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?