Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Joyce Carol Oates

From Annie Dillard's The Writing Life:

"It takes years to write a book--between two and ten years. Less is so rare as to be statistically insignificant...Faulker wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks; he claimed he knocked it off in his spare time from a twelve-hour-a-day job performing manual labor. There are other examples from other continents and centuries, just as albinos, assasins, saints, big people, and little people show up from time to time in large populations." (13)

From Amanda Hesser's Cooking for Mr. Latte:

"He (Hesser's husband, writer Tad Friend) brings food into conversations in his own way. 'Eating meat is good for writing,' he said....'Look at Salinger. After he went vegetarian, he didn't publish another word.'....'How about Joyce Carol Oates?' I asked.
'Not sure,' he said. 'She certainly writes like a vegetarian.'" (107)

Joyce Carol Oates does indeed refrain from red meat. I learned this reading Robert Birnbaum's interview with her, which you may read here.

For a comprehensive website listing her numerous publications (several published in the fifteen minutes I've been writing this piece), look here.

Oates has written so many books that even those of us who aren't completely won over have read something. A short story, an essay, one of the shorter fictions. In rummaging amid my shelves I am surprised to find eight Oates books. In no special order:

--Where I've Been, and Where I'm Going

--Unholy Loves

--The Faith of a Writer


--You Must Remember This

--Middle Age


--The Female of the Species

I've also read The Tattooed Girl, Because it is Bitter, and Because it is My Heart, Black Water, American Appetites, Marya, A Life, and part of The Falls, which I couldn't get through.

Working as I do in academia, I have a soft spot for any fiction set therein. Oates is a fine chronicler of academic antics in Unholy Loves and American Appetites. By extension, her eye for the wealthy and their accoutremonts is honed and unsparing. Often these wealthy are academics or the professionals surrounding them; Oates understands what it means when hell visits suburbia.

Though she is from upstate New York, Oates lived in Detroit for a decade, teaching at the University of Ontario. For those of you unfamiliar with Michigan/Canada geography, Windsor, Canada is but a tunnel or bridge trip away from downtown Detroit, and in the halcyon days before 9/11, people went back and forth all the time. Canadians came to rock concerts and hockey games; we went to Canada to drink (the drinking age is nineteen), or to just escape Detroit's drear for a day. Others worked in Canada and crossed daily, as Oates did.

Her time in Detroit and mine overlap, though I was a child then. Like Oates, I have traversed the Detroit-Canada Tunnel countless times, that damp passageway beneath the toxic Detroit River. Like Oates, I vividly recall the horror of the Oakland County Killer, a person who kidnapped boys from the Detroit suburbs, leaving them raped, dead, and immaculate in ditches and, in one instance, behind the supermarket where my mother shopped each Saturday. I remember the fear--we were so innocent then, child killers had tremendous power to terrify. We were not allowed to walk to school. To play outside alone. Every Thursday Officer Ron of the Southfied Police Force came to my elementary school and lectured us, the collected, cosseted children of Detroit's elite, not to get into a stranger's car. Nobody's car. Not a doctor or a nurse or a priest's car. If a car stopped near us, we were instructed to run as fast as we could. Screaming.

This event informed Oates' work tremendously, as is evident in her horror stories, which, while "supernatural" or technically unrealistic, are close enough to reality to chill. It is as if her attempts to understand the motivation to kill gained her access to the heads of madmen. Zombie, a book I could not bear to read, is a case in point, as is the story Angel of Wrath, found in The Female of the Species.


Much has been written of Oates' incredible output; interestingly, she tells Birnbaum that her books gestate in drawers for a couple years. One can only imagine the backlog this woman has. The incunks lie in wait.

Her speed has the occasional power to hurt, as it did in the October 9th New Yorker "Landfill" dustup. And The Falls was messy, in dire need of sharp editing.

Taken as a whole, though, her bookshelf's worth of work, besides being intimidating, is awe-inducing. I am toying with the idea of reading all her books in 2007. The great Oatesian quest. But given her publishing record, it might rapidly become The Great Sisyphean Oatesean Quest That Failed.

Funny, her books aren't on any of the best of lists proliferating like kudzu in these waning moments of 2006....

Works cited;

Annie Dillard: The Writing Life. Harper and Row: New York. 1989.

Amanda Hesser: Cooking for Mr. Latte. Norton: New York. 2003


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