I am not making a plea for the art I practice. The novel, storytelling in general, will always be able to take care of itself. […]
Storytelling can take care of itself. Is it true? Have censors been so ineffectual, century after century? Yes, they have. They are ineffectual because, in laying down the rules that stories may not transgress, and enforcing these rules, they fail to recognize that the offensiveness of stories lies not in their transgressing particular rules but in their faculty of making and changing their own rules. […] Because (I parody the position somewhat) a story is not a message with a covering, a rhetorical or aesthetic covering. It is not a message plus a residue, the residue, the art with which the message is coated with the residue, forming the subject matter of rhetoric or aesthetics or literary appreciation. There is no addition in stories. They are not made up of one thing plus another thing, message plus vehicle, substructure plus superstructure. On the keyboard on which they are written, the plus key does not work. There is always a difference; and the difference is not a part, the part left behind after the subtraction. The minus key does not work either: the difference is everything.
Storytelling (let me repeat myself at the risk of boring you) is not a way of making messages more –as they say– ‘effective’. Storytelling is another, an other mode of thinking. It is more venerable than history, as ancient as the cockroach. Nor is this primitiveness the only way in which stories resemble cockroaches. Like cockroaches, stories can be consumed. All you need to do is tear off the wings and sprinkle a little salt on them. They are nourishing, to a degree, though if you are truly looking for nourishment you would probably look elsewhere. Cockroaches can also be colonized. You can capture them in a cockroach trap, breed them (quite easily), herd them together in cockroach farms. You can put pints through them and mount them in cases, with labels. You can use their wings to cover lampshades with. You can do minute dissections of their respiratory systems, and stain them, and photograph them, and frame them, and hang them on the wall. You can, if you wish, dry them and powder them and mix them with high explosives and make bombs of them. You can even make up stories about them, as Kafka did, although this is quite hard. One of the things you cannot –apparently– do is eradicate them. They breed, as the figure has it, like flies, and under the harshest circumstances. It is not known for what reason they are on the earth, which would probably be a nicer place –certainly an easier place to understand– without them. It is said that they will still be around when we and all our artefacts have disappeared.
This is called a parable, a mode favoured by marginal groups – groups that don’t have a place in the mainstream, in the main plot of history – because it is hard to pin down unequivocally what the point is.
In the end there is still the difference between a cockroach and a story, and the difference remains everything.
J. M. Coetzee, “The Novel Today”, Upstream , vol. 6, 1988, pp. 3-4
Illustration inspired by a drawing of a rhinoceros from the Chauvet Cave, France