20 October 2004

Joyce Carol Oates: Some Contradictions

I have avoided writing about Joyce Carol Oates for a long time, and for a variety of reasons. Mostly, because I'm conflicted -- I find a small amount of her writings to be compelling and brilliant, the majority of them to be frustrating; the phenomenon of her career fascinating, but also exhausting.

Two recent responses to her work have caught my attention, though. First, there's Lionel Shriver in the Globe and Mail opening a review with this sentence: "Joyce Carol Oates is an atrocious writer."

The second piece to catch my eye was Miriam Burstein's post at The Little Professor about Oates's novel The Tattooed Girl. Burstein's general feelings about Oates are somewhat similar to mine: "As an undergraduate, I devoured Joyce Carol Oates' novels every chance I could get. A decade on, I find that my enthusiasm has waned to a near-vanishing point..." I, too, began reading Oates while at college, and her writing was an addiction for a couple of years. Part of this stemmed from how I became interested in Oates: I was in a staged reading of one of her plays. I didn't think it was a good play (far from it), but I enjoyed meeting her, and so I began reading her books. After a few years of finding her work to be flawed but compelling, my interest in her cooled, and I decided she was skilled at melodrama, but not much else.

Burstein writes,
While I was reading, the word that kept creeping into my head was..."facile." Oates doesn't seem particularly comfortable imagining her way into the heads of anti-Semites, which means that despite the back cover blurb's boast that she "probes the tragedy of ethnic hatred and challenges accepted limits of desire," the probing doesn't get far below the epidermis.
Yes, facile, exactly. And not just in her approach to her subject matter, but in the prose. Once upon a time, I thought Oates's prose style was carefully, skillfully crafted to seem careless, to capture the tumble of characters' thoughts and their visceral reactions to the world. But, in her novels at least, that's the way she always writes, regardless of whether it's an appropriate tool. It has become a habit, a stylistic tic, a shortcut to avoid having to create real emotional content for her books. All thoughts are breathless, all responses are overwrought. This is not meta-melodrama, it's just melodrama.

From her earliest books, critics have wondered why Oates writes so obsessively about violence. She bristles at the question, saying that life is violent and therefore writers should write about it, but I think the question recurs not so much because Oates writes about violence, but because of the way she does it. In much of her fiction, violence is a cheap trick she uses to create drama and intensity. She creates grotesque situations, writes about them with lots of exclamation points and simplistic stream-of-consciousness, and therefore avoids any effects of more depth or subtlety.

These criticisms are general, not specific. There are works by Oates that are, at least in my memory (I haven't read any for a few years), notably more complex and effective than the majority of her work. Broke Heart Blues is overlong but has some interesting parts, Because It is Bitter, and Because It is My Heart is deeply moving almost to the end, and the first 100 or so pages of Wonderland are as intense as any I have read (unfortunately, the rest of the book isn't nearly as good). I have heard great things about her gothic series (Bellefleur, A Bloodsmoor Romance, Mysteries of Winterthurn, and My Heart Laid Bare), but, for one reason or another, when I was reading Oates I stuck to her realistic fiction.

One of the things I admire about Oates is her determination, and her willingness to write in a wide variety of genres and modes. She has published in F&SF, Ellery Queen's, and various of Ellen Datlow's anthologies. She has praised Stephen King and edited a collection of Lovecraft's stories. Her anthology of American Gothic Tales is wide-ranging and filled with interesting choices (I'm particularly fond of Nicholson Baker's "Subsoil"). On the other hand, I often find Oates's nonfiction to be -- that word again -- facile, at least when she's writing about topics I know something about. Little errors crop up a lot, the result of, apparently, writing more from memory than from research.

Lionel Shriver says, "Oates gives the impression of publishing nothing but first drafts, which helps to explain her astounding output, and her implicit motto that more is more," but Greg Johnson, Oates's biographer, has documented that Oates revises constantly and obsessively. I have often wondered how a writer who spends, apparently, so much effort on her prose can write so many truly dreadful paragraphs, pages, and entire books. Now and then something great comes out, but so does an awful lot of dreck.

Eventually, we will be able to look back over Oates's entire career and find the gems, but for the moment we're stuck with sorting through all the dreck. I, for one, have given up, because I don't want to keep wasting my time hoping Oates will write a masterpiece. Watching her was fascinating for a while, but now it's simply exhausting, and somewhat sad, because I can't help but think she is wasting the potential she once showed, wasting it by writing so carelessly. Even when she's not being careless.

2 comments:

  1. tru dat!!!

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  2. This is a pretty amazing summary (btw, I had a writing workshop with Oates one time; she was great--and we had lunch later that same afternoon, and she even contributed a poem to a litmag I was editing at the time). She was polite, inquisitive and very accomodating.

    I really didn't have a particularly favorable opinion of Oates until I read Because it is Bitter, which just knocked me over. And then I got what she was about (I think).

    She has a knack for making a narrative work (regardless of subject matter or inspiration). Her works seem almost like writing exercises--albeit carefully constructed ones. She feels detached from subject matter, genre and even writing style. It's just "here's oates writing a crime novel," "here's oates writing pretty short stories, etc." I feel self-conscious reading these third person narratives and feel they don't always ring true.

    I don't want to fault people for being adventurous or prolific, but early commercial success gives these writers a privileged vantage point for writing. Even a mediocre novel is likely to receive press coverage, etc. She's just not having to fight with herself (or the world) to make her literary experiments worthwhile or relevant. She's just playing around with types and forms. She can afford to be less than brilliant sometimes. Less-than-successful writers don't have that luxury really. They really have to try hard.

    I just picked up Assignation last week and just found the prose thrilling (though the storyline not as thrilling--that's a preliminary opinion only). Let's compare Morrison with Oates, both teachers at Princeton. Oates is clearly the superior writer, and her feats of imagination are unparalleled, though she really has won fans for her early melodramas (Them, etc). Morrison is not a particularly competent or prolific writer, but people feel passionate about what she writes about , the witness she bears, the injustice she speaks out against. Morrison has a fan base significantly larger than Oates' and always will.

    I have to wonder which type of writer/writing will prevail. Curiously, I have found Oates' forays into journalism (On Boxing, etc) to be more interesting than the ostensible subject matter of her fiction (much as I adore the prose itself). In these cases, she has to confront people and things and events and try hard to understand social relevance, something she doesn't try as hard to do in her fiction.

    The more I think about it, the more tempting it is to compare her to Henry James: tightly wrought prose, several dramatic stylistic departures, utter mastery of the craft and yet very few memorable characters that resonate with readers. Also, both writers were profound critics.

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