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The Wand of the Enchanter

1.

Joyce Carol Oates still bothers people—in all kinds of ways. For more than forty-five years she has been steadily producing novels, short stories, poems, essays, plays. Between the beginning of 2000 and the end of 2005 she published nineteen books. She has written over seven hundred short stories, more than Maupassant, Kipling, and Chekhov combined. There can’t be many literary quarterlies or little magazines in which Oates hasn’t appeared. They range from Agni to Zoetrope, and include both Family Circle and Playboy, Virginia Quarterly Review and Cosmopolitan.

In her archives at Syracuse University lie the finished manuscripts of several books she mysteriously decided not to publish, most notably The Crosswicks Horror, which was intended as a companion to her pastiches of nineteenth-century sensation fiction, Bellefleur and A Bloodsmoor Romance. She’s brought out psychological suspense thrillers under the pen names Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly—and even written children’s books (Come Meet Muffin!) and young adult novels.

Her work is regularly chosen for The Best American Short Stories—and for The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. In her thirties she won the National Book Award for Them, and in her sixties We Were the Mulvaneys was picked as an Oprah Book Club choice. In the years between, she received, among many other honors, the Lifetime Achievement Award of the International Horror Writers Guild. For more than twenty-five years she’s been rumored to be a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature.

Such astonishing range and productivity might instill envy in even the industrious Henry James and Virginia Woolf (the serious professional writers with whom Oates most identifies). Yet throughout her life Oates has also been a professor of English, first at the University of Detroit, and for many years now at Princeton. Her students have included the youthful novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, who has said that she acted as his mentor in producing his widely admired Everything Is Illuminated. Teaching clearly matters to her, since she could have afforded to give it up long ago.

With her husband Raymond Smith, moreover, Oates has edited The Ontario Review and, from time to time, published books under its imprint. She has regularly contributed substantial essays and reviews to, among others, The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, and The New York Review of Books. Somehow, the seemingly tireless writer also keeps a journal, plays the piano, jogs, gardens, draws, cooks, and reads as indefatigably as she writes. (But she doesn’t watch television: TV, Oates has said, is “for people who are skimming along on the surface of life.”) Her good friend the scholar Elaine Showalter once remarked that you had but to mention a book and “Joyce will have the novel read by next week.”

In short, Joyce Carol Oates is a major one-woman industry. Her journal tells us that she writes from 8 till 1 every day, then again for two or three hours in the evening. And she revises and polishes and reworks page after page after page. Such commitment, coupled with her literary fecundity, unnerves many people. Surely so many books can’t be that good, that deeply felt, truly authentic?

If you don’t know the answer to those questions already, read The Gravedigger’s Daughter, her novel of last May about immigrants from Nazi Germany who settle in upstate New York. Though one may argue about aspects of the book, there can be no question of its power and conviction. The same can be said about most of Oates’s major novels. Look at her paperbacks and nearly every other one is acclaimed as her best work yet. Constantly exploring new aspects of American life, Joyce Carol Oates has restlessly evolved as an artist.

Her short stories, in which she sometimes reacts to earlier works of art or experiments with form, may be even better than her novels, if only because the need for concision often seems to inhibit her instinct to be expansive and leisurely. In “The Lady with the Pet Dog” she brilliantly reimagines Chekhov’s most heartbreaking story (and in “The Dead” and “The Metamorphosis” reconceives Joyce and Kafka).* “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” and “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Corrections, and Began My Life Over Again” have long been classroom classics.

Still, Joyce Carol Oates distresses more than a few writers and critics. She can raise doubts and misgivings—about effort, ability, and commitment—in nearly any novelist or essayist (except, possibly, John Updike). Similarly, critics—on the printed page or in conversation—all too frequently deride Oates’s work for its copiousness; some suggest it is the product of obsessive-compulsive behavior. Often, I suspect, this crude reductionism derives from reviewer’s angst: How does one judge a new book by Oates when one is not familiar with most of the backlist? Where does one start? In an interview with Robert Phillips, Oates neatly answers this:

I note and can to some extent sympathize with the objurgatory tone of certain critics who feel that I write too much because, quite wrongly, they believe they ought to have read most of my books before attempting to criticize a recently published one…. Yet each book is a world unto itself, and must stand alone and it should not matter whether a book is a writer’s first, or tenth, or fiftieth.

Furthermore, she reasonably concludes, “It may be that we all must write many books in order to achieve a few lasting ones.”

