Joyce Carol Oates on Great Editors, Bad Reviews, and… The Internet
One of America's Great, Prolific Writers Talks to Catherine La Sota
The oeuvre of Joyce Carol Oates alone could provide research opportunities for students of literature well into the next century. Oates, who has published over 50 novels, in addition to poetry, short stories, and nonfiction, already has her archives housed at Syracuse University and even has an academic journal dedicated to the analysis of her work. The number of books written about the author is larger than the total output of most writers’ lifetimes. And Oates is still going strong, averaging one or two new publications each year.
Oates’s latest book, Soul at the White Heat, is a collection of her essays on the writing life and her insightful reviews of the work of more than two dozen writers, including H.P. Lovecraft, Lorrie Moore, Paul Auster, and Zadie Smith. The title of the book is taken from its epigraph, an Emily Dickinson poem about the passions that burn brightly within us, and it serves as apt introduction to Oates’s close analysis of writing in the pages to follow. In her dissection of an author’s work, Oates searches for that which drives the artist to create. She is clearly engaged with the writing she consumes, making her essays hugely useful to writers and other students of literature.
I had the pleasure of an email exchange with Joyce Carol Oates shortly before the publication of Soul at the White Heat. We discussed the importance of provocative editors, the power of sense memory, and the book as a sacred object.
Catherine LaSota: As you point out in your review of Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women, it is “customary for short story writers to carefully arrange their stories for hardcover publication, in the way that poets arrange their poetry.” Soul at the White Heat is a collection of essays and reviews that originally appeared across a number of publications, many of them in the New York Review of Books. How do you go about selecting and arranging individual pieces for a nonfiction collection?
Joyce Carol Oates: Chronological order, more or less, in terms of the subject(s). Classic writers, older writers, contemporaries.
It was most difficult to not include a number of reviews of meritorious books which I’d written for the New York Review of Books over the years—but the collection was getting too long, and I had no choice. That is something I regret!
CL: Your essays in Soul at the White Heat include reviews of authors’ biographies and memoirs. How important is the understanding of an author’s life and process in your appreciation of that author’s writing?
JCO: This is difficult to answer! Most writers and artists would like to be judged solely on their work, I think; yet we are drawn irresistibly to biographies, and are usually inclined to see how the life has influenced the work, perhaps even the reverse. The fascination with others’ lives is profound. We may feel unexpected kinships, we may feel less lonely in reading others. I have sometimes been struck by the lives of others very different from myself, and by the lives of others very like myself. I find letters fascinating though (I think) I would not much want to reread letters of my own.
CL: What draws you to examine a particular writer and her work in essay form?
JCO: The originality, distinctiveness, and language of the writer come foremost. I have a wide range of interests, however, and it is actually rare that any writer doesn’t engage my interest to a degree. Several times Robert Silvers has asked me to review books which I would not have read ordinarily, and these assignments turned out wonderfully well, as in the case of Simenon, for instance. Bob also encouraged me to review the Mike Tyson autobiography.
The role of a provocative and diligent editor like Bob Silvers can’t be exaggerated. Probably, Bob Silvers has been the prime cause of more (high-quality) books than any editor in history since many NYBR reviewers collect their essays into book form; some writers, among them Joan Didion and Mark Danner, have been encouraged by Silvers to write on subjects (politics, torture, corruption) that were eventually expanded into excellent, provocative books. (Bob just sends the books! You can’t help but read a few pages, even if you are determined to say “no,” you are too busy. Then you become hooked, and find yourself saying “yes.” When editors contact reviewers beforehand via email or the phone, it is much easier to say “no.” Possibly, Bob Silvers knows this.)
CL: How has your work as a critic informed you as a reader and as a writer? Do you read criticism of your own books?
JCO: There is generally a distinction between reviewing and criticism. Reviews are often short, critical essays tend to be longer. I have been reading, thinking about reading, writing and reviewing for so long, it is just second nature to me by now, but I always make it a point to include as many passages from the book under review as possible, so that the reader has a sense of the writer’s style. I take the perspective that the writer is a fellow artist to be respected, so it would be rare for me to choose passages in a negative or mocking vein, as, I’m afraid, reviewers sometimes do, especially those who are not writers themselves and who don’t quite understand how cutting a harsh remark can be, particularly when it is gratuitous. Individuals who would never walk up to another person and slash him (or her) with a razor yet inflict virtually the same kind of pain on the subjects of their harsh reviews.
I don’t often read much criticism of my writing, though if someone has written a book, I will try to read selections from it. If a review is negative, like many writers I don’t read it, though even if it is “positive,” I am inclined to pass by. “Thank you, I will take your word for it,” many of us tell our well-intentioned friends when a good review is pressed upon us.
