the past two or three years, I have started to pursue a new interest, one that also has a literary activist dimension. I have been struck by the quality of a number of recent fictional works by South African authors who write in Afrikaans – once the language of the ruling white minority, now one of the eleven official languages of the country, and the third most widely spoken as a mother tongue. (It holds this position, after isiZulu and isiXhosa, because of its several million Coloured speakers.) As with Coetzee and Wicomb (both of whom, interestingly, were the children of Afrikaans-speaking parents), it has been the impact of these writers’ works on me that has spurred this academic study. There are three writers in particular who have produced a substantial body of work that, in my view, can stand comparison with any contemporary fictional oeuvre, though they are probably even less well known on the global scene than Wicomb. One is Etienne van Heerden, who has published eleven novels and many short stories. His most recent novels are 30 Nagte in Amsterdam (2008), translated into English by Michiel Heyns as 30 Nights in Amsterdam (2012); In Stede van die Liefde (2005), translated by Leon de Kock as In Love’s Place (2013); and Klimtol (2013), as yet untranslated into English. Another is Ingrid Winterbach, who has published ten novels (the first five under the pen-name Lettie Viljoen), most recently Die Benederyk (2010), translated by de Kock as The Road of Excess (2014), and Die Aanspraak van Lewende Wesens (2012), translated by Heyns as It Might Get Loud (2015). The third, and the one most deserving of international attention in my view is Marlene van Niekerk, the author of three novels and several short stories, plays, and poetry collections. Her most substantial works are Triomf and Agaat, the first appearing in Afrikaans in 1994 and in an English translation by de Kock in 1999, and the latter appearing in 2004 and in Heyns’s translation in 2006. Both these translations retained the original title, though a British edition of Agaat was published in 2007 as The Way of the Women.

With these writers a new issue in thinking about literary activism and its relation to critical practice arises, given that Afrikaans is a minor language with a very small readership and geographical spread and is therefore dependent on translation if it is to reach a global audience. In this situation, translators are among the most important of literary activists. My work has largely been focused on the English translations of this body of fiction, and my theoretical interest is in translation as the route to global dissemination. But a second aim is simply to spread the word about these fine literary achievements. It will have been evident from my short catalogue that only two translators were responsible for all the novels I have mentioned: Michiel Heyns and Leon de Kock. Both are outstanding translators, with an excellent understanding of the subtleties of Afrikaans and a good ear for what works in English (both, in fact, have published their own novels in English). The three writers I have mentioned are all themselves proficient in English, and so have been able to work closely with the translators in producing English versions of their work.20

I have started to publish academic essays on some of this fiction, but I am well aware that the challenge to the literary activist is especially acute when the work one is trying to promote was written in a minor language and can only achieve international attention through translation.21 In Britain in particular, translated fiction is very little read. The organisation Literature across Frontiers launched a report at the 2015 London Book Fair on the number of translated literary works published in Britain, and showed that over the two decades up to 2012 only four per cent of the books to appear were translations.22 If this prejudice is ever going to be overcome, literary activists will have to find ways of promoting literary value – rather than effective marketing or media fame – as the quality that determines reputation and gains readers.

To say this is not to suggest that literary value is an unproblematic concept, but it’s precisely in conjunction with attentive, affirmative readings of specific literary works that debates about it can most profitably be pursued. This is a task that the university or college department of literature should be well fitted to undertake. After all, at the heart of all our endeavours as literary academics, whether as historians, bibliographers, hermeneuts, critics, demystifiers, or geneticists, is the experience of the literary work. Just as the vast edifice of sport – television channels, giant stadiums, megastores, and the rest of it – depends entirely on the intense experience of the individual spectator watching a particular game, so the almost equally vast edifice of literary education, publishing, and promotion would not exist if particular readers did not find from time to time that engaging with a novel, hearing a poem, or watching a play was a deeply felt, and highly valued, experience – an experience that it seems not inappropriate to term ‘love’.

1. Benita Parry, ‘Speech and Silence in the Fictions of J.M. Coetzee’, in Writing South Africa: Literature, Apartheid, and Democracy, 1970-1995, ed. Derek Attridge and Rosemary Jolly (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 149-165.

