Posts Tagged ‘Joyce Carol Oates’

Joyce Carol Oates: My Nobel Prize Nominee

Oates is the quintessential American author who writes prolifically about every aspect of American society past and present and every segment of society from the hardscrabble family living in a trailer in upstate New York to the affluent Mulvaney family falling on hard times. She explores the darker aspects of American history, the confidence man, the evangelical preacher, the tragedies in dynastic families, the violent and the gothic, the tawdry, the middle class and the forgotten. Her imagination picks themes from incidents like Ted Kennedy and Chappaquiddick or crime and violence rooted in American history and persisting today. She defines and analyzes superbly the national ethos in engrossing narratives and with memorable characters. During the past few months, I’ve spent time reading several of her novels that I missed reading in the past, among them her latest novel The Accursed, and rereading arguably one of her greatest achievements Blonde.

I haven’t read everything by Oates, but almost everything. The task is a big one considering to date she’s written fifty novels, thirty-one collections of short stories, fourteen non-fiction books , and countless reviews and articles. She is less well-known for her young adult, children’s and poetry books. And to date this significant writer of the century and the last century has been bypassed for the Nobel Prize! I wish to nominate Oates for her vast body of work marked by astounding imaginative gifts, range of themes, and depiction of the violent underbelly of society–all accomplished in deeply psychological, character-driven stories that encompass the gothic, the historical and the spectrum of classes from the low to the high.  Her capacity to portray struggling, working class men and women in itself is a monumental achievement. The beauty of her language and long descriptive passages, in which I revel, are breathtakingly vivid. Her plots and prose live up to the high standard set by the great Victorian novelists. She has contributed to the rich heritage of the gothic novel.

But how does Oates conceive her own literary purpose and style? She says her works are “homages to the past.” What interests her is the history of America and recent history. “I’m obsessed with places/settings” and “how people inhabit those spaces.”  She describes this obsession as the “phantasmagoria of personality.”  She expresses the mania of all writers in this statement: “I write to discover what it is I will have written.”

In her latest offering–The Accursed–the phantasmagoria of personality focuses on Woodrow Wilson, among other personalities in Princeton, New Jersey, at the time he served as president of Princeton University.  Imagined characters along with historical figures like Grover Cleveland, Upton Sinclair, and Jack London enter this story of a haunted community. The legacy of slavery and capitalistic greed along with a repressed sexuality haunt this pre-World War I American community. The gothic intensity of the novel displays Oates’ talents at their best. I am happy that The New York Times included it as one of the best books of 2013.

Revisiting Blonde immediately after reading her latest novel reinforces my appreciation of Oates’ genius for capturing the iconic in American culture. What better representation of the part Hollywood, fame and image-making have played in society than a fictional portrait of the sex symbol of the twentieth century–Marilyn Monroe–whose life is also a tragic story. Oates’ novel is nothing short of a masterpiece of the psychological novel. Again she uses fact and fiction to great purpose. Her portrayal of Norma Jean Baker in search of her authentic self and failing is also entwined with the search for a father she never knew. Illegitimate child of a studio employee, she marries older men she calls “daddy.” The marriage to the sports hero, Joe DiMaggio, fails as does the marriage to the famous playwright Arthur Miller. Oates does not name these famous husbands, but the reader knows who the men are.

Finishing Blonde, I wondered if Marilyn, besides sex appeal, showed any acting ability. I began to watch some of her movies. So far I’ve watched The Seven Year Itch and The River of No Return. She didn’t strike me as being any better or worse than big name screen stars of the day, and certainly, not worse than Robert Mitchum. She gave a creditable performance of the sexpot posing as an innocent, stereotypical dumb blonde in The Seven Year Itch, but Tom Ewell’s upstairs neighbor is not as dumb as she pretends just as Marilyn Monroe was not as dumb as some people may think she was. The movie actually had me laughing out loud. The outstanding performance in the movie was Tom Ewell’s. I will have to reserve further word on her acting until I see her other movies. But I already knew that Monroe was not dumb, for in my Edith Sitwell series of poems I imagined Sitwell’s actual meeting with Marilyn Monroe and wrote two companion poems, one in which Sitwell gives her impressions of Marilyn Monroe and the other in which Marilyn Monroe expresses her desire to be taken seriously by the world. Dame Sitwell sees the real Marilyn–her struggle not so different from her own.  At the end of the piece, I give the exchange.

The River of No Return holds particular significance for me. This is one of two movies I remember seeing first as a young child. The other was Disney’s Song of the South.  I remember The River of No Return for the grandeur of the American west, its mountains, rivers, and valleys. As a child, I knew I wanted to go there some day. Nothing could be more romantic than floating down a river surrounded by forests and rugged peaks. Even as a child, I felt the suppressed sexuality in the movie. It should not be surprising, then, that I end up living in a log house in Montana. This is an iconic film of the American west as Marilyn Monroe is an iconic figure of Hollywood. She shaped how young girls thought they should look, growing up conscious of their hair styles, make-up, and figures.  Why couldn’t they be as shapely as Marilyn Monroe?  If they were not blonde, they could be bottle blondes.

