Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The unselected quality of her selection

It's a yucky day hereabouts, rainy, windy, cold, already dusky long hours before dusk, and I got in to work late partly by design because I worked late last night and partly because of the weather and the havoc it played with the trains, and I had one of those truly crappy, uniquely New Yorkly crappy mornings -- umbrella fell apart in the first few blocks of walking to the train and I got thoroughly soaked, then on the train after a homeless man came through asking for money or food two people sitting near me started a loud conversation of reactionary bullshit about what a fine coat he had and how he certainly doesn't need to beg and so yes I had to get in a fight with them because right there's no unemployment crisis and right people come through the trains making their sad little speeches asking for pennies because it's fun and they're lazy, then I had to get up and move away to try to settle down and I found an empty seat but no it was full of a great massed pile of fresh vomit! -- yes, a yucky day, wouldn't you say? I don't believe a real lunch break is in the offing so this won't be the day I get to part two of my Joyce Carol Oates encomium. That'll have to wait. What I will do in the interim here is reproduce in full the paragraph from which we usually only see a sentence or two, the paragraph in a 1937 letter from Thomas Wolfe to F. Scott Fitzgerald in which Wolfe, in response to Fitzgerald's criticism of his work, argues that it is not just the taker-outers who write great books. I was thinking about this question of taking out vs. putting in because Oates is for the most part a putter-inner. Many of her novels feature passages that are replete with great rambling serpentine sentences whose rhythm you have to catch and ride if you're to enter the narrative successfully, and furthermore the novels themselves, not all of them but the best, are large of scope, have a great sweep. I think all of this is why some people have trouble reading her. I also think it's central to her greatness. So more on that when I get back to her, but in the meanwhile here's what Wolfe had to say. (Gritting our teeth as we must at all the "man" references. And at the opening lines that discount Zola.)
Why does it follow that if a man writes a book that is not like Madame Bovary it is inevitably like Zola? I may be dumb but I can't see this. You say that Madame Bovary becomes eternal while Zola already rocks with age. Well this may be true--but if it's true isn't it true because Madame Bovary may be a great book and those that Zola wrote may not be great ones? Wouldn't it also be true to say that Don Quixote or Pickwick or Tristram Shandy "become eternal" while already Mr. Galsworthy "rocks with age"? I think it is true to say this and it doesn't leave much of your argument, does it? For your argument is based simply upon one way, upon one method instead of another. And have you ever noticed how often it turns out that what a man is really doing is simply rationalizing his own way of doing something, the way he has to do it, the way given him by his talent and his nature, into the only inevitable and right way of doing everything--a sort of classic and eternal art form handed down by Apollo from Olympus without which and beyond which there is nothing. Now you have your way of doing something and I have mine, there are a lot of ways, but you are honestly mistaken in thinking that there is a "way." I suppose I would agree with you in what you say about "the novel of selected incident" so far as it means anything. I say so far as it means anything because every novel, of course, is a novel of selected incident. You couldn't write about the inside of a telephone booth without selecting. You could fill a novel of a thousand pages with a description of a single room and yet your incidents would be selected. And I have mentioned Don Quixote and Pickwick and The Brothers Karamazov and Tristram Shandy to you in contrast to The Silver Spoon or The White Monkey as examples of books that have become "immortal" and that boil and pour. Just remember that although in your opinion Madame Bovary may be a great book, Tristram Shandy is indubitably a great book, and that it is great for quite different reasons. It is great because it boils and pours--for the unselected quality of its selection. You say that the great writer like Flaubert has consciously left out the stuff that Bill or Joe will come along presently and put in. Well, don't forget, Scott, that a great writer is not only a leaver-outer but also a putter-inner, and that Shakespeare and Cervantes and Dostoyevsky were great putter-inners--greater putter-inners, in fact, than taker-outers and will be remembered for what they put in--remembered, I venture to say, as long as Monsieur Flaubert will be remembered for what he left out.
Oates is sometimes a taker outer. Her book Black Water, for example, a fictional take on Mary Jo Kopechne's death in Ted Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick, is terse, shatteringly so. But when she sweeps me up as a reader is when she's in her putter-inner mode as a writer. When her work boils and pours.