Lucid, Generous & Humane

Inner Workings
Literary Essays 2000–2005
J. M. Coetzee
Viking, $25.95, 304 pp.

Evaluating the worth of critics in 1932, Ezra Pound quite rightly gave the highest praise to readers, like himself, who could strengthen the work of friends like Yeats and Eliot before it was published. The next most valuable critics were those who made discriminating judgments about published works. Finally, Pound condemned those egoistic, careerist critics who drew attention to self and tried to make a name for themselves at the expense of the books under review:

1. The critic most worth respect is the one who actually causes an improvement in the art he criticizes. 2. The best critic of next rank is the one who most focuses attention on the best work. 3. The pestilence masking itself as a critic distracts attention from the best work.

J. M. Coetzee clearly belongs to the second category. He usefully provides the biographical, historical, and cultural background. As a working novelist, he knows how novels work and can speak with authority about technical faults. Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March suffers from a “lack of dramatic structure and indeed of intellectual organization.” Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup “is less than perfect in its narrative art.” V. S. Naipaul’s “technical weaknesses are not negligible.” His hero’s love for the girl comes close to cliché. “Half a Life reads like the cut-off first half of a book that...

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About the Author

Jeffrey Meyers, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, has published Hemingway: The Critical Heritage (1982), Hemingway: A Biography (1985), and Hemingway: Life and Art (2000), as well as Samuel Johnson: The Struggle (2008), The Genius and the Goddess: Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe (2009), George Orwell: Life and Art (2010), and John Huston: Courage and Art (2011).