Oates has tackled big subjects. Taking on a fictional biography of Marilyn Monroe is one of her biggest. Those who wish to tackle a big book that reveals as much about a movie star as it does about American society, should read Blonde.

Now for the companion poems:


Hello, Hollywood beauty bound to pain

your petals of yellow I understand

as only a long-legged sharp-beaked crane

can who holds your green-stemmed hand.


You’re a daffodil-girl men deflower

who ignore the attar of your bloom.

In sexy posies for their calendar

they press your gorgeous greenness into gloom.


I’ve known men to use women from the start,

to sap them dry then discard the vessel.

I’m tall and turbaned to play a part

fit to skirt this day for the medieval.


In that age as in our rusted metal time

our choice was to be a pretty plaything

or wear the virgin crown and veil sublime

in a game to wrap our soul in swaddling.


A daffodil bent in a lashing tempest,

you talk in feathered tendrils of thought

about Rudolph Steiner’s truth compressed

as dewdrops on stalks perceived and caught.


The Press for sport and profit set the stage

on which intellect was to meet symbol

but I surprised the dull who couldn’t gauge

the measure of flesh’s breathless gambol.


An old Dame of England knows the bombshell

under the creamy texture of seductive skin

is rooted like the bulb of a daffodil

that grows so green and blond for gentlemen.


The cameras catch only the surface

but I am a poet whose roving eye

births the babe beneath the painted face

and swaddle your masque’s sweet lullaby.


I take you seriously to my heart

as a mother, Marilyn, too wise to lie,

as a big bird whose learned her part

to nest without a mate or chick but still fly.


Just plain Jane, an ugly British crane,

I’ve felt the pain tall as a crane.

It’s the same pain tall as a crane

I see stalk your art tall as a crane.



I know beauty is only skin deep

in the eye of the beholder, is it not?

Why can’t anyone else see that

when they parrot phrases for their pleasure?

I found one man who could –

too bad he’s dead and buried.

Could I bear his greatness in the flesh?

He wouldn’t gawk at me, would he?

He’d want to find my mind, he would –

the beauty poets say never fades.

Read Steiner, have you?  You see my drift.


Tell me true, is it worse trapped

in my body or to be six-feet tall

you can’t then bow or be bent

by any man – like you – Edith,

you know all jeweled and gowned

to complement your height does accent

the divine regardless of costume worn.


But everyone who sees me sees body.

I’m nobody, the body material, no more.

Why, I’m a dame too, with no capital.

The only capital I wear is marqueed.

Why, Dame Edith, can’t anybody see

the real me with a mind all mine?

I am an actress; I am an artist.

I am a thinker who thinks I am

but see instead my shell crisscross

screens in a trick of dance and death.


The bomb I am explodes in bikinis.

Edith, did you dance the body etheric?

Do it barefoot on sandy beaches?

I’m Beauty who senses a Beast

sleeps in me and to awake alive

beyond my mirror image I married

a sports idol then an intellectual

who then might tell me I really am.

Steiner makes sensual sense to me.

I wish to inspire air timelessly,

to awaken imagination more than

the lust men only perceive in us.

Teach me to do it in this life,

beautifully plumed white crane.


Dry Spell

DessicationI am in between writing projects and I am unsure whether another story will ever consume me. I know some writers have a list of ideas for potential projects always sitting on the back burner. Sadly, I have exhausted my list just as I have exhausted items on my bucket list.  When I told a doctor that I had done everything on my bucket list, he suggested I compile a new list of things I wanted to do before I die.

I could transfer the doctor’s idea to my current dilemma, but my problem runs deeper than nothing on a writing to-do list. The real cause for disturbance is the lack of a burning conception that compels me to give it artistic shape–an idea that won’t let me sleep, and when I do sleep, inhabits my dreams. To work my way through this dry spell, I have turned to reading the works of prolific writers.  Joyce Carol Oates’s novels The Gravedigger’s Daughter and Middle Age: A Romance are better than Anne Rice’s recent offerings of Angel Time and Of Good and Evil, in which Rice’s troubled Toby O’Dare is whisked back into Renaissance times, first in England and than in Italy. Rice should have situated her story completely in the past and created a richer, denser fabric similar to what she accomplished years ago with Cry to Heaven and A Feast of All Saints.

I use reading to fire my own imagination.  While I appreciate the texture of Oates’ storytelling and I recognize the shortcomings of some of Rice’s supernatural narratives, reading their novels starts my mind churning. To force a project prematurely, I fear, is liable to result in a mediocre work or one inferior to an author’s previous work. Being prolific has its pitfalls. Great productivity doesn’t equate to works of equal greatness.

