A Bloodsmoor Romance
by Joyce Carol Oates
Dutton, 615 pp., $16.95
Interviewers like to ask Joyce Carol Oates, presumably in the accent of awe, how she finds time to write all those books: fourteen novels, counting A Bloodsmoor Romance, eleven collections of short stories, six books of poetry, counting Invisible Woman: New and Selected Poems 1970-1982, two plays, and three books of criticism. The question isn’t as innocent as it sounds. With a slight change of tone, it could come out differently, as if it asked: “Don’t you think your reputation would be even higher than it is if you took more time, let the typescripts stay on your desk for a year or two before sending them to the publisher? Think of E.M. Forster, a classic novelist on the strength of one book, eked out by a few short volumes and many years of silence.” Oates has answered the question, in its implied second form, by saying: “I write with the enormous hope of altering the world.” You might as well take as many shots at that target as you think you need, especially if proof that you’ve altered the world doesn’t come merely because you send for it. Oates might also deal with Forster by saying: think of Balzac, think of James.
The question, in any form, is a little vulgar, but it could be redeemed. There is a genuine question to be asked about a novelist who is, as Oates is, serious, prolific, and popular. Is her seriousness limited, carefully restrained to make it compatible with the demands of popularity? Is she popular because she is prolific, a success because she is already a success, the habit well formed? Or because it is attractive to see a writer as productive in her craft as, say, a successful businessman is in his? Oates has made much of a line in King Lear where the King says, “They told me I was everything. ‘Tis a lie,” and she has converted it into the motto that “the artist must act upon the frail conviction that he is everything, else he will prove nothing.” Believing that nothing will come of nothing, she speaks again and again.
Oates’s fiction is hard to describe, mainly because it is equivocal in its relation to the genres it ostensibly fulfills. Bellefleur (1980) comes as close as any other book to representing the quality of her work. It is a big book, a saga about an American family, already cursed and living out its doom. The generations are elaborately described, the narrative style is even more full-blooded than the blood it spills. The several stories are grandly sustained. But they are all told as if they had already been narrated elsewhere and have only to be alluded to. The strength of the novel arises from the impression, carefully maintained, that the events are now being recalled rather than imagined. In fact, we rarely feel, reading Bellefleur, that Oates’s imagination is creatively alive; it never seems spontaneous. Even when we believe …