Is Joyce Carol Oates Trolling Us?
On Gaffes, Cats, and My Obsession with JCO's Twitter Feed
For over half a century, Joyce Carol Oates has been a well-respected, startlingly prolific American writer. She has published over 40 novels and 20 short story collections, taught at Princeton for over 40 years, and won the National Book Award for Fiction. Her short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” appears on countless high school syllabi, presented to impressionable teenagers alongside the work of similarly canonical, now-out of fashion 20th century writers. Joyce Carol Oates has been a perennial contender for the Nobel; at the very least, a lesser titan of American letters. Then she started tweeting.
Last night at the Norman Mailer Award Ceremony in NYC, Oliver Stone said beautifully:
“A serious writer is a rebel.”
— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) October 5, 2012
Since October 5, 2012, Oates has tweeted over 27,500 times (in fairness, I’ve tweeted over 45,000 times, and am more than 50 years younger than she is), in between publishing six novels (The Accursed and Daddy Love in 2013, Carthage in 2014, The Sacrifice and Jack of Spades in 2015, and The Man Without a Shadow this year) and one short story collection (Evil Eye: Four Novellas of Love Gone Wrong in 2013). Most of these tweets have been innocuous, focusing on cats, nature, the election, or TV shows she happens to be watching (Oates had very strong opinions about The Night Of.) Many are sweet and cute, if you’re in the mood for a pearl of wisdom-lite. Some are weird little aphorisms that, depending on your mood, exist somewhere at the intersection of funny, mildly interesting, and just kind of confusing. Others are… less pleasant.
During her almost four years on Twitter, Joyce Carol Oates has found an impressive variety of ways to put her foot in her mouth. Most of her bad tweets have come from a position of near-total cultural insensitivity, whether in addressing the supposed ick factor of Asian diets (““Cat food” in China actually is.”), casually insulting Islam (“Where 99.3% of women report having been sexually harassed & rape is epidemic–Egypt–natural to inquire: what’s the predominant religion?”), or assuming that women aren’t harassed in neighborhoods that are rich and white (“Would be very surprised if women walking alone were harassed in affluent midtown NYC (Fifth Ave., Park Ave.), Washington Square Park etc.”). Long before the demand became a staple of presidential elections, Michelle Dean wrote a post for Gawker exhorting Oates to delete her account.
As a result, this is the way many younger people now see Joyce Carol Oates: an older woman with a bad Twitter account. Any youthful reader with an interest in literature who tries to explore Oates’ writing will, inevitably, encounter her off-putting tweets at some point. Oates’ work may have held interest to these readers, but it’s tough to imagine them taking her seriously if this becomes their first exposure to her writing. Strong public perceptions fade over time as celebrities of all kinds ebb away from cultural memory, but the embers of Oates’ Twitter immolation are causing a more active erasure. In this case, the damage is completely self-inflicted: Joyce Carol Oates can stop tweeting any time she wants.
Why would a writer with a secure public reputation continue drawing attention for the same sort of offensive commentary again and again? What should we make of the gap between Joyce Carol Oates and @JoyceCarolOates? And if her tweets can begin to erode the reputation of decades of lauded work, what hope is there for the rest of us? These questions have sat with me since I discovered Oates’ Twitter in 2013, nurturing an obsession that has led me to, among other things, struggle to avoid napping through an ill-timed panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival, spend an afternoon writing a screenplay for an HBO original psychosexual biopic titled A Tweet in Time: The Joyce Carol Oates Story, and ruin my own 22nd birthday party. But more on that later.
It took a few months of following Oates to hit upon why I was fascinated, but eventually I realized: What rankles so much about her repeated infringements of acceptable social media conduct isn’t simply the content of her tweets, it’s the sense that she should–she must–know better. Overstepping the internet’s bounds on one, or even two occasions is understandable, particularly for a woman in her mid-seventies essentially handed a Twitter account by her publisher. A single bad tweet can inadvertently backfire on you (the internet comes for us all, one way or another), but Oates has a four-year history of repeated incidents: Molly Ringwald herself was once driven to ask, “Who got grandma stoned?”
