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‘See What You Can Make of It’

Beth Garrabrandt

Joyce Carol Oates

Beth Garrabrandt

Joyce Carol Oates

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our email newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.


In our February 10, 2022, issue, Joyce Carol Oates reviewed Empty Wardrobes, the first English-language translation of the midcentury Portuguese writer Maria Judite de Carvalho. Oates finds the novel “executed…as precisely and without sentiment as an autopsy,” a dark and unsparing examination of “figures of female pathos” who “lack the ferocious resentments and strategies of self-determination found in the female characters of Carvalho’s contemporary Doris Lessing.” This description of Lessing’s protagonists could just as easily describe some of the most memorable characters in Oates’s fiction, who, despite often being doomed (like Kelly, the Mary Jo Kopechne stand-in from Black Water, or Connie, the teenager pushed off the precipice of adulthood in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”), could hardly be called passive, possessing instead a fierce will to live and a determination to keep going.

That last could be said of Oates. Not counting a clutch of letters and two poems, the Carvalho essay is her seventy-eighth byline in our pages. Her first review, “The Cruelest Sport,” was published thirty years ago last Sunday. In addition to contributing an average of two and a half reviews per year since 1992, she has published numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, and several collections of poetry, while teaching creative writing at Princeton and, presently, at Rutgers (New Brunswick), where she is Visiting Distinguished Professor in the School of Arts and Sciences.

Oates also found time to e-mail with me last week, and we discussed her writing process, the fascination of being edited, her history with the Review, and her presence on Twitter.


Daniel Drake: Why do you write? What brings you to writing?

Joyce Carol Oates: Writing is very natural to me, I suppose. I love working with language and (usually) imagining mediated voices in narratives of some complexity and originality, which can yield surprises in the writing and the opportunity to explore a kind of vivid alternate reality.

I am not so interested in my own voice, the voice of the reviewer/essayist, precisely because it is my “own” voice, thus not likely to surprise me or take me to unexpected places. Yet, there is a kind of pleasure in speaking directly and without a mask (a timely metaphor!)—this is my “teaching” voice, as well.

I wonder if I am alone or in some way represent other longtime reviewers for The New York Review in saying that there is definitely an “NYRB voice” or tone that would not be appropriate for another publication, like The New York Times Book Review, with a more general, less academic audience. Longtime writers for The New Yorker surely calibrate their prose for that magazine’s particular font, as one does for the NYR’s, without thinking or intending to do so.

Do I sound bizarrely literal? I don’t mean to be; it’s simply the case that book reviewing is a purely site-specific activity. One does not write book reviews with no specific publication in mind, as one might write fiction or poetry; except in rare instances, a book review has been assigned or suggested by an editor. Virtually all my reviews for the NYR were inspired by editors; they were not self-generated.

For a very long time—more than thirty years?—I was either writing an essay for the NYR or immersed in the reading that preceded it (usually involving the reading of previous books by the writer under review); visitors were bemused that there was an NYR pile of books in a certain nook of the house, and that I was always in some stage of writing something for Barbara Epstein or, after Barbara’s death, for Bob Silvers. If I’d just finished a review, many of a length that elsewhere would have been called a “review-essay,” I would already have received a new book or box of books from Bob to consider for the next one, with the handwritten note, “See what you can make of it.”

How stunning it was in March 2017 to learn that Bob had died! Though I had known that he was unwell, and he was eighty-seven, I was certainly unprepared for his abrupt passing. I remember vividly how I learned of it: returning to civilization from a long day hiking and taking photographs in Death Valley with my husband, Charlie Gross, I checked my cell phone, which had been inoperable while we were in the desert, to learn, as e-mails began to flood in, that “Robert Silvers, Editor of The New York Review” had died…. We were standing in a restaurant, not yet seated, as I stared at my phone and Charlie said, “Is something wrong?”

The last work of mine that Bob had accepted for publication wasn’t, oddly, a review but a poem, a bleak, droll, political-commentary sort of poem speaking to the degradation and malaise of the Trump era, titled, all too aptly, “Exsanguination.” It appeared after Bob’s death—so very sadly.

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This is your fourth decade writing for the Review. Are there any articles in your archive that you are particularly fond of, or find yourself thinking about?

My first review for the NYR, at Barbara’s request, was really a review-essay about boxing, in which I discussed several books, including a biography of Muhammad Ali. This was an exciting occasion for me, for it was the first time that I’d reviewed any books about boxing for any publication.

Overall, it’s probably the longer reviews, reviews that are also essays, that have meant the most to me. These include lengthy pieces on H. P. Lovecraft, the “literature of serial killers” (a review that also dealt with serial-killer trading cards!), books on JonBenét Ramsey, omnibus gatherings of short story collections; overviews of Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, Jean Stafford, Joan Didion, Shirley Jackson, Richard Flanagan, Emily Dickinson, Annie Proulx, Flannery O’Connor.

Do you enjoy being edited?

It was always a pleasure to be edited closely by Barbara, who invariably marked a galley in the margin with “explain” or “expand” or “examples?” Bob did not edit in quite this way, toward expansion, being rather more interested in the actual prose—infelicities of speech or grammar, uses and misuses of punctuation. Being edited by a sharp-eyed editor is always a fascinating experience, perhaps not unlike entering an imaging machine and seeing MRI photos of one’s brain.

What are you working on right now?

I am immersed in a short novel about J. Marion Sims, the famous/infamous “father of modern gynecology,” who experimented on enslaved Black women and children in the 1840s in Montgomery, Alabama, allowing him to discover a way to repair fistulas in afflicted girls and women following difficult childbirths. My character both is and isn’t the historic Sims—his name is Syms. Sims’s most exploited subject, Anarcha Westcott, appears in my narrative as Arelia. Though the novel is based for the most part on actual events, the tone is rather more a hallucinatory sort of realism than strict realism. The title is, appropriately, Butcher.

We see from Sims’s autobiography, The Story of My Life, published posthumously in 1884, how an individual of more than average intelligence and vision—seen by himself and others of his acquaintance as a “good” Christian husband and father—could, at the same time, function as an absolute racist, as indifferent to his subjects’ suffering as presumably Descartes would have been to the suffering of animals, since Descartes believed that animals were just machines, without sensation. Yet Sims was widely honored in his own time, and a controversial and quite ugly statue of him was only just recently removed from Central Park.

You once incisively described the hordes of people on Twitter as “rushing around the landscape of news.” You’re a keen user of the platform yourself. How do you decide what to tweet?

Though I follow some accounts on Twitter avidly, and have learned much from its grassroots journalism aspect, in which far-flung individuals report and comment on what is happening in parts of the country often ignored by mainstream media, I am not so very interested in Twitter overall. It’s a purposefully fleeting, ephemeral medium, not unlike casual conversation; its most brilliant witticisms are quickly forgotten. It is, however, a curious simulacrum of a world, perhaps a fantasy world, where, in Emily Dickinson’s words, “the soul selects its own society”—and shuts its door against the rest by muting, blocking, or just remaining in blissful ignorance. Thousands of tweets, however, don’t add up to a single review in The New York Review of Books.

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