Book