Thursday, June 16, 2011

Happy Birthday to Joyce Carol Oates, born on this day in 1938

I've read only four or five of her novels. (A witty friend of mine back in the late sixties said "you could read her first book and you will have read them all.") I'm more fascinated by her than I am by her fiction.  The writer astonishes! She's published some eighty works of fiction. Eight plays. Up to twenty books of essays and memoirs. Ten books of poetry.

President presents Oates with National
Humanities Medal, March 3, 2011
As for her fiction, she seems to take on other and different characters, and relates to these characters as people who borrow her body, so to speak, and take over her mind. Further, when she sits down for an interview she may assume herself to be the character who "wrote" one or another of her novels; thus, in all the interviews she's given, none was necessarily with the authentic Joyce Carol Oates!

"What is the compulsion to disguise oneself?" she asks of herself in her journal. "Perhaps it is true, as Jung says or seems to say, that the establishing of a 'mask' is a built-in instinct in man, an archetype. Not one mask but many. Therefore it is not hypocritical but wise, natural, and valuable -- and moral -- to create a persona for various contexts. Certainly my own experience leads me to confirm this hypothesis.  It is the presentation of an utterly frank, open, trusting, naive, genuine self that strikes me as being in a way perverse and hypocritical .... The value, then, of knowing a number of people who are substantially different from oneself and from one another: in each context one is forced to create a different persona.

There was a rumor in 1993 that the next Nobel Prize for Literature was going to be awarded to an American female. Gambling and guessing, Playboy quickly arranged an interview with Joyce Carol Oates; it would come out in the month the prize winner was announced.

That year's prize went to Toni Morrison!

Playboy lost. I won, though. I loved the typically excellent and in-depth interview that Playboy is famous for. In this one, which struck me as an interview with the authentic author, JCO bemoaned what she called her need to write -- she said it was a compulsion, not a pleasure. She said that she often wishes that she did not have to write but that she cannot stop herself. It actually made me feel sort of sorry for her.  I had noticed that there seemed to be, in photographs of her, a tinge of some sort of genius in her strikingly beautiful eyes.  Earlier I might have used 'madness' in the previous sentence in place of 'genius'.

Ms. Oates does not consider herself insane. "Also yesterday, at the end of an hour's generally congenial and rewarding interview, with Bill Richardson of the Miami Herald Bill asked me to respond to the fact that virtually everyone he knew in Miami believed I was insane.  I asked him to repeat the statement; stared, blinked; must have looked uncommonly baffled, and murmured something about that being rather ... well, rather ... odd, surely? ... since I have been teaching at universities since 1961 ... and have published so many books ... and ... well ... surely ... 'It's like being asked if you're syphilitic,' I said, feeling both hurt and angered, or what you think about the 'fact' that people imagine you're cross-eyed ...."  Bill apologized at once; wondered if he'd actually phrased the statement correctly; people wanted to know, it seems, whether I was sane."

So while it was a shock to her to think that anyone might think her insane, it was, as she discloses later in the journals, a "dim shock" for her to realize "that others think of me as 'successful.'"

Writing over a hundred books is not success?

Here's one of my favorite anecdotes about Joyce Carol Oates. Her friend, Alicia Ostricker, a poet, said to her, "I can't imagine what it's like to be you." Ms. Oates replied, "I can't either."

I was thrilled when, in 2007, The Journals of Joyce Carol Oates 1973-1982 was published. Frankly, I'd rather read about authors than read most of the fiction they produce. This book of over-500-pages was made up of excerpts from 4000-some pages of the single-spaced typewritten original! Good lord! She'd written all those books and had, additionally, kept a massive journal!

Some books you really do hate to have to put down -- you have to go to work, or you have to go to sleep -- and this was certainly one that I could hardly put down even while I lament that the quicker you finish a compelling book the quicker your pleasure will have come to an end.

She was a friend and correspondent of Anne Sexton, one of my favorite poets.  I loved JCO's kind thoughts about suicides written after Sexton, in 1974, drove her car into her garage, went into the house to don her mother's mink coat, returned to her garage, shut the door, shut the car's windows, started the engine, and waited for death: "For a suicidal person like Anne Sexton to have survived to the age of forty-five seems to me an achievement, a triumph," wrote JCO. "Virginia Woolf, living to the age of fifty-nine, is even more extraordinary. Suicides are always judged as if they were admissions of defeat, but one can take the viewpoint that their hving lived as long as they did is an accomplishment of a kind. Knowing herself suicidal as a very young girl, Virginia Woolf resisted -- made heroic attempts to attach herself to the exterior world -- as did Anne Sexton -- as do we all. Why not concentrate on the successes, the small and large joys of these lives, the genuine artistic accomplishments? After all, anyone and everyone dies; the exact way can't be very important ... society is the picnic certain individuals leave early, the party they fail to enjoy, the musical comedy they find not worth the price of admission."

At another point, she writes: "Unless Virginia Woolf weighed a certain amount, she said, she would see visions and hear voices. Which suggests the powerful link between 'madness' and one's chemical equilibrium; and perhaps the link between fasting and the visions of the saints ... fasting and meditation certainly bring about an alteration of consciousness."

