J.M. Coetzee’s ‘Diary of a Bad Year’ and the professionalisation of literature

It’s never been strictly easy to make a living solely through income generated through the smithing of words, but to judge from the increase in New Statesman and Guardian articles about how the average income for a writer today runs somewhere between £10,000 — £12,000 per annum it would seem as though this is somehow a new phenomenon. While these figures are some £4000 above the median wage made world-wide, it is certainly not a large amount of money. Economic figures in the tens of billions are so frequently deemed newsworthy that we are positively jaded by quantities. Even if we are not more economically literate as a result, we are more conscious of the salary sizes that the voguish professions are capable of pulling down.

‘Grub Street’ got its name from those literary hopefuls who turned to hack work in order to not starve to death and literary prizes, laureateships, while doing more for the publishing industry than the writers themselves, exist at least partially in order to boost the often quite meagre incomes of the worthy sentence architects. Even poets aren’t immune, T.S. Eliot was a bank clerk and Wallace Stevens held a job as an accountant his entire life.

One safety net that deserves mention in this context is the one provided by English departments in universities. One would think that teaching hours in American colleges are more filled by ex-pat Irish writers than not, reflecting the amounts of money these venerable institutions have to throw around, even in a milieu when the humanities are valued less and less. These posts provide writers with the kind of leisured existence, exposure to ideas that they need to create great art. Long may the practice continue.

This has all been well documented, alongside the consequent rise of the genre known as the university novel, definitions of which need not detain us here, its name probably being explanation enough. J.M. Coetzee attended university in the sixties, a time of activism and social change of which he was a part. He was in fact unsuccessful in attaining permanent residence in the United States due to his involvement with protests against the Vietnam War. This was, admittedly, before the culture wars of the seventies, when deconstruction and French literary criticism in general were still scandalising Anglophone university departments, but it nevertheless reflects a point in time when political readings of texts were increasingly to the fore and previously held assumptions about things such as the canon of great literary works were subject to interrogation, due to it being composed mostly of books by white men about white men for the consumption of white men. Coetzee’s engagement with this politicisation of literary artworks can perhaps be seen in his characterisation in his 2007 novel Diary of a Bad Year.

What is most notable about the text is its playing of meta-fictional games. At the outset of the novel, each page is divided into two parts. The first section is a sequence of brief essays around particular talking points, such as the free market, neoliberalism and the so-called ‘war on terror,’ an essay supposedly written by one of the narrators of the novel, Señor C. The second section is narrated by Señor C in a more spontaneous, less academic style and details his rather bland personal life. Most importantly, his interactions with a young woman named Anya. This being a Coetzee novel, I had expected a relationship between a young woman and an older man to occur at some point. The difference here, Anya is provided with a space to articulate herself and on page twenty-six, becomes the narrator of the third section.

I was initially annoyed by Anya, or Coetzee’s representation of Anya. Her narrative voice is Molly Bloom-esque, in that she is very invested in her own physicality and her words are interspersed with onomatopoeic tics and joyful anti-intellectualism rather than the pared-back, quite un-joyful sentences that one expects from Coetzee: “I picked it up from the ducks, I think: a shake of the tail so quick it is almost a shiver. Quick-quack. Why should we be too high and mighty to learn from ducks?” I wondered how Coetzee could be so tone-deaf in committing to writing such a transparent and shallow female character.

Ultimately however, Anya defies our expectations. I was anticipating that her resistance to Señor C’s learning and intellectualism would eventually fall by the wayside and that she would leave her chauvinistic mansplaining Australian boyfriend to be with Señor C. Fortuantely, she does not. Instead, she makes a choice on her own terms and gets the last, and arguably best, words in the text (excluding the parodic academic notes at the end):

“I will fly to Sydney. I will do that. I will hold his hand. I can’t go with you, I will say to him, it is against our rules. I can’t go with you but what I will do is hold your hand as far as the gate. At the gate you can let go and give me a smile to show you are a brave boy and get on the boat or whatever it is you have to do. As far as the gate I will hold your hand, I would be proud to do that.”

Although, now I’m reading back over this section, it doesn’t seem to be as much of a turn-around as I recalled. The idea of Anya taking a break from her life in order to make Señor C’s more comfortable is probably the antithesis of a turn-around, which is not to mention the unfortunate overtones in the phrase “brave boy,” ostensibly mothering him on his way to the grave. Well that’s unfortunate, not sure what to think now.

A perhaps better reversal of expectations occurs in Paul Murray’s novel Skippy Dies, specifically as regards the character Lori. The narrator is perhaps complicit in allowing us to dismiss her as a cosseted South Dublin princess, we encounter her first from Skippy’s point of view and it is obvious that she has been projected upon beyond all recognition. The reader is invited to think that she probably lacks substance, seeing as she is a teenager and that we are mostly in the heads of the male characters. Her inner life remains mostly obscured from us.

However, sentimentalist that I am, I would say that she definitely does get the best, if not the last word in the book: “Maybe instead of strings it’s stories things are made of, an infinite number of tiny vibrating stories; once upon a time they all were part of one big giant superstory, except it got broken up into a jillion different pieces, that’s why no story on its own makes any sense, and so what you have to do in a lie is try and weave it back together, my story into your story, our stories into all the other people’s we know, until you’ve got something that to God or whoever might look like a letter or even a whole word…”