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Like the namesake of his most recent novels, J. M. Coetzee speaks to us in parables. The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus, like Disgrace and Summertime before them, give us politically charged stories seemingly without side. This encourages the Nobel laureate’s reviewers to become Coetzeeologists, attempting to parse out whether the book before them sets opposing tensions in play for art’s sake alone, or whether we can discern a clear moral leaning beneath the tensions. We assume Coetzee came to the story with an open mind but did he leave with one too? What’s he trying to say?

Since about The Master of Petersburg, most of Coetzee’s novels have used oppositional ideas to power their dynamos. The reader’s changing sympathies fall into a sort of dance with the story itself: Each revelation shifts our allegiances, tilting the axis of the book. It’s like watching a courtroom drama where the very ideas by which we live our lives are put on trial, and we’re not yet certain whodunit. In Disgrace, a college professor in Coetzee’s native South Africa takes sexual advantage of a student and then is himself savagely victimized — in what measure has justice been served? In the underrated Elizabeth Costello, the eponymous fictional novelist accuses a fictionalized version of the real novelist Paul West of depicting the horrors of the Holocaust in a way that effectively exploits them; as we watch her argument unfold, we find ourselves first cheering her on, then recoiling. This is fiction at its best. More… “The Dancer Upstairs”

John Cotter’s first novel Under the Small Lights appeared in 2010 from Miami University Press. A founding editor at the review site Open Letters Monthly, John’s published critical work in Sculpture, Bookforum, and The The Poetry Foundation. Say hi at John [at] JohnCotter [dot] net.
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New writers approaching creative work are often told that “landscape should be a character,” or, even worse, “landscape is a character.” To the extent this means anything, it’s well-intentioned enough. Landscape should be vivid, is how the phrase breaks down, and it should be important to the plot. But I’ve long wondered whether saying “landscape should be a character” is to misunderstand the nature of both character and landscape. More… “Landscape is Action”

John Cotter’s first novel Under the Small Lights appeared in 2010 from Miami University Press. A founding editor at the review site Open Letters Monthly, John’s published critical work in Sculpture, Bookforum, and The The Poetry Foundation. Say hi at John [at] JohnCotter [dot] net.
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“My characters are galley slaves,” Vladimir Nabokov bragged in the pages of Strong Opinions. He was railing against the notion that characters in novels “take on a life of their own” for their creators, authors often unaware of what that person on the page may do next. Nabokov was having none of it.

This is because he was an egotist. Each of the figures in Nabokov’s books is a separate and slightly distorted mirror of Nabokov. Humbert Humbert is VN as sociopath, Pnin is VN but clueless, John Shade is Nabokov the great poet. Ada and Look at the Harlequins tell no stories and hold no people in them: they’re merely fountains of solipsism designed to soak the reader in Nabokov’s self-regard — no extra charge for the big words and little girls. I’m not sure whether he could have created a “believable” character unlike himself even if he’d wanted to. But the spirit was not willing. More… “Chillin’ with DeLillo”

John Cotter’s first novel Under the Small Lights appeared in 2010 from Miami University Press. A founding editor at the review site Open Letters Monthly, John’s published critical work in Sculpture, Bookforum, and The The Poetry Foundation. Say hi at John [at] JohnCotter [dot] net.
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Every place has a rhythm. You must echo that rhythm in your writing. A character in New York City will not be as mellow as a character on the beach. A character in Wyoming will have a more expansive view than the character in Los Angeles. Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick might have had the grandest and most inclusive vision of all had he not permitted that vision to curdle into one single, obsessive focus. But that is Melville’s character; Melville himself is determined to make his novel as commodious and comprehensive as the ocean. Or consider E. M. Forster’s beautiful and foresighted A Passage to India, in which the English author dissects the tensions between native Indians and their British rulers. More… “A Gun in the First Act”

Kelly Cherry‘s new poetry book is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. Her book of flash fiction titled Temporium is forthcoming later this year.
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The world’s most famous consulting detective seems to be on everyone’s minds of late. Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey, Jr., Ian McKellan, and Jonny Lee Miller have all taken on the role of Sherlock Holmes in the last five years, and audiences keep coming. Read Paula Marantz Cohen on the character’s sustained appeal and Fred J. Abbate on how the most devoted fans are trying to learn to think like Sherlock. (philly.comThe Smart Set)

For many bookish library-dwellers, the pages of a book are sacred and the margins are a no trespassing zone. For others, doodling, scratching, and commenting — the art of marginalia — are an indispensable part of understanding a text. Read Dustin Illingworth on the intimacy and beauty of parallel text and Mike Miley on stepping into the mind of David Foster Wallace. (The MillionsThe Smart Set)

What one chooses to read speaks volumes about the reader. Books are often a political or ideological statement. Choose wisely. Read Rebecca Solnit on Esquire’s “Books Every Man Should Read” — and which ones women shouldn’t and Jessa Crispin on why nothing is a “must-read”. (Literary HubThe Smart Set) •

Maren Larsen is the associate editor of The Smart Set. She is a digital journalism student, college radio DJ, and outdoor enthusiast.
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I harbor a host of dreams — “ambitions” seems too vulgar a word to me — that, were they to be realized, would crystalize in something very quiet, contained, at ease, and not especially splashy so far as dreams go, but indicative of a repast that comes with more obvious victories. There will be me in a house by a rocky, cliff-strewn shore. It will be two in the morning — or it always seems to be, in my daydreams of my dream — with low-level lighting as I sit up in a room not unlike one of those quaint old projecting structures at the top of early 19th-century homes where the women of the house gathered and looked seaward for the men of the house. I’ll have a dram of Laphroaig whisky atop the converted lobster trap table by my side, a set of Liszt Paganini études playing at… More…

Sacrificed on the altar of intense realism

Not again, I thought, as I finished watching the second season of House of Cards and saw my favorite character, Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), chief of staff and general fixer for the ruthless politico Frank Underwood, eliminated for good — if death is for good, which I realize that on television it may not be (i.e., Dallas). Still, for all that Frank Underwood is a masterful manipulator, raising the dead isn’t among his skills — and the series isn’t into meta-storytelling — so I assume that Stamper won’t rise from the dead. And so I am upset; I had looked forward to seeing him combine poker-faced efficiency with angst-ridden depth.

I’ve had this happen to me before in the past few years — characters of some complexity that I’d become attached to annihilated without warning. There was the death of Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) and, then, Richard Harrow (Jack Huston)… More…