Monday, December 03, 2007


Joyce Carol Oates still bothers people — in all kinds of ways. For more than forty-five years she has been steadily producing novels, short stories, poems, essays, plays. Between the beginning of 2000 and the end of 2005 she published nineteen books. She has written over seven hundred short stories, more than Maupassant, Kipling, and Chekhov combined.
So Michael Dirda begins his NYRB review of four new Joyce Carol Oates books, including her journal. I read the review hoping that the journal might reveal something about her productivity. I wasn't disappointed.
Her journal tells us that she writes from 8 till 1 every day, then again for two or three hours in the evening. And she revises and polishes and reworks page after page after page. Such commitment, coupled with her literary fecundity, unnerves many people. Surely so many books can't be that good, that deeply felt, truly authentic?
Dirda answers with an emphatic No: "there can be no question of [her major novels'] power and conviction". But he can't help but return to the reception!
Still, Joyce Carol Oates distresses more than a few writers and critics. She can raise doubts and misgivings ... in nearly any novelist or essayist. Similarly, critics — on the printed page or in conversation — all too frequently deride Oates's work for its copiousness; some suggest it is the product of obsessive-compulsive behavior. Often, I suspect, this crude reductionism derives from reviewer's angst.
Dirda is almost certainly right in this latter suspicion (though it would have been nice to have some evidence). How can any reviewer possibly have a grasp of this novelist's oeuvre without devoting himself to weeks of research? Yet no matter how accurate, to me this remains a superficial answer. All productive artists generate a despairing envy of some kind, even in those who love what they produce. They are loved because they both mark stages on the way to one's own realisation and resented because they also close off another route.

Joyce Carol Oates' work evokes the same paradoxical despair one feels in a library, or when faced by the list of classics one has failed to read. Precious hope for one's realisation in a book is not diminished but dispersed. The task then becomes to write in every genre and in every form, and then to write every book ever written. For only in this way can one realise the hope of the book, the hope to say everything at last. Yet if one of the most prominent self-realisers cannot achieve this, what hope is there for us?


  1. Forty-eight novels to date, if the Wikipedia entry is accurate on top of everything else. I've actually read very little of her work, the novella Black Water which I liked, and a few short stories along the way. For a long time I wanted to use its framework to develop my own novel. It never happened but I must have been sufficiently impressed by her to consider that.

    I've heard people go on about her before especially how prolific she is. Personally I'm happy for her. I wish writing came as easily to me. She is a writer. It's not what she does. It is who she is. What is more she is a writer who is read.

    To be a serious critic of her would take a long time. I have read everything Samuel Beckett ever wrote, own DVDs and CDs of all his plays and have more books about the man that most public libraries and yet I still would not consider myself an expert.

    There is an article in the Literary Encyclopaedia which addresses the three main criticisms against her work and provides three very reasonable answers to them.

    I say leave the woman alone and let her get on with her job.

  2. Anonymous11:50 pm

    loved and resented: You are on to something here, but 'resented' seems a little too strong, too acid. What happens is recognition, which has its positive aspects and its negative ones. This is mine. This is not me.

  3. Anonymous9:59 am

    How intriguing. I've only ever read two tiny, slim little novellas of hers, Black Water and Beasts, both of which I thought were pretty classy. I must be actively repressing engagement with the prolific nature of her output.


  4. But is "the hope to say everything at last" or is it to say everything about just one thing? I thought we got novels when people failed, sometimes beautifully, to do that. I don't know what it would look like if somebody succeeded.



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