A madonna-like Ms. Oates
There is in the journals an unusual take on the character of Jesus: "Studying St. Matthew," she writes. "[Am] rather discouraged by the fundamental silliness of the Christ story: Christ's intolerance (threatening people with hell who merely don't listen to his disciples), his predeliction for flattery (it's because Peter says 'Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God' that Peter is given the keys to the kingdom of heaven), his ruthless sense of his own righeousness ('He that is not with me is against me.'), his childlike insistence upon the identity of wish and action ('Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath comitted adultery with her already in his heart' -- etc. -- a psychologically invalid theory, to say the least), his general obnoxious zeal, his intemperance re: giving advice ('Take therefore no thought for the morrow ...') that will only cause trouble for others. Again and again whole cities are threatened with destruction, with being 'brought down to hell.'  The tenderness, the faith-hope-charity, etc., forgiveness of enemies, are really quite subordinate to this dictatorial person, who says at one point that he comes not to destroy but to fulfill, and then says, at another, that he brings not peace but a sword: 'For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother ...' Such is Christ's unchristliness that one is forced to interpret everything as symbolic, as pointing toward meanings other than the literal.  But it seems clear that he really wished his 'enemies' (those who don't care to follow him) in hell, where they would suffer terribly; he lusted after complete dominion over men's minds."

So, after calling him childish, self-righteous, obnoxious, dictatorial, and schizophrenic, Ms. Oates concludes that "Christ isn't very different from any inspired hypermaniacal bully ...."

"All this is distasteful, and disappointing," she reflects. "It wasn't my intention -- it never has been -- to ridicule beliefs that others take seriously. So long as anyone believes anything, that belief should be respected."

Six months later, returning to Bible reading, she writes, "The Bible as poetry is haunting, and heartbreakingly beautiful. The Bible as a guide for moral conduct, or (god save us!) as history: almost worthless. For it's jumbled, scrambled, rather demented, a cacophony. When I finish this novel [in which she was attempting to base a character on the Devil] I doubt that I'll even glance at [the Bible] again for many many years."

Ms. Oates seems removed from politics.  She wouldn't have gone around spouting, as I did, if only in my  mind, "Yes We Can" during the last Presidential campaign. You'll come across her almost single political musings in the journals on page 240: "Where more than a few people are gathered together the seed of corruption, or selfishness, always flowers ... I don't know why -- haven't any idea. But egotism asserts itself, inevitably, in any relationship that isn't tempered by mutual regard and affection."
With husband, Raymond Smith
One thing that struck me as I read the journals was how seemingly perfect was her marriage to a man named Raymond Smith. They admired one another, cared for one another, and it occurred to me that possibly she couldn't live without him, so it was a shock in late February of 2008 when I read in The New York Times that "Raymond J. Smith, a founder and the longtime editor of The Ontario Review, a noted literary Journal, died on Feb. 18 in Princeton, N.J. He was 77 and lived in Princeton. The cause was complications of pneumonia .... With his wife, the novelist Joyce Carol Oates, Mr. Smith founded The Ontario Review in 1974.  Until his death, he was its editor; Ms. Oates was the associate editor.  The journal, which appears twice yearly, has published the work of established writers -- including Margaret Atwood, Donald Barthelme, Saul Bellow, Raymond Carver, Nadine Gordimer, Ted Hughes, Doris Lessing, Philip Roth, John Updike and Robert Penn Warren -- as well as that of young writers.  Raymond Joseph Smith was born in Milwaukee on March 12, 1930. He earned a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, followed by a Ph.D. in English from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1960. He later taught at the University of Windsor in Ontario and at New York University before becoming a full-time editor and publisher. In addition to Ms. Oates, whom he married in 1961, Mr. Smith is survived by a sister, Mary."

In February of this year Joyce Carol Oates published A Widow's Story, an account of her husband's death and the approximately six to eight months following it, a period of despair, grief, nightmares, insomnia ... on and on ... and the idea of suicide came often to the widow's mind. "Do not think," she writes, "if you are healthy-minded, and the thought of suicide is abhorrent to you ... that suicide is, for others, a negative thought -- not at all. Suicide's in fact a consoling thought. Suicide is the secret door by which you can exit the world at any time -- it's wholly up to you."

Elsewhere in the memoir:  "It's a sad comfort -- far more sad than comforting -- to know that one's books are being translated, sold, and presumably read in many countries, even as one's life lies in tatters; and what a mocking sort of 'good news' it is to be informed, via email, on the eve of Ray's birthday last week, that a long-anticipated exhibit of a collection of my books owned by the writer/interviewer Larry Grobel in Los Angeles has just been mounted in the Powell Library at UCLA under the title JOYCE CAROL OATES - THE WONDER WOMAN OF AMERICAN LITERATURE."

"Though the rest of my life is in ruins ... I am determined not to be an addict," she writes as she comes perilously close to addiction to this or that pain and/or sleeping pill .... I have come to feel enormous sympathy for drug addicts of all kinds, as for alcoholics, the walking wounded who surround us .... Their spiritual malaise is such, only powerful medication can assuage it.  Otherwise, there is suicide .... What astonishes me is that there are so many who don't succumb. So many people who have not killed themselves."

With Charles Gross in Stockholm
No sooner had one finished this harrowing account of widowhood than one learned that Joyce Carol Oates had, eleven months after her beloved husband's death, become happily engaged to a professor of neuroscience, whom she has since married.

For not having mentioned this new love in A Widow's Story, she was lacerated -- most notably and most visciously by Janet Maslin, the nasty book reviewer for The New York Times.  

Please!  Miss Oates no doubt had the book written in her mind, if not on her word processor, before she met her second husband; and had every right -- every right -- to complete it as planned.

1 comment:

  1. Oh the expectations ...the writer/painter/director/'n on 'n on... should have ..shouldn't have...blah blah!!!!!!!!

    every right indeed George...

    "Homo sapiens is the species that invents symbols in which to invest passion and authority, then forgets that symbols are inventions."...thank you JCO...

    Have always thought she looks from another age...certainly not the 2000s ;-)

    those eyes...