Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Monday, April 2, 2012

I Love Joyce (Carol Oates) ...

Joyce Carol Oates

In the New New York Times Book Review yesterday there was a review of Joyce Carol Oates' new novel, Mudwoman.  The review--by Maria Russo--was generally flattering.  But then came this passage: "You hear her name and wait for the inevitable 'joke' about the rapid pace at which her books appear.  But neither can she ever quite write a cultural landmark, a transcendent book that would elevate her to that place where the jokes don't stick.  ... Even on the level of pop culture, Oates's lack of influence is striking, given her ubiquity ...."  (Link to complete review: NYTBR review of MUDWOMAN)

I first read Oates back in 1970, not long after marrying another Joyce.  Oates had just won the National Book Award for Fiction (for her novel them), and I loved the book--loved her writing.  Over the years I've read most of her fiction and much of her criticism.  And that's not easy.  As the Times reviewer notes, she is extraordinarily prolific--though no more so, I would say, than Dickens and Trollope would have been if they'd had word-processors.

I've also had the good fortune to review her work a couple of times--most notably the terrific story collection Wild Nights! (the title is from an Emily Dickinson poem), stories based on actual literary figures--Poe, Twain, Henry James, and Dickinson among them.

Oates also writes an occasional thriller, poetry, plays, essays, literary criticism, memoir.  All while teaching at Princeton.

And as a result, reviews invariably mention how much she writes--the implication being: There's just so much--how can any of it be good?

It's not mostly good.  It's mostly wonderful.  She so easily inhabits the lives and imaginations of people who are profoundly unlike her.  She writes about people at all points along the economic continuum.  She sees through the eyes of troubled teens, fatuous men, anxious women--people of all sorts.  And with an astonishing clarity and credibility.

She writes much better criticism than most critics (me included, believe me), prompting me to wonder: Is there some professional jealousy afoot?  Is her productivity--her fierce work ethic--somehow a threat? 

And surely there's sexism as well.  We admire Zola and Trollope--use the word "genius" to describe them.  In our own day, John Updike had a career very much likes Oates' (sans the academic affiliation). And when he died in 2009, the press celebrated him as American's greatest man of letters--that sort of thing.

But with Oates, we choose other words ("prolific," "ubiquity").  For her, we set lofty standards we do not hold for men--the demand that she write, as the Times critic put it, a "transcndent" book.  In other words: Oates, write Moby-Dick; then maybe we'll take you seriously.

And as another Joyce (Dyer) mentioned last night as we were talking about this, it sometimes takes decades (or more) for readers/critics to realize that a book is "transcendent"--Exhibit A: Moby-Dick.

Anyway, I've not yet read Mudwoman.  I will, though.  Oates is a phenomenon.  Is phenomenal.  And I don't want to miss a word.

PS--An old college friend, William (Bill!) Heath, once told me a story about Oates.  He was attending a panel of writers somewhere; Oates was among them.  One of the questions was Why do you write?  Bill said that the other writers went first and talked about esoterica--connecting with the cosmos, that sort of thing.  Then it was Oates' turn.  And she said: I write because I'm damn good at it. 

Love it.

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