Derek Attridge, professor of English at the University of York, is known for his expertise in South African Literature and performance poetry. In Kolkata, to deliver the inaugural UEA (University of East Anglia) Infosys lecture as part of a three-day literary activism symposium curated by writer Amit Chaudhuri, he talks of the need to champion original voices in literature, discovering JM Coetzee and the hallmark of a good critic
In your inaugural address at the symposium, you mentioned that as a critic, you are not a “steely, clear-eyed uncoverer of political biases”. Then who are you?
As an academic, my approach is to open myself to what is new and what is challenging. I need to widen my horizons, instead of just delving in the meanings of the text. As a critic, you need to be an explorer. You need to speak in an original voice, a voice that is different from the author’s. One has to be creative to be critical.
You are regarded as an expert on the works of JM Coetzee. You have written a monograph on him. When did you discover him first?
I was visiting a friend in California in the late 1970s. He handed me a book right before bedtime, and it was a Coetzee novel, probably In The Heart of The Country (1977). I had not read anything like this before. This was way before he became famous. By the time he had published Foe (1986), I realised that his work can be compared to the best that was being written in English anywhere in the world. Since then, I’ve been an admirer of his work and my regard for his work hasn’t changed even a little bit over the years. I believe that Coetzee is one of the most accomplished, most searching, most original writers around today.
You also spoke about the importance of championing the works of little-known, but talented writers. You did so with Coetzee and now you are championing the cause of another little-known South African writer, Zoë Wicomb.
When I read her work for the first time, I felt that I should do something to promote her. She is such an original voice. I organised a series of seminars to promote her works along with a friend — as academics, there is little else we can do. She attended a series of talks, read from her works and that was it. Eventually, when I was asked to nominate someone for the Windham-Campbell literature prize (an American literary award), I nominated her name. She went on to win that prize.
Do you feel, as an academic and a critic, you have the power to shape an author’s career?
You know, I have keenly followed Coetzee’s works and have extensively written about him. I often ask myself if I have had any role in getting him the fame that he got. Maybe yes, maybe no. You never know how things connect. But when Wicomb won that prize and that brought her some international fame, I felt happy.
What do you think is the hallmark of good writing?
I have realised that most critics and academics are preoccupied with the content, the message and the politics of the story. But I feel how the story is told, the texture of the language is of equal importance. That’s why Coetzee is such a great writer — each line that he produces is beautiful and measured.