Criteria of embarrassment: J. M. Coetzee's 'Jesus Trilogy' and the legacy of modernist difficulty
De Villiers, Rick
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This article takes as its starting point the divergent responses that J.M. Coetzee’s Jesus trilogy (The Childhood of Jesus , The Schooldays of Jesus  and The Death of Jesus ) has drawn from reviewers and scholars respectively. Where reviewers have generally regarded these works’ difficulty as obstructive, scholars have taken their difficulty as both the justification and catalyst for sustained engagement. This divergence is explained, in part, as a consequence of the literacies developed by and in response to modernism – literacies which regarded difficulty as both the signature of the worthwhile artwork and as the criterion which justifies the special attention of specialized readers. If one aim of this article is to situate Coetzee and Coetzee studies within this tradition, a second aim is to ask whether the forms of attention garnered by his late trilogy are less an index of intrinsic challenges than of Coetzee’s reputation as a challenging writer. To do so is to worry the overready ascription of ‘Coetzeean’ difficulty – along with the modes of reading it tends to enlist – in order to reposition bewilderment, embarrassment and other ugly aesthetic-affects as generative for criticism.