Friday, December 18, 2009

Part 2 on the amazing Joyce Carol Oates

Look. Joyce Carol Oates is a famous, successful, acclaimed writer. She doesn't need anyone sticking up for her, certainly not little old me.

Or does she?

The answer starts, just as the first installment of my appreciation did, with the tally. The woman is a writing machine. With over a hundred published books and countless more essays, reviews, talks and so on, it's hard to imagine that she does anything other than write. We know she does, though. She teaches. She recently remarried after her husband of 40-plus years, Raymond Smith, died, so she must have at least some semblance of a life with relationships and social interaction and so on. She watches, or at least keeps up with, movies and TV, which we know from her obvious familiarity with popular culture. She must sleep. So no, she's not a machine. She's a human being, just an incredibly productive one. And excruciatingly talented.

Yet it is the first attribute, her productivity, that seems to get most of the attention. Not only is the second, more important one, her talent, increasingly less interesting, apparently, to the commentators--but worse, it is more discounted the more she publishes. How can this be? Why is she the object of ridicule, some of it lighthearted but much of it mean-spirited, dismissive--why?

I think it's because she's a woman. It pains me to draw this conclusion but there's no other I can see. If a male writer had published as much serious literature as she has (is there such a one? I wish I could think of one so I could look at how he's treated and determine whether I'm right)--if a male writer were this enormously prolific, churning out book after book, more than one a masterpiece, many wonderful, some merely good, and some not so hot, he would not, I believe, be the butt of jokes the way Joyce Carol Oates is. He would have long since won the Pulitzer Prize for one or another of his masterpieces, which she has not. He would have probably by now won the Nobel Prize for his magnificent body of work, which she has not. He would, in any case, be a role model, a paragon. The Great Writer. Instead of being regarded, as she often seems to be, as a little bit creepy, more than a little bit scary-weird, someone whose achievements are twisted into somehow themselves being evidence of her not-quite-greatness.

She compounds the offense, I think, by honing in so frequently, and with such depth, upon the female experience. Bad enough she's a woman, does she have to write constantly about all that yucky stuff too?

Then there's class. I know she is more or less an establishment figure, I know of no evidence that she subscribes to the socialist idea. She's not a comrade. But, in a country where we'd have very little to read if we waited for communist fiction to fall into our hands, she is the next best thing: a writer who tells the truth. Including--no, especially--the class truth. And when the class truth is told by a storyteller endowed with this vast an imaginative sweep, this deep an empathetic capacity, this keen a perception of social reality, when the reader is in the hands of this gifted a master, the experience is remarkable.

Dare I suggest that this too contributes to her strange doubled status in the literary world, at once respected and distrusted? That she wades in to the bloody awful mess of this society way way too deeply? Goddamn, it's just not ladylike! All this delving into all this rotting stinking shit we live in!

They're not all home runs, as I said last week. I just finished reading her 1980 novel Bellefleur and I wasn't crazy about it. In fact I'd say it's a mess. For me, while sentence by sentence and page by page it held my interest as her writing always does (I mean, there was never a question of not finishing it), it did not cohere as a whole, nor did it involve me viscerally. But it's interesting: there is no consensus, even on this novel that struck me as one of her more flawed efforts. I looked at some of the reader comments on Amazon, and while there are some who panned it there are also many who gave it four stars, called it a work of genius, one who even asserted it is the greatest novel ever written. I also skimmed the original New York Times Book Review assessment, by none other than John Gardner; while he criticized it mightily, he also wrote, "Whatever its faults, Bellefleur is simply brilliant."

I also did not love her 1969 novel Them, which is often cited as one of her greatest. I simply was not drawn into it the way I wanted to be. On the other hand, as someone originally from Detroit I have to say that in my opinion her take in this novel on the 1967 Black rebellion, which she approaches from the vantage point of a poor white family, is a thousand times truer, more honest, less cynical approach to that event than the skewed, slanderous white suburbanite's view of the rebellion presented in the more recent novel Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.

There've been other of her novels that I wouldn't necessarily recommend to friends. There have also been novels that I've liked but not loved. The Gravedigger's Daughter and My Sister My Love, to name two recent examples.

As for masterpieces ... last week I rhapsodized about Blonde. I'm running out of steam so I'm afraid The Falls gets short shrift, but I can't stop before taking note of it. This too is a brilliant, wonderful, necessary book. I've alluded only slightly to the actual contours of JCO's writing, perhaps because I feel unequal to the task of analyzing how she does what she does with the English language, but her gift is on full display in this powerful novel that has to do with the tragedy of Love Canal. As are her powers of political perception.

Now then. I'd been meaning to write about Joyce Carol Oates for a while. Recently I got an oomph to do so when my friend the novelist and teacher Meredith Sue Willis wrote something about Oates, or at any rate one of Oates' books, in her newsletter Books for Readers (scroll down to issue #123). Sue had just read Because It Is Bitter and Because It Is My Heart (which I have not read), and she'd also just read a novel by the bestseller list denizen Jodi Picoult, and she said that both writers have a "sense of entitlement that leads them to dip into places they haven't bothered to imagine fully." Well! Of all things! First I was flabbergasted at the suggestion that Oates even writes in the same universe as Picoult. More important, I couldn't imagine reading a JCO book that felt only partially imagined. I can't fault Sue for her specific critique since I haven't read this novel and who knows, perhaps Because It Is Bitter is one of Oates' worst--but I can say that if there's one thing Joyce Carol Oates can do and usually does, it's to fully imagine the worlds she creates.

Here's the thing. I always trust a Joyce Carol Oates book. I will read any novel she writes, and I doubt very much that I will ever start one that I don't want to finish. The vast majority I have yet to read; I think I've read only 12 or 13. I look forward to making my way through her oeuvre book by book. I trust her. I think she is brilliant, and that her brilliance at times reaches genius.

Does she need sticking up for by the likes of me? Maybe not, but I have to make the record. Because in a literary landscape mined with racist, sexist, anti-worker crap, her work is an oasis of the true, the real, the beautiful ugly art a red reader seeks.