Not least, there’s also a common complaint about the character of Oates’s fiction—that it is grim, full of violence, relentlessly dark in tone, and largely populated by psychopaths (usually male) and their prey (usually female). When people describe her novels they generally reach for words like Dreiserian, gothic, expressionist, and grotesque. Though Oates can be funny—most obviously in some of her scenes of academic life, but also in books like A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982)—she admits that her imagination “seems to turn instinctively toward the central, centralizing act of violence.” In fact, she points out that such violence generally “seems to symbolize something beyond itself. Like a lightning flash illuminating part of a culture or an era.” She questions whether her writing is unduly violent: to her mind, she’s simply presenting the moral and social conditions of America. “Most of my novels and stories,” she told an interviewer,

are explorations of the contemporary world interpreted in a realist mode, from what might be called a tragic and humanistic viewpoint. Tragedy always upholds the human spirit because it is an exploration of human nature in terms of its strengths. One simply cannot know strengths unless suffering, misfortune, and violence are explored quite frankly by the writer.

Hence such common Oatesean themes as racism, anti-Semitism, adultery, alcoholism, religious fanaticism, legal chicanery, brutality against women, working-class despair, and madness leading to murder. This is, after all, the world we live in. Where Oates excels is in her ability to inhabit her doomed or depraved people—she calls it being “haunted” by them—even as they take us into some very dark places.

If Joyce Carol Oates and her prodigality and the violence of her fiction continue to bother people, this is really as it should be. People grouse about every important writer: Cormac McCarthy is too gruesome and bloody, Philip Roth too obsessed with sex, John Updike too exquisite a stylist. Yet as Cocteau said: “What the public criticizes you for, cultivate: It is you.” Oates is deeply serious about literature, not about popularity or the marketplace. She cites Nietzsche approvingly in her journal: “To make the individual uncomfortable, that is my task.” This prodigious author, in every sense of the adjective, writes the sort of fiction that aims to honor Kafka’s famous prescription:

The books we need are of the kind that act upon us like a misfortune, that make us suffer like the death of someone we love more than ourselves, that make us feel as though we were on the verge of suicide, or lost in a forest remote from all human habitation—a book should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us.

2.

Perhaps the chief interest in The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates: 1973–1982 lies in its ongoing analysis of Oates’s artistic life—and in her vexation with many of the misapprehensions about her work and aesthetics, especially her productivity. The book’s editor, Greg Johnson (who is also Oates’s biographer), has excised family news and, unfortunately, academic gossip as well. Neither is there much here about the books Oates is reading, the classes she teaches, or the people she knows. Despite some portraits of noted writers—John Gardner, John Updike, Philip Roth, Susan Sontag—this is largely a journal of the interior life, one that emphasizes the author’s more theoretical and philosophical views about the nature of art, while also describing her creative routine and recording her progress on the current book (in these years, The Assassins, Childwold, and Bellefleur, among others).

Alongside such professional concerns, these pages also reflect periodically on the happiness Oates has found in her life with Raymond Smith. Though her husband hardly appears in the journal, she makes it clear that their relationship provides the foundation for her ordered life of joyful work:

The days, the marvelous rich days …passing…accumulating. If ever I look back upon this phase of my life I will have to admit: that was as close to heaven as one might reasonably expect.

Early on, she notes that after fourteen years of marriage she and Smith had probably not spent more than two or three nights apart.

Oates likes to quote the first half of a celebrated Flaubert dictum: “Live like a bourgeois” (leaving implied, perhaps through diffidence, its conclusion: “in order to write like a genius”). Only because her own life is so ordered, or so she suggests, can she plunge into the disordered worlds and characters of her books. “If I lived a difficult life, if I were unstable, how could I write a novel like The Assassins or the Spider Monkey, how could I explore such lives?” Drawing on a famous remark from Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s Axel, she adds, “As for sinning, my characters can do that for me.” (Like many well-read people, Oates frequently quotes or paraphrases, usually without identifying the source.) She also confesses that her reputation as a fragile shut-in is partly of her own making: illness provides a simple way to refuse invitations to lecture or travel. After all, if one is perfectly happy writing and teaching, why bother?

I love to wake up early and begin to read. While the house is absolutely silent—Ray still asleep, nothing in motion. And then, after he’s awake, work at my desk. Until 1:30 or 2. Then have breakfast (apple & cottage cheese). Then return to my desk…. Anything, everything, charms me at such times. Working on The Possessed [for an essay] or my own novel; dreamily shuffling through my old notes for stories or for Bellefleur; writing letters, postcards; staring out the window (at the perpetually falling snow—and occasionally cardinals, and often sparrows, in the berry bushes; today it’s snowing so thickly that the river is invisible); thinking about the University; about students, classes, colleagues, things I must do, books I must read; day-dreaming; doodling; rewriting a brief chapter in Evening & Morning; browsing through things that have found their way onto my desk, for some reason; thinking vaguely ahead, as the afternoon darkens, to dinner….

  1. *

    In April of next year, Oates will bring out Wild Nights: Stories About the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway (Ecco).

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