'The Good Story' Explores the Commonalities Between Psychoanalysis and Fiction


The Good Story is a discussion–written exchanges over a number of years–between JM Coetzee, a novelist with an interest in moral psychology, and Arabella Kurtz, a clinical psychoanalyst of literary inclination, about the nature of storytelling. It is a serious work, conducted in an inquisitive and relaxed spirit, and if its tone is sometimes a little dry, it is always interesting and often enjoyable.

The authors agree that fiction and psychoanalysis have much in common, that they are both "psychic processes", with the common assumption that "our seeming lives are not our real lives". The stories we tell about our lives, to others and to ourselves, may well be, as Kurtz puts it, "more remarkable for their inaccuracies than anything else". They are not lies exactly, but creative narratives. Like fiction, they are lies that tell the truth.

A similar principle applies to history, the stories nations tell about themselves. Coetzee, left, considers his adopted country Australia (he is South African) and to the comforting doublethink of modern liberal opinion. White Australians are beneficiaries of the crimes committed against the native population by their forebears. But the pioneers are not to blame, because they held false beliefs, particularly about race. Modern Australians would not commit such crimes, though they do treat asylum-seekers with exemplary harshness. Future generations may come to see that as wrong, but we are all children of our times, and if we make mistakes they are not our fault: our times are to blame.

The authors discuss Cervantes, Dostoevsky and Flaubert, among others, and consider the primal story of a young man who commits a crime, runs away, builds a new life and achieves respectability until one day a stranger appears, asking questions, and the man is ruined. (This contrasts with the detective story, in that we identify with the criminal, while Oedipus Rex combines the two, as Oedipus is both criminal and detective.) Coetzee asks if it is possible to tell the opposite story, which ends with: "And his secret was forgotten and he lived happily ever after." No, mainly because it would deny cosmic justice.

Coetzee and Kurtz range freely across space and time, from ancient spells of bewitchment to the "confessions" of celebrities in magazines. Their arguments have a meditative quality, challenging, and helpfully open-ended.