Okay, who got grandma stoned? https://t.co/j010QF9NXe
— Molly Ringwald (@MollyRingwald) November 24, 2015
Each time one of her tweets raises the internet’s collective ire, Oates tends to respond with plaintive, faux earnestness, peppered with just enough remove to suggest that she doesn’t really care. She responded to the cat food tweet by feigning confusion and citing a “friend” who totally went to China one time and ate cats. Confronted with one of her more infamous tweets asking if there was nothing “joyous” in ISIS, Oates weakly cited her general objection to “patriarchal religion,” a very interesting response, considering that the original tweet specifies Islam as the target of Oates’ derision rather than any of the other patriarchal religions (which is to say, almost all of them). And when pressed further, Joyce Carol Oates has fallen back on the last refuge of the bad tweeter: that she was “taken out of context.”
This excuse is, admittedly, valid in more cases than the internet’s first responders would like to admit, especially considering the exponential growth of context collapse—that growing numbers of people can see material targeted toward a select few. Take the infamous Jurassic Park tweet, in which she seemed to demand conservation regulations for animatronic dinosaurs. The tweet was obviously a joke, but also a winking acknowledgment of the widespread perception that her account had descended into self-parody. I’ve been a student of Oates’ Twitter for years, and still find it difficult to decide: When she retweeted me for the first time—just two weeks ago—I couldn’t quite tell if she was in on the joke. I’m not sure if she can tell, either.
[doffs cap] as for me, i’ll be taking a quick stroll along the moral high road https://t.co/G6F9yQ66PV
— meaning machine (@EricThurm) September 25, 2016
This is all to say that Joyce Carol Oates has poked 28,000 140-character holes in the notion that anyone can or should serve as a universally competent public intellectual. In theory, we should be capable of acknowledging that famous people are still people, who have to put in a lot of work to produce the things we like so much and that leave us with an impression of profundity. No one can do that all the time, and yet we demand it. There are many, many reasons why actors, musicians, and, God forbid, comics shouldn’t be asked for their opinions on everything. But novelists—thinkers? They’re supposed to have a special insight into the human condition. And sometimes, that’s true! But other times, putting words together is just putting words together. It doesn’t help that Twitter, with its low barrier to publication, enabling of rapid response, and screenshot-susceptible semi-permanence is essentially an open invitation for people to show their asses. It’s easy to make fun of his internet ire, but why do we think that Jonathan Franzen should be an authority on millennials, whatever they are?
That Twitter serves as a near-perfect intersection of casual speech and the written word makes it difficult to parse how seriously to take tweets—which can linger like a stale fart, asphyxiating someone’s career (or, at least, making it very uncomfortable to be around for a while). The distinction becomes more interesting and complex when applied to a professional writer, and especially so with Oates—someone who is notoriously compelled to write and who has perhaps even less of a natural boundary between her passing thoughts and what winds up at the printing press. Is Twitter just the perfect storm of an outlet for Joyce Carol Oates? Should we treat the text of Joyce Carol Oates’ tweets as substantively different from the text of her published novels?
Joyce Carol Oates is very bad at Twitter, which is also to say she’s very good at Twitter.
The problem is twofold. First, Oates has doubled down on some of her unpleasant views in person. I once jolted awake from a nap at a Brooklyn Book Fest panel she was on, solely to confirm that she had, in fact, expressed surprise and disdain that anyone would be so naive as to be shocked by domestic violence in the NFL. Second, Oates has gone on the record stating that she wants people to take her tweets seriously. In her early days on the platform, she told The New York Times, “I compose most of my tweets with care, as if they were aphorisms—they are not usually dashed-off.” She continued: “Sometimes I’m surprised by the high, poetic quality of Twitter—it lends itself to a surreal sort of self-expression.” Indeed.
Bill Maher should deconstruct rousing old hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” (“marching as to war/ with the cross of Jesus/ going on before”).
— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) November 2, 2014
In this light, Oates’s tweets look less like the honest mistakes of a well-meaning septuagenarian with a poor grasp on social media and more like the indiscretions of your “provocative” uncle who pretends not to know what is and isn’t acceptable vernacular. And like your mythical uncle, Joyce Carol Oates is, at heart, a troll. Prolific across all mediums, it is not difficult to imagine Oates delighting in the act of tweeting, of tossing thoughts into the world, both for the enjoyment of the craft and to see what happens, like tiny crystalline bombs. Joyce Carol Oates is very bad at Twitter, which is also to say she’s very good at Twitter.