CL: In your book’s opening essay, you write, “Most serious and productive artists are ‘haunted’ by their material—this is the galvanizing force of their creativity, their motivation… it is something that seems to happen to us, as if from without, no matter what craft is brought to bear upon it.” How does this theory come into play when you are teaching in a classroom? Do you work with students on helping them to discover the material that haunts them, and how do you discuss craft in this context?
JCO: Yes, young writers have to discover their “true subjects”—though perhaps not while they are undergraduates. Younger writers should be experimenting with form as well as material, like a water-seeker with a divining rod. We are “haunted” by experiences, images, people, acts of our own or of others, which we don’t fully understand and the serious writer approaches such material reverently.
CL: Regarding the material that haunts you: are you propelled by the same fascinations when you write fiction and when you write essays? Do you feel compelled to write fiction and nonfiction in equal measure, and how do you balance the two?
JCO: My short stories and novels are predominant in my life, and non-fiction is ancillary, except in the case of my two, very different memoirs which had to be composed along the lines of prose fiction. I think that, since the death of John Updike, I am one of the few fiction writers remaining who also writes reviews more or less regularly.
CL: Why, do you think, has writing reviews become a less common practice for fiction writers?
JCO: Why?—I have no idea. I think that people are just busier now with social media than previously. It is very tempting, if you want to recommend a book, a play, a movie, to write a few words on Twitter, not to take on the formality of a longer, thoughtful review. Online reviewing too, by non-professionals, has become popular, reducing the need for formal reviews.
CL: The opening essay in your collection explores how chance occurrences in writers’ lives may have inspired the direction of their writing. You give examples, including moments in the lives of Melville and Eliot, that illustrate how the sensibilities of an author’s observations of her life distinctly inform her work. Yet, you write, “Writers would far rather have us believe that they’ve imagined or invented rather than taken ‘from life.’” Why, do you think, do writers resist owning up to their real life inspirations? It seems that perhaps this is an attempt to maintain some mystery around the process of writing. Do you think readers are more drawn to writers they believe are imagining 100 percent of their material?
JCO: This is an intriguing question. I think it might be answered very differently by different people. The impulse is to wish to believe that writing is “autobiographical”—that the writer really, seriously, knows what he/ she is writing about. The purely imagined seems less urgent, somehow. Yet we know that nothing is purely imagined, and that all art, in some way, has an autobiographical component psychologically and emotionally.
CL: You write that you “have come to think that art is the formal commemoration of life in its variety.” I am particularly interested in this idea of art as cultural memory in light of the fact that in your most recent novel, The Man Without a Shadow, a brain-damaged character who could no longer form new memories was a practicing artist himself, making charcoal drawings of memories from his distant past. Why do you think humans have this urge to commemorate? And why does commemoration take the form of art?
JCO: Very good question also… Why? It is certainly an intense wish, to commemorate the past. I am deeply stirred by the sight of farmland, barns, meadows, fields of wild flowers—I can assume it’s because a part of my memory, in a region of my brain, is being stirred by recollections of childhood. It is said that the sense of smell is the most primitive and the most powerful of all memory but vision is certainly sharp also. The auditory and the purely intellectual don’t seem to be retained well at all—we soon forget conversations, lectures, information we have read even for important exams.
CL: In your essay, “This I Believe: Five Motives for Writing,” you list the Aesthetic Object as one of your ideals, stating that writers such as yourself “fell into our yearning as children, long before immortality, or even mortality, was an issue… we yearn to ally ourselves with a kind of beauty, an object to be held in the hand.” You make a case for the book as object and worry that the book as object is endangered now that much of publishing is digital. Can digital publishing and printed books live in harmony or even support each other somehow? How is the internet a help to literature, and how is it a hindrance?
JCO: The internet can provide a kind of visual beauty, but it does not seem somehow permanent, or “objective”—it can so readily be replaced by the next image. A book on a table, in the hand, on a shelf seems to exude a degree of integrity and “there-ness” totally missing in the digital world.
However, I do much of my reading online and even on an iPhone. There is nothing wrong with this, and such reading is far better than no reading at all. In the Modernist era, the book was virtually a sacred object—Joyce’s Ulysses was a work of art in more than one sense of the word. I am not sure that this Modernist sentiment prevails today. We are more egalitarian, which can be both good and not-so-good.
CL: You express amazement at the fact that you have produced so many books, “when each day’s work, each hour’s work, feels so anxiously wrought and hard-won.” To aid yourself in your work, you have made your writing room “a sanctuary of the soul.” How do you protect your space and your writing time from other demands in your life?
JCO: I spend a good deal of time just in solitude. I’ve always favored studies with a window that looks out into a back lawn, or into some trees, or a garden… For an enchanted time, I had a window on the 24th floor of an apartment building near NYU, and this was a truly magical interlude, enshrined in the concluding chapters of my next novel A Book of American Martyrs. A good deal of my imagining time is spent on my feet, however, since I like to walk quickly, and I like to run, whenever possible. Writing isn’t really meant to be a sedentary art, I think. Being in motion is stimulating to the soul.