In the latest issue of Prospect, I’ve written a piece comparing two of fiction’s “ageing masters,” Philip Roth and JM Coetzee. The contention of the piece is that, although there are obvious and important differences between them, Roth and Coetzee are alike in lots of ways. I am aware that such compare and contrast exercises can be slightly artificial: if you look hard enough, similarities can probably be found between any pair of writers. (When I mentioned to a journalist friend that I was thinking of writing a comparison between Roth and Coetzee, he said he’d long been intending to write a comparison between Coetzee and Pynchon, so there you go.) Nevertheless, I do think that there are real points of overlap between Roth and Coetzee, which haven’t often been explored before. And then when I read their latest novels, and saw how similar they were, I thought the piece was crying out to be written. If I had to identify one thing that really makes me think of these two writers as similiar, I would say this: hardness. There is something hard and unforgiving about their temperaments, about the way they write, about the way they see the world. Some writers are soft (Updike, Dickens), some are in the middle (George Eliot), and some are rock hard. But if I had to say which out of the two is harder, I’d probably say Coetzee. Any thoughts on Roth, Coetzee or literary hard men (or women) generally would be welcome.
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