Joyce Carol Oates’ Success

by Richard Kostelanetz (August 2012)


A few years ago a friend lent me her copy of The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates: 1973-1982 (2008), which I read, much as I read everything put before my voracious eyes, especially if the author is a contemporary of mine whose work I anthologized more than four decades ago and have since followed, in her case with puzzlement. What ultimately is Joyce Carol Oates trying to do, aside from flooding libraries with her books and printed matter with her tripartite name? (Wise was the last move, which would always command more attention, especially in the era of search engines, than, say, “Joyce Oates.”)

I found this Journal peculiar, mostly because it didn’t say much about literature as such. Her major subject is her literary success as measured initially by her gaining a named chair at Princeton University and then her meetings with Very Important People. Little in her personal experience was exceptional. She cares less for influence than recognitions, apparently assuming that the former would follow from the latter. (That’s not necessarily true. Remember John O’Hara and Ogden Nash, both of whom gained so much worldly success, thanks to a relentless policing of their beats, without much influence.)

From modest beginnings in way western New York State, Oates went in the 1950s to Syracuse University, where her contemporaries included the poets Lyn Lifshin and Dick Allen. The latter remembers her as a campus literary star, publishing visibly. After graduating as the valedictorian, summa cum laude, Oates speedily took her M.A. at the University of Wisconsin within a single year and then, though lacking a doctorate, taught for several years at the University of Detroit (Catholic) before moving in 1968 to the University of Windsor (Ontario, Canada) that incorporated the earlier Catholic college called Assumption. (Marshall McLuhan taught in the latter, along with the British writer Wyndham Lewis, in the 1940s.)

In the wake of my anthologizing her in 1968, she sent me a copy of her novel them (1969) with an ingratiating personal inscription dated 2/16/70. (May we assume that similarly inscribed books went to other writers?) I’ve since sold it, because, as a nonacademic, I needed some money. In the late 1970s, she assumed at Princeton a named chair that she still holds. The stream of books continues to flow, though her recent titles are copyrighted, indicatively, not in her own name but that of corporate entities. Rich as well she must currently be.

For me the mystery of Oates’s career remains: Why hasn’t she produced a book that is popularly or critically treasured? Saul Bellow had Augie March, Phillip Roth had Portnoy’s Complaint, Joseph Heller had Catch-22, John Barth, The Sot-Weed Factor; Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook; John Updike, his Rabbitt novels. These are books that readers recommend to each other long after they originally appeared. Oates is known simply for being more prolific than anyone else, much as Isaac Asimov once was; and like him, she has used pseudonyms to disguise her productivity. May I suggest that she’s thought a more literary writer, rather than a commercial hack, primarily because her first stories appeared not in slick or pulp magazines but eleemosynary literary journals, but also because she has published poetry and criticism and she teaches at an Ivy League university?

One key to understanding critical disappointment with Oates comes from this question: What is she trying to say? What special intelligence does she have? What are her important ideas? I once thought her a Catholic writer in the tradition of Flannery O’Connor, who wanted to expose the limitations of secular rationalism, whose unbelieving characters encounter mysteries they can’t understand. As she has recently declared herself an ex-Catholic atheist, perhaps that evolution away from the Roman church could be called the theme of her career. She might be a Satanist like Shirley Jackson, whose selected works Oates edited and introduced for the Library of America. (As Jackson passed through Syracuse University a generation before Oates, consider the possibilities of potions in the water or the snow.)

Oates writes so much fiction because plots apparently come easily to her, perhaps fully formed, often from news stories, sometimes from campus incidents. However, distinguished language seems more problematic for her. Her prose lacks aphoristic punch or high style. Notice how rarely even favorable reviewers quote from it.

If she has any politics, I don’t know what they are. The only literary-political insight I found in the Journal is her discovery, duh, that writers for The New Yorker magazine dominate the dubious American Academy of Arts & Letters. Her esthetics are unexceptionally conservative.

She’s benefitted from loyal publishers with literary ambitions, at least one of whom owes his current literary reputation primarily to his support of her. As a careful careerist, she has wisely avoided feminism, frog-think, and much else transiently controversial. The most unacceptable move she ever made was an appreciation of boxing, which I happen to like as well, though her book is too slight and circumspect to be classic.

She has published in genres other than fiction—poems, plays, criticism—but nothing noticed in the critical histories of those genres. Indeed, her extended reviews, nowadays mostly appearing in the New York Review of Books, reveal a glib reader recycling familiar judgments. So perfunctory, these reviews are easily skimmed, once the by-line (often featured on the NYRB’s cover), is duly noted. The Ontario Review and O.R. Press that Oates co-edited with her late husband have been inconsequential. Her anthologies exploit established positions rather than suggesting new directions.

