SILENCE HAS A NAME - Poetry Chapbook and CD, with Music by Mark Hanley

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Why Do Women Hate Joyce Carol Oates?

March 30, 2010

Why are so many intelligent women I know so intensely critical of Joyce Carol Oates? It's a good question. Women are notoriously antipathetic toward their kind when it comes to giving professional or political support or due. The latter claim I'll support with just one name: Hillary Clinton.

But this is only one bothersome point concerning Oates, who is one of our best living writers, if not the best. The most pressing question remains -- Why hasn't she yet received the Nobel Prize for Literature?

This incredibly prolific writer has produced more than 50 top-notch novels at the rate of about two a year for the last 25 years. Not only has she brought forth novels, but stories, essays, poetry, children's and young adult fiction, plays, mysteries and more. She is in a realm all her own. In 1995, she won the Pulitzer Prize for What I Lived For. She has won the National Book Circle Award, the National Book Award and the O.Henry Award and many other prizes.

But never the Nobel Prize for Literature.


Could it be that those that judge writers for these kinds of prizes are mostly men and that Oates challenges or threatens the boys' club? Could it be that, along with this, women who write and women who are in a position of power where writing is concerned simply don't like Oates because they too are threatened by her or don't understand her or don't like her themes or taste?

Sad to say, it's probably due to a combination of all these reasons that she has not received the grand Nobel. But I believe her day will come, and I hope it's within her lifetime. She's 71 now, and she deserves it.

Concerning my first question, I can tell you about two recent experiences regarding the reaction of well-read female friends to JOC. I sent a friend who is recovering from surgery a copy of Wild Nights, a collection of stories published in 2008 about the final days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain and Hemingway among others that is perhaps the most compelling work of the imagination I have read in recent years. The story about Hemingway is simply astonishing, penetrating as it does Hemingway's psyche with such uncanny force and detail, it really takes the reader's breath away.

While appreciative of "the thought behind the gift," my friend made it clear that she is not a fan of JCO -- Oates is too "dark," she "assumes" reality, she is less intuitive than she is presumptious, asserted this friend.

Following this incident, a couple of days ago, Oates again came into the conversation as I discussed her with two other friends. One of them, a woman who works as editor at Pearson Education, (which, by the way, owns Penguin Group, which published Oates' We Were the Mulnaveys), grimaced at the mention of Oates' name, calling her work "too serpentine."

I now have this vision of Oates as a kind of Minerva spinning her tales, consuming delicate sensibilities in the wake of her powerful interest in dark subjects such as rape, violence and death and her "masculine" tastes such as boxing.

Frankly, what I love most about Oates is her long-time dedication to breaking down conventional notions of what a woman who writes is and what a woman who writes likes and what a woman who writes should think.

Oates, who is an avid runner and who married recently for a second time -- her first husband died not long ago -- teaches creative writing at Princeton University. Among her influences, she has listed Kafka and Flannery O'Connor. She claims that Sylvia Plath's sole novel, The Bell Jar, is an almost perfect work of art, and she has said repeatedly in interviews that she is best known for "Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?" a story dedicated to singer/songwriter Bob Dylan and published in the 1960s. Oates is said to keep a diary of more than 4,000 single-spaced typed pages to which she now adds emails.

What I admire most about Oates is her uncanny vision, her extraordinary capacity to cut through the crap of myth and get to truths that matter. Favorite examples of this: Black Water, and Wild Nights. She disturbs and outwits, and rethinks the past and the future. What else is a writer supposed to do?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Bourdain, Again

March 6, 2010

"Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one's life." Anthony Bourdain

I've had a slip and must now confess. I've been at it again -- reading Bourdain. A Cook's Tour. I can't help it. The guy mesmerizes me. I want to live like he lives -- if, indeed, he does do all he says he does.

Of course he does.

All the meals, travel, drinks, late nights, exotic locales, amazing diversity of people.

But no live cobra hearts, thank you. I appreciate Bourdain's gusto, but don't need or want to savor his experience killing beings or watching them be killed, or even eating them. No thanks, not for me. That part is an ugly stain in an otherwise lovely relationship -- hard drinking without the hangover; gluttony without indigestion; endless travel minus jet lag and nausea. It's a present he gives a lot of people, who, like me, live vicariously through him.

I am loving A Cook's Tour. It was written in 2000, when Bourdain was still fresh off working the grill at Les Halles, a hunk of a cook stepping out into the world, trying on the hat of a traveling food journalist, and getting high off his experiences. That high rubs off on the reader, just like it does those who view his show, No Reservations. The man was at his peak then, enjoying his new life to the utmost.

He was peaking regarding his perceptions too, even his view of humanity, appreciating his amazing strokes of good fortune, primed to notice those not in a place of such luck. In Saigon, after seeing a toothless man with a face burned beyond recognition by napalm, Bourdain retreated to a hotel to stare up at a ceiling, transfixed, in tears, unable to eat "for the next 24 hours."

It was a glimpse of the sensitive guy, as opposed to the macho dude that usually wins out in his narratives.

There have been many other trips, meals and drinks since Bourdain produced A Cook's Tour. By his own account, he'll never work in a kitchen again, in this lifetime anyway. He tried going back. No Reservations captured that painful moment in which you saw Bourdain completely out of sorts in his old mold, barely able to get up off his knees, really struggling. His time was up.

Bourdain need not have regrets. He's found a better life, and one that I'll bet is feeding him a lot better financially than the one in the kitchen did. He has found better stories out in the world and more memorable personalities -- the wild success of his books and his show would seem to attest to that.

But I wonder if Bourdain still remembers that moment in Saigon. I like that sensitive guy. But you can't separate him from the dude who loves to watch a sheep killed and stripped and gets a maudlin thrill out of hearing its carcass thump in the back of a truck. No, you can't take that out of him, much as some of us would like to.

"Something Very Special," a chapter in A Cook's Tour, follows Bourdain's adventures in Morocco, and pretty much sums up his style. The chapter is short and bumpy, and like it or not, you get the good, the bad and the ugly. You'll oooh and aaah at the beauty and grit and wince in disgust, all in the span of a few pages.

There's an angelic Tony that flashes in cartoon form alternately with the Tony with horns at a corner of the screen at the start and in-between commercial breaks on his show. Here's a sample of the "good Tony" in A Cook's Tour:

"From the mosque next door came the nuezzin's call to prayer -- a haunting chant, beginning with 'Allahhh akbarrrrr' (God is great), which occurs five times a day all over the Islamic world. The first time you hear it, it's electrifying -- beautiful, non-melodic, both chilling and strangely comforting. Upon hearing it, you understand -- on a cellular level -- that you are now 'somewhere else.'"

And the "good Tony" vying with the "bad":

"I watched the poor sheep's eyes -- a look I'd see again and again in the dying -- as the animal registered its imminent death, that terrible unforgettable second when, either from exhaustion or disgust, it seemed to finally decide to give up and die. It was a haunting look, a look that says, You were -- all of you -- a terrible disappointment. The eyes closed slowly, as if the animal were going to sleep, almost willfully.

"I had my fresh lamb."

Along with this, you have sublime descriptions of shopping in Fez, a hysterical anecdote about being struck dumb before the camera and his host while high on hashish, all in one chapter about one place.

The man lives precariously on some indefinable edge, satiating himself from table to table, place to place while his eyes roam the horizon, longing for what lies around the next corner. I'd like to be in his flip flops, but with some sense of measure, equally transfixed, struck with awe and wonder, but compassionate too, and accountable.