When J. Hilllis Miller first coined the phrase “the ethics of reading” in the mid-1980s, it constituted a decisive intervention in the overheated debates about the merits of deconstruction, inaugurating the so-called ethical turn within Anglo-American literary studies. Yet it also raised a number of large and now unavoidable questions. What is the place of the political in literary studies today? How are we to construe the relationship between close reading and a broader sociopolitical analysis of literature as an institution? What authority do critics command as guardians of the literary in our globalized, multimedia present? These questions also happen to lie at the heart of J. M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year (2007). As I argue in this essay, this is not just because it is a challengingly singular literary act, which demands that we rethink some of our guiding assumptions about the novel as a genre, but because it circulates as a highly institutionalized material artifact, which has thus far been presented and understood in questionable ways. Indeed, whether seen as a text or a book, or both, Diary obliges us to confront the central challenges facing literary criticism today.

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