Though her new books are routinely well-reviewed, mostly because they always been well-reviewed (and will continue to be well-reviewed until they aren’t), no literary colleague ever recommends Oates to me. One colleague, a Roman Catholic more sophisticated than most, wrote me recently, The reason that [her novel] them is pretty good is that it at least feels connected to her working-class Catholic childhood and teenage years. The other books sort of thrash about unconnected to any real world.” She has become the exemplary author for a book industry that quickly drops previous books, even by familiar names, to focus on new ones.

In my highly selective Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes (2000), I identified in her fiction a more experimental vein that Oates didn’t develop. I’ve never known anyone to pursue my recommendation. Indeed, more than one colleague reading an earlier draft of this critique boasted that he had never read any of her books. Who reads her new books, aside from people who’ve read some of her previous books? Though she’s working several different mines, new titles tend to resemble one or another previous title. Publish much though she does, influence literature she doesn’t.

I didn’t think about her Journal again until I read this in David Lebedoff’s The Same Man (2008), a smart double biography of two British writers who shared much, even though they were and are perceived as quite different from each other—George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh. About the latter Lebedoff writes:

All the pages of the diary were filled with glittering names and places—Lady Cunard, Randolph Churchill (who “threw a cocktail in Wanda’s face”), Nancy Mitford, Cecil Beaton, Diana Guiness, Lord Birkenhead, Lady Ponsoby, Sophie Tucker (!), Lord David Cecil, Harold Nicholson, and soone. A picnic: “Diana Cavendish, three Cecil boys and two Ormsby-Gorechildren.” The party at tea was Lady Oxford, Lady Clifford, Lady Russell, John Buchan and the Prime Minister” Waugh’s diary wasn’t so much a record as a scorecard. It was a list of each goal made. Through these notations he was assuring posterity and himself that he had become just who had wanted to be.

Bingo, that’s it. Oates’s Journal is likewise less about literature in general than a socially ambitious writer’s life -- less about a culturally sophisticated author than a provincial awed by celebrities. Inadvertently, Lebedoff harpoons Oates, who descends from Waugh, likewise residing in a country estate. As for this book, I don’t understand why it should be titled with the singular “Journal,” rather than the plural, especially since it’s edited from a longer manuscript.

One event not mentioned in her Journal is her personal visit to Artur Lundkvist (1906-1991) which she made sometime before 1981, when he recalled it for me in Stockholm. That Swedish writer, scarcely known here, was the most powerful member of the Academy that selected the Nobel Prize in Literature. In conversation with me Lundkvist established, as he no doubt told others, that he had personally met and liked several of the Nobel winners before they copped this prize. Thus, those who aspired to the Nobel thus tried in turn to meet and perhaps charm him. Even as late as 2007, Michael Dirda wrote in the NY Review of Books that Oates was a “favorite” to cop a Nobel. The truth of Oates’s career is that she has sought most every Success that is easily measured on a scorecard, beginning with a “summa” at Syracuse, later with the gross number of books an author has published.

Perhaps because nothing resulted or because Lundkvist’s name is less familiar than Updike, et al., this visit isn’t mentioned in this Journal edited by a provincial professor who had previously written a biography of Oates. Nor is it mentioned in his 1998 biography of Oates, even though I told its author about it in a letter dated 2 June 1993. (Greg Johnson also credits me on page 282 with a quote that looks unfamiliar to me. Though Johnson footnotes other material, this goes uncredited.) One reason why a Nobel is not likely to come to Oates is that Lundkvist’s successor as the dominant Swedish literary academician, Horace Engdahl, has frequently shared with reporters his skepticism about American commercial publishing and its promotions.

One dark truth, not yet the subject of an Oates story, is that writers craving Success, if not Celebrity, above all else usually die disappointed. Remember John O’Hara? Truman Capote? James Dickey? The Sitwells in England? Certain writers who were also book publishers or editors of literary magazines? Indicatively, Greg Johnson’s biography, apparently recycling Oates’s journals, itemizes scores of celebrities met without recognizing the truth I know second hand—that celebrity fades faster than strong work.

Just as Waugh was a literary celebrity, so has Oates become. Needless to say perhaps, the descendants of George Orwell constitute another line.

Individual entries on Richard Kostelanetz’s work in several fields appear in various editions of Readers Guide to Twentieth-Century WritersMerriam-Webster Encyclopedia of LiteratureContemporary PoetsContemporary NovelistsPostmodern FictionWebster's Dictionary of American WritersThe HarperCollins Reader’s Encyclopedia of American LiteratureBaker's Biographical Dictionary of MusiciansDirectory of American ScholarsWho's Who in AmericaWho's Who in the WorldWho's Who in American ArtNNDB.comWikipedia.com, and Britannica.com, among other distinguished directories. Otherwise, he survives in New York, where he was born, unemployed and thus overworked.

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