In these media-driven days, authors are often expected to behave like celebrities. Websites, blogs and social networking sites encourage writers to maintain a constant dialogue with fans, readers and journalists, and the well known are often expected to lay the secrets of their private lives bare, through the colour supplements of weekend newspapers. The writer, once an invisble pen behind the words, is increasingly being asked to step out of the shadows and tell their own story.
Of course, not all writers acquiesce to these demands; some choose to shirk rather than embrace publicity. J M Coetzee certainly falls into the category of shirker, as he rarely gives interviews and shies away from the limelight. Despite winning the Booker Prize twice, Coetzee attended neither ceremony, although he did turn up to accept the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003. However, in these bizarre times, not doing things can generate as much publicity as doing them, and plenty of people think they know enough about Coetzee to voice an opinion on his character. He’s a sullen man, lacking any sort of humour, they say: a cold fish, either unable or unwilling to engage in the norms of social interaction. He lives like a monk, he never smiles, he barely speaks; on and on the rumour mill churns. But what is the truth? Do these claims about Coetzee’s character have any grounds in reality? And even if they do, does it matter? Are the writer and the man inextricably linked?
Coetzee was born in Cape Town at the beginning of the Second World War, on 2 February 1940, to an English-speaking family with a distinctly Afrikaner flavour, being descended from 17th century Dutch settlers. John Maxwell (to give him his full name) was brought up a Catholic and attended Cape Town University from the late fifties, studying English and Mathematics. A Masters and PhD swiftly followed, and by 1968 Coetzee had abandoned his first job of computer programmer for a full time teaching role in the State University of New York at Buffalo. He applied to become a permanent resident of the USA in 1971, but his application was rejected due to his participation in a university anti-Vietnam war protest.
Although he began writing in 1969, it was only on his return to South Africa that he was published; his first novel, Dusklands, appeared on the shelves in 1974. More novels followed, and before long the awards piled up. In the Heart of the Country (1977) won the CNA Prize in South Africa, and with The Life and Times of Michael K (1983) he bagged his first Booker. Coetzee has since established himself as a firm favourite for the prestigious prize: after winning again in 1999 with Disgrace, he was longlisted twice (for Elizabeth Costello in 2003 and Slow Man in 2005) and made the shortlist in 2009 for Summertime.
Summertime was the third part in Coetzee's fictionalised memoir, continuing the story told in Boyhood (1997) and Youth (2002). The mixture of fact and fiction used to describe the adventures of the character John Coetzee, whose story is told in the third person, raises questions about the dividing line between fact and fiction. If the books are intended to present a truthful autobiographical account of his life, then their publication is an act of extraordinary openness for one so private. Or could it be that through his 'faction' Coetzee is taking the opportunity to subvert the idea of what people choose to believe about him?
Although he emigrated to Adelaide and became an Australian citizen in 2006, Coetzee remains one of the leading lights of South African literature. The public waits with bated breath to see if Coetzee will release an 'Australian novel'.