There are other methods to jump-start the creative juices. For instance, foreign travel, or maybe a hike, even a short walk off a long pier. Armchair tourism is good too. Watching an excellent film set in an equatorial jungle or in a Hungarian castle may stimulate the imagination.

So what to do?  Nothing. Simply, pass the dry spell sitting in the sun on the deck and searching the sky for signs of rain.  Or write this ditty about the dilemma:

Dry spells—empty wells—

writers sometimes have,

squeezing words, last drops

from a sponge; phrases

shrivel, dead on arrival.


Better to fold the arms,

look into the sky and wait

in silence for parched earth

to receive a cloud burst

when the ocean upends.


Better to read another’s book

and drink another’s draft,

whetting appetite for taste,

sound, smell, touch of print:

delicious rain of language


Better sit a spell and think

than to scratch at word-making

in dust and drought that leaves

readers hungrier than when

they begin the bland fare.

Cats and Writing

The unobtrusive presence of a cat is conducive to writing. They respect the long periods of silence and intense concentration their owners require for composition. A cat has been an ever-present muse in my writing room. However, if neglect extends to not refilling her bowl for a long time, she will gently remind the writer by walking back and forth across the computer keyboard.

Molly, my rag dolly, born a cradle Mormon in Utah, converted to Catholicism upon my adoption 3/28/13

Molly, my rag dolly, born a cradle Mormon in Utah, converted to Catholicism upon my adoption 3/28/13

My long-held supposition that cats are the preferred pet of most writers needed evidence. I set out to test this hypothesis. Selecting authors I like, I began my research into whether they were also cat lovers.

The first writer I selected was Anne Rice. Lo and behold, she is the proud owner of a furry white cat. Next I selected Joyce Carol Oates. My suspicions were confirmed there too. She owns a lovely cat Cherie, the subject of her children’s book. With Daniel Halpern she edited the anthology The Sophisticated Cat: A Gathering of Stories, Poems and Miscellaneous Writings about Cats. Oates, one of the most prolific writers,  attributed her legendary productivity to cats, stating “I write so much because my cat sits on my lap. She purrs so I don’t want to get up.” May Sarton, best known for her journals, wrote twenty novels and seventeen poetry books. She lived with her cat Bramble by the sea in York, Maine. Her novel The Fur Person attests to her affinity with cats. I have written elsewhere how I regret that Sarton’s novels are not more widely read. Sarton said, “Time spent with cats is never wasted.” I have to concur.

Women writers may have a predictable proclivity for cats, but what about male writers?  Certainly, T.S. Eliot is well-known for his fondness for the feline as evidenced in his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, basis of the Broadway hit musical Cats.  I was pleasantly surprised to learn that a macho man like Ernest Hemingway owned twenty-three cats. I expected the avid hunter to be a diehard dog lover. On the contrary, he respected highly cats and is quoted as saying: “A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.” Hemingway called cats “purr factories” and “love sponges.” Another prolific writer, Stephen King, is a cat owner whose cat Clovis fingered in his screenplay Sleepwalkers, continuing the role cats have played in his work since the unforgettable cat Church in Pet Sematary.  My delight was unbounded when I discovered that Neil Gaiman (I much admired his American Gods)  is the owner of not just one but several cats. The prolificness of these writers and the presence of cats in their lives must be correlated.

In Memoriam Nutmeg, my beloved calico 1998-2013

In Memoriam Nutmeg, my beloved calico 1998-2013

Clearly, cats have served both as muse for writers and as characters in their writings. I have also used them in my work, first in the creation of Odette, the Persian cat in my novel Gerontion and the Maiden. She is the pet of main female character Felicia, a young ambitious woman who marries a rich, much older man for security. I have Felicia give this analysis of the cat’s personality:

The cat slinked into her lap and she stroked Odette’s long cream-colored coat. The pudgy feline purred smoothly like a fine-tuned motor in a just audible murmur. Felicia appreciated the cat’s satisfaction, poise and control—qualities she not only admired in animals but also in people. Not surprising cats were revered as sacred in some ancient cultures. Unlike the slobbering manner of dogs, they carried themselves with considerable dignity. And in their fashion faithful. They demanded affection without cloying, and in return, conferred respect. Odette required space in the same way Felicia set parameters on friendships.

Now as the Persian nestled against her stomach and accepted her attention, Felicia appreciated once more her pet’s uncanny intelligence. Odette understood her moods, only imposing her presence when she knew her mistress was completely relaxed, taking the cue from Felicia’s position curled up on the sofa with the tea cup. Her habits were imprinted on the cat’s brain. At the appointed time she awaited Felicia’s arrival home from work, poised upon the windowsill watching for her. When it was time for bed, all Felicia needed to do was whistle and Odette leapt into bed, settling into the small of her back as she lay on her stomach. The cat’s eyes shone like runway lights, guiding Felicia to the bathroom at night. Understandable that men preferred dogs. A good match, the dog governed by a need to serve and man to receive undivided attention. But woman desired a clean, unobtrusive, undemanding but comfortable companion, or at least, Felicia was one woman who did.

