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J.M. Coetzee on Literature and Psychoanalysis

By Audrey Golden. Sep 10, 2016. 9:00 AM.

Topics: Legendary Authors, Literature, Nobel Prize Winners

What is the relationship between storytelling and clinical psychology? That’s a question the South African Nobel Prize-winning novelist J.M. Coetzee recently attempted to explore through an extended conversation with British clinical psychologist Arabella Kurtz. According to an article in the New Republic*, Kurtz invited Coetzee to engage in this written dialogue despite Coetzee being “notoriously publicly averse.” Yet Coetzee did end up joining in correspondence with Kurtz for around five years, and those letters were published in a book entitled The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy. The correspondence began back in 2008, and it concluded only a few years ago. The text became available just last year through Viking, and we urge any readers interested in Coetzee to pick up a copy today.

Coetzee’s Reluctance to Participate in a Public Dialogue

Coetzee_DisgraceIndeed, J.M. Coetzee initially declined to speak about the links between fiction and psychology, writing to Kurtz, “I suspect I am not the right person for the job . . . I am not a fluent speaker and don’t easily see the point of questions.” He went on to tell her, “I am also dubious of the worth of opinions that are expressed by my public persona.”

While Coetzee might have been reluctant to bridge the questions posed in his fiction with those posed by himself as author, the correspondence ultimately shows a similarity in thinking between Kurtz and the South African novelist, suggesting that there is, indeed, a close relationship between fiction—both the process of writing and reading it—and psychoanalysis.

Understanding the Relationship Between Literary Inquiry and Clinical Psychology

As the “Author’s Note” to the book explains, the dialogue reproduced in the book is “about the practice of psychoanalytic psychotherapy and what that practice means in a wider social and philosophical sphere.” It emphasizes the logical relationship between Kurtz’s and Coetzee’s modes of inquiry, as “language is the working medium of both writers and psychotherapists.” Indeed, the text goes on to articulate, “both are occupied with the exploration, description, and analysis of human experience, with finding or inventing linguistic and narrative structures within which to contain experience, and with the outer limits of experience.”

JM_CoetzeeAre there ultimately therapeutic functions of literature and of the practice of reading? Given Coetzee’s longstanding literary inquiries into the nature of truth and the practice of “truth-telling,” it’s not surprising that the distinctions between learning the truth (about oneself, about others) and healing were at the heart of many of the questions posed within the correspondence. For example, Coetzee wrote to Kurtz early on in their correspondence: “[L]et me ask a question that has nagged at me for some time. What is it that impels you, as a therapist, to want your patient to confront the truth about themself, as opposed to collaborating or colluding in a story—let us call it fiction, but an empowering fiction—that would make the patient feel good about themself, good enough to go out into the world better able to love and work?”

To see the ways in which Coetzee and Kurtz approach this question (and many other significant queries posed throughout the correspondence), you’ll need to pick up your own copy and begin reading. We invite you to think carefully about Coetzee’s notable works of fiction and the many characters he has developed as you immerse yourself in The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy.

Browse our J.M. Coetzee Collection

*Read the full article here.

Audrey Golden
World literature scholar and erstwhile lawyer. Lover of international travel, outdoor markets, and rare books.


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