This is why I spent an afternoon writing A Tweet in Time: The Joyce Carol Oates Story.
It’s probably better to not include the full text of the screenplay which was, rightly, rejected by The Toast on multiple occasions, but here’s a summary: Joyce Carol Oates (played by Meryl Streep) is confronted by her husband Alec Baldwin (played by Alec Baldwin) (note: Joyce Carol Oates is not married to Alec Baldwin), concerned about the damage her bad tweets are doing to her literary reputation. Oates responds that, if her legacy is contingent on not being condescending and offensive, “Is it even a legacy worth fighting for? Is it a legacy worth dying for?” Convinced of the rightness of her cause, Baldwin throws his arms around her and they fuck on a bearskin rug in front of a roaring fireplace, still tweeting. Emmys rain down upon HBO.
While I regret many things about the creation of A Tweet in Time: The Joyce Carol Oates Story—especially that I later forced several decidedly unhappy friends to drunkenly read it out loud at my birthday party to an audience of people who found it deeply unfunny—I think that Meryl Streep as my version of Joyce Carol Oates somehow expressed something close to a possible explanation for her online behavior. Oates is keenly attuned to the ways history can be manipulated and basic details taken up or warped to suit particular ends—such as in Black Water, her loose fictionalization of the Chappaquiddick incident, in which Senator Ted Kennedy drove drunk off a bridge in Massachusetts and left his passenger, the young, ostensibly impressionable Mary Jo Kopechne, to die.
Here is my dirty little secret: until I started working on this piece in earnest, I was more familiar with @JoyceCarolOates than Joyce Carol Oates. I’d never read one of her books in its entirety. Of course, I’d read short stories—probably her best form as a writer—but not one of the 60-plus full books she’s published over the course of her career. I set out to change this fact when I lucked into a rather large selection of used copies of her work, and picked up Black Water, which I had long wondered about on a purely conceptual level. What would this book even look like?
Kind of like a large collection of tweets, it turns out. Black Water, for all that it has a central, historically predetermined narrative, is a collection of musings on a subject, many of which could plausibly fit in tweet-sized portions—and some of it is pretty good. For each moment of out-of-touch, tendentious absurdity, there are a few nuggets of beauty and fine craft. The details of Chappaquiddick are relatively few and set in stone: Kennedy (in Black Water, The Senator) drives into the water, and Kopechne (here, Kelly) dies. But Oates refracts the scene over and over, as Kelly languishes “in the dark not knowing where is up, the pressure of the black water on all sides.” It reminded me why Joyce Carol Oates was so popular in the first place.
One of Oates’ recent tweets neatly captured the heart of her contradictory approach to history and legacy when she planted a flag in support of the Beats: men who may have outlasted their older critics, but have themselves now become cliches, representing an outdated, regressive sensibility. In Oates’ world, does it mean the Beats have “won” by sticking around in the collective memory for longer? If so, does she realize that she may be endangering any chance she has of doing the same?
Some of us recall when elder males denounced w/ great contempt Beat writers Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac etc. Who has outlived whom?
— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) August 31, 2016
There’s something to be said, though, for putting a flag in the sand while acknowledging that the nature of sand is to blow away. By committing so thoroughly to all of the dangers of Twitter, Oates is also committing—intentionally or inadvertently—to the potentially queer, consciously forgetful, flattening act of canon-smashing.
I met Joyce Carol Oates once, at an event hosted for students in my college’s advanced fiction seminar—a class I had essentially tricked my way into. She read from Wild Nights!, a book where she “imagines” the last days of other literary icons. I only wound up reading one of the stories in the book, but I am relatively certain none of them involved bad tweets. Still, all of those writers’ legacies were distorted, manipulated, and shaped by Oates on an extended whim. If she can do it to Ernest Hemingway, why should she worry about anyone doing it to her? Joyce Carol Oates will continue to say what she wants until she can’t say anything any longer, and, honestly, God bless her.
An aphorism is a tweet with Ivy League pretensions.
— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) August 17, 2015