top of page

Book Comment:
Homage to Joyce Carol Oates

New Yorker profiles Joyce Carol Oates

The November 27 issue of The New Yorker contains a lengthy and extraordinarily interesting article by Rachel Aviv about Joyce Carol Oates, titled "Personal Statement: Joyce Carol Oates relentless search for a self," a title which is surely a misrepresentation of what Oates has to say in her interviews with Aviv.   


Oates, 85 years old, has written sixty-three novels, forty-seven collections of short stories, "and numerous plays, librettos, children's novels, and books of poetry ..." In addition, at age 34 she began a journal which covers twenty six years of her life and which she allowed Aviv to read. On the first page of the 4,000 page document, Oates began: "Query, Does the individual exist, " and  "I don't know the answer to the simplest of questions, "What is my personal nature?"  Despite discovering as much about Oates as an external observer not intimately involved with Oates could possibly know about her through multiple interviews with Oates, her good friends and long time editor, and through her journal and works of fiction, Aviv seems unable to assimilate what Oates is saying, i.e., "I have no self," in a way that seems both unlikely and unfathomable, i.e., "my biography, social history and appearance does not reveal who I am." Yet Oates sat down for many hours of interviews with Aviv, allowed Avid to read her unpublished journal, and tolerated persistent probing of her life and thoughts, not the permissions of a writer who does not care what people think of her. 


Aviv read Oates a passage of the journal from 1978: "she described her secret as "the vexing riddle," the koan of my life."  I asked her if she remembered what she meant. "Definitely," she said.  Is it still a secret, I asked. "I'm not going to say," she said softly .... It's a thought I have every day."


Oates grew up on a small farm in western New York state, went to a one classroom school and was the first person in her family to go beyond the eighth grade, according to Aviv. Oates was the oldest of three children. "The youngest, Lynn Ann, was born when Oates was about to leave home for college and was, Oates stated, "my replacement."  "They shared a birthday and looked uncannily similar." In her journal, Oates commented "A mirror- self, just subtly distorted ... Sister- twin, separated by eighteen years." Lynn, Oates' sister, was eventually diagnosed as having severe autism.  Oates' mother told a reporter in 1987: "We have two opposites, one's a genius, one's retarded." Oates has had very little contact with her autistic sister during her life. Aviv asserts that Oates has not have contact with Lynn for the past 52 years.  


Oates published her first novel when she was 23, and has published one or two novels or short story collections most years since she was in her twenties. Oates has found fame exhausting. Oates one told a novelist friend: "I am so spiritually exhausted .. that I would like to arrange a funeral for 'Joyce Carol Oates' and escape with the bit of protoplasm I have, in what's left of this body I somehow got born into."  Oates was married in her early twenties to Raymond Smith, with whom she appears to have been happily married until his death from cardiac failure when she was 69. Smith was quiet and shy and never read Oates' fiction,  Aviv states. Oates was remarried to a Princeton neuroscientist, Charles Gross, 13 months after Smith's death. Gross is described as Smith's opposite, i.e., extroverted, boisterous and prone to monologues

. Gross read all her books. He died about ten years after his marriage to Oates.   


Oates has taught at Princeton since 1978. Aviv asserts that Oates taught courses at Princeton for many years without ever missing a class. She has mentored many aspiring writers.  When she is not writing, she is thinking about writing and hates the idea of wasting time. When she is not teaching, Oates works for several hours in the morning, exercises and socializes in the afternoon and often returns to writing in the late evening. She is thin and seemingly uninterested in food. After her first husband's death, friends were afraid Oates would forget to eat and just waste way. She often does not eat breakfast until 1:00 PM and then only a bit of cottage cheese and a piece of fruit. For Oates, food is not life, writing is life and (by extension) the food she lives on. Coming to the end of a novel is like losing a loved one, an occasion for grief, Aviv asserts.   


Aviv struggles to understand Oates' comments that she is not a person in the normal sense and is not sure what it even means to talk about a coherent self. Oates is dismissive of Aviv's efforts to connect her fiction to her biography, though in fact, Oates has written a lot about twin relationships and a lot about violence and trauma. Oates is reported to have had loving relationships with her parents, but was bullied in school and sexually abused when she was 9 years old. Oates gives Aviv the answer to her "secret'' several times but Aviv seems unable to understand what she is being told, though she records the statements. For example, "Oates once said to an interviewer, "I have a laughably Balzacian ambition to get the whole world into a book." She wasn't kidding. She is particularly interested in horrible events that strip "characters of their social selves, reduced to a naked core." In much of Oates' fiction, the social self people present to the world is a fiction utilized to lubricate social relationships and get through the day. In her journal, Oates sometimes refers to herself as "the writer," without personality traits. 


Nevertheless, Oates has had her fair share (and more) of psychic suffering. She told a novelist friend in 1971 that "I had the idea of 'suicide' with me the way the dial tone on the telephone is there -- always just lift it up, there it is." And: " One day, she was sitting outside her rented flat after sunset, wondering how long she had to live. Suddenly, she felt as if whatever mysterious substance held her together as a single individual was gone. It was as if the the 'field' of perceptions and memories that constitutes 'Joyce Carol Oates' -- was funneled most violently into a point," she wrote in her journal. Another second and I would have been destroyed. But another second- and it was over." Subsequently, " depression was gone. .. She was filled with new writing ideas." This is possibly the best description of  a non-religious born again experience I've ever read.  


In conventional usage, we refer to a person having  x. y or z thought or idea, but it's possible to reverse subject and object, so that ideas use persons as vehicles. We may assume without reflection that novelists imagine novels into being, but Oates' puzzlement about whether she is a person at all in the usual sense suggests the weird idea that an abstract imaginative creator can assume the anorexic body of a female novelist to convert the world of social relationships in a specific society into the food of the writing life, fiction. In Oates diet, it's cottage cheese for breakfast and then full meals of sentences, chewed over and revised many times but ultimately sacrificed to the market place. In Oates' sense of herself, her physical body and social manners are grudging compromises a creator being has used to create fictional food.  

-- Dee Wilson

bottom of page