“Odette, sweetheart, you’re woman’s best friend,” she murmured to the contented feline. “More stable and kind than either a man or a woman. I don’t get your cast-off toms, do I?”

Cats assume a major role in my novel Delayed Reaction.  The hero in the novel owns seven cats. Jake, an aging Vietnam veteran, names them for key players during that period of American history: Ho Chin Minh, a grey-pointed Siamese; Madame Nhu, a fluffy, cream-colored Persian; Melvin Lard Butt, a black Manx; Kiss-Ass Kissinger, a tortoise-shell with white patch over one eye; Miss Saigon, a tawny Burmese with black paws; Wacky-Macky McNamara, an orange tabby; and Buddha, a three-legged grey tiger.  Cats are the catalyst for a drastic change in Jake’s outlook on life and trigger a series of events in which he becomes the mentor and friend to a teenaged boy.

Cats have traits that account for this compatibility with the writing life and writers’ fondness for them. They are solitary, independent creatures just like their owners. They are discriminating and do not suffer fools gladly, preferring to isolate themselves instead of socializing with nincompoops. Prolific writers are ones who are content to spend long hours alone. Solitude does not bother them. In school writers are rarely voted most popular. Popularity is not their goal nor is a cat concerned if it is liked or disliked. If anything a cat likes to rub against the leg of a person who dislikes him. Similarly, a writer will not shy from offending those of contrary opinions or debunking the majority viewpoint for the sake of opening up a larger vision of the world. Cats are nonchalant.  Cats are low maintenance. They have dignity and a quiet intelligence. Their respect must be gained. The fawning, licking, rambunctiousness, yapping and sycophancy of dogs are not conducive to the writing life or the typical writer’s personality.  A cat, I conclude, is the pet that prolific writers pick for company in the solitary art of writing.  Molly has been curled up on my desk while I wrote this disquisition on cats and writing. I’ll sign off with a long mee-ee-ee-ow-ow-ow.

Muse and Rag Dolly Molly on Writer's Desk

Muse and Rag Dolly Molly on Writer’s Desk

Novel vs. Short Story: The Long and the Short of It

A good short story is more difficult to write than a novel. This is the conventional wisdom I remember from writing workshops and many books on the art of fiction. The argument goes something like this: Every word must count in a short story. The limitation of size and scope of the short story demand economy of language and precision in choice of detail.  Handling of dramatic development must be skilled to hold conflict, complication, climax and resolution in the space of twenty pages or less.  On the other hand, a novelist has latitude to be profligate. The novel in its sweep is forgiving in lapses of craft if the general flow is right.  As writers and readers we ought to examine the contention that shaping a small, delicate object entails more skill than a work of larger magnitude. Looking at other art forms, is it true that  a miniature sculpture of an elephant is more difficult to carve than a life-size one?  Is a small painting of a few square feet more difficult to paint than a mural that occupies the entire side of a building?

Sometimes aspiring writers are advised to master the short story before turning their hand to a novel. Many novelists have started with short stories before they wrote a first novel. Throughout her prolific career Joyce Carol Oates has worked in both genres.  Often the short story is viewed as a proving ground for fledgling novelists, the assumption being if the short story writer produces a great short story, of course, that same author can write a great novel. The decision whether a story lends itself better to treatment in a short story versus in a novel depends on such considerations as one main character seen over a short period of time or many characters interacting over years. A novel provides the scope for a many-layered story with multiple themes. The term slice of life arose to describe the short story’s close-up focus on one character, one event, and one main theme.

I’ve taken a second look at this prevalent notion that writing an excellent short story is more difficult than writing an excellent novel. I’ve come to the conclusion that the novel is the more difficult accomplishment. The difficulty does not lie in that one genre requires more discipline, craft, or artistry with the techniques of fiction than the other does; but that the novel’s size and the sustained emotional intensity over a far longer period of time account for its difficulty.

The short story is  a sprint of high energy; in contrast, the novel is an endurance run. I like to describe the process of writing a novel as a long journey into night–a night where morning does not come until the book is done.  Granted, the elements of fiction and the techniques of the craft are the same.  The novel is just longer and because of its length, of course, entails greater complexity and requires more time to complete; but the real difficulty arises in the novelist’s effort to maintain a consistent emotional intensity throughout the expanse of the novel and over the months or years that it takes to write a work of several hundred pages.

Instead of weighing one genre more difficult than another, we should describe the short story and the novel as simply different. One is long and one is short . . . for good reasons.