Sunday, April 1, 2012

Twittersphere Panties in Bunch over Latest JM Coetzee Provocation

(N.B., any similarity to the current scandale-du-jour is purely coincidental.)

The "Twittter-verse" erupted in a cacophony of outrage and indignation last week over the latest JM Coetzee essay in the New York Review of Books. The essay, a colloquy on some of the more obscure incidents in the life of the poet John Clare, including his alcohol-addled attack on the actor playing Shylock during a North London production of Merchant of Venice in 1835, has some in the blogosphere crying foul. "Coetzee is clearly bullying his way onto the public stage with this recycling of Clare's well-known struggles with mental stability--and at a time when Clare himself is no longer here to defend himself.. I expect Coetzee will soon be holding forth on the hegemonic blah blah of something" declared Wendy Bazimu in the online version--gated, subscription required--of Marxism Today. Se added that the reader should feel free to finish the sentence with her own favored expression of ritual indignation.

Coetzee is well known for his provocative, sometimes histrionic presence, lighting up journals such as Mind and the Times Literary Supplement with provocative--some say needlessly self-promoting--takes on  Turgenev's original publishing house or the dilemmas posed by artificial fertilization usage for Australian rutabaga yields. The question, this time, is whether his contentious style has crossed a heretofore invisible line, now heavily policed by a growing community of online skeptics ready to pounce on what they believe to be instances of poor taste and "badliterocracy."

As a white, South African male, Coetzee has long probed the moral corruptions of and by pity and shame, in works of withering, sometimes baffling spareness. His millions of online devotees have responded to his words in the traditional style of literary fans everywhere--by bracelet buying and postering. Some credit the massive online petition drive of 2003 for Coetzee winning the Nobel Literature Prize later that year.

Still, no one--not even Coetzee himself, it seems fair to say--expected the shitstorm that erupted last week when he first posted his thoughts on Clare's peculiar unraveling. The day after the essay was posted it had earned a respectable 20,000 "hits"--the number of independent viewers "clicking" on the web site. Days two and three saw those numbers climb somewhere north of the hundred thousand mark. Then came the deluge: twitters on accounts maintained by the PR companies on behalf of P. Diddy and Justin Bieber linked to the essay, causing the New York Review's web site to crash; gap-jawed editors at the venerable publication watched in awe as thousands turned into tens of millions. As of this publication, Coetzee's essay has been read by over 80 million people.

"Retooling the web site to handle this kind of traffic hasn't been easy," said the Review's tech operator and frustrated novelist Jedediah Harborsmith. "Fortunately, we've already re-cooped the tens of thousands of dollars we had to invest in the servers through higher than average grocery store purchases of the Review. We don't fully understand why shoppers out for a pint of Chubby Hubby are buying the Review, but we're not ones to look a gift horse in the mouth."

A backlash, perhaps inevitable in today's interconnected world, soon followed. "Not since Elisabeth Nietzsche traduced her husband's memory has one figure so diminished another, greater spirit," declared Diane Sawyer, of Good Morning America. [1] "A 'disgrace'--to coin a phrase," said Fox and Friends Gretchen Carlson, making air quotes. The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof lambasted the piece as a sort of voyeuristic hit-job on the entire era. "I can say for certain that if I were an impoverished 19th century poet with a history of alcoholism and a wife named Helda I would think about this topic exactly as I actually do, in my real life as a wealthy 21st century American aristocrat," he declared.

A counter-backlash emerged almost as quickly, as admiration for the Nobelist's aperçus were swift in coming. "Courageous and heart-rending," tweeted Chloe Kardashian, while TV star Whitney Cummings (note to editor: not a stage name) declared her life permanently altered for the better after reading the article. But even some of Coetzee's long-time defenders admit that his latest musings are dicey. "When you throw together neglected romantic poets, anti-semitism, and what appears to be a slant-ways defense of your own aesthetic, well, I don't need to tell you, you've got a real witches' brew," said I M Comely, of Herfodshire, New Caledonia. "Truth be told, I wish he hadn't gone there."

[1] Surely she meant his sister. Nietzsche never wed.

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