2. I should add that in spite of our differences, Benita Parry has been unfailingly generous to me over the decades in which we have known each other – the best kind of intellectual interlocutor one could imagine.

3. An example of a study based on thorough archival work that presents important arguments about literary value is Peter D. McDonald’s The Literature Police: Apartheid Censorship and Its Cultural Consequences (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). Of course, the very act of choosing a particular work or author to whom to devote one’s scholarly attention implies a value judgement.

4. A wide-ranging critique of this approach has recently been presented by Rita Felski in The Limits of Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

5. Parry, ‘Speech and Silence’, p. 150.

6. Deidre Shauna Lynch, Loving Literature: A Cultural History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), p. 5.

7. Lynch, Loving Literature, p. 2.

8. J.M. Coetzee, White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), p. 81.

9. Arabella Kurtz and J.M. Coetzee, The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy (London: Harvill Secker, 2015), pp. 105-106.

10. For an example of this kind of dialogue, see Derek Attridge and Henry Staten, The Craft of Poetry: Dialogues on Minimal Interpretation, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015).

11. Christie V. McDonald, ed., The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Schocken Books, 1985), p. 87.

12. Jacques Derrida, Acts of Literature, ed. Derek Attridge (New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. 253-309.

13. The story is told in J.C. Kannemeyer, J. M. Coetzee: A Life in Writing (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2012), pp. 242-243, and by Crewe himself in In the Middle of Nowhere: J. M. Coetzee in South Africa (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2016), pp. 40-41.

14. The essay was ‘Oppressive Silence: J.M. Coetzee’s Foe and the Politics of the Canon’, in Decolonizing Tradition: New Views of 20th-Century ‘British’ Literature, ed. Karen Lawrence (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991), pp. 212-238, and the book was J. M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading: Literature in the Event (Chicago: University of Chicago Press and Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2004).

15. By 2000 there were eight volumes entirely devoted to his work, and in 1992 my colleague David Attwell’s influential collection of interviews with Coetzee along with a selection of his essays, Doubling the Point, was published by Harvard University Press.

16. Derek Attridge, The Singularity of Literature (Abingdon: Routledge, 2004).

17. Kai Easton and Derek Attridge, eds, Zoë Wicomb and the Translocal: Writing Scotland and South Africa (London: Routledge, forthcoming).

18. Neel Mukherjee, ‘Homing instinct: October by Zoë Wicomb’, New Statesman 26 June, 2014, pp. 53-54.

19. Eleanor Franzen, ‘October’ in Quadrapheme, 7 May 2014,

20. In a somewhat diff erent position are those authors who produce two versions of their novels: one in English, one in Afrikaans. The leader in this field was André Brink, who wrote 19 of his novels in both languages, while exceptional recent examples are Dominique Botha (False River/Valsrivier, 2014) and S.J. Naudé (The Alphabet of Birds/Alfabet van die Voëls, 2015).

21. See ‘Contemporary Afrikaans Fiction in the World: The Englishing of Marlene van Niekerk’, Journal of Commonwealth Studies 49.3 (2014), pp. 395-409, and ‘Contemporary Afrikaans Fiction and English Translation: Singularity and the Question of Minor Languages’, Singularity and Transnational Poetics, ed. Birgit M. Kaiser (London: Routledge, 2014), pp. 61-78.

22. Alexandra Büchler and Giulia Trentacosti, ‘Publishing Translated Literature in the United Kingdom and Ireland 1990-2012 Statistical Report’, Literature across Frontiers, 2015, Update_May2015.pdf. The figure for all types of book was three per cent.

Derek Attridge is the author or editor of some twenty-five books on literary theory, poetic forms and histories, and Irish and South African literature. Born in South Africa, he has taught in the UK, the USA, and France, and is currently Emeritus Professor at the University of York and a Fellow of the British Academy.

This essay was originally presented at the inaugural symposium in Calcutta in December 2014. It was collected with other papers in a volume called Literary Activism: A Symposium, edited by Amit Chaudhuri and published in 2017 by Oxford University Press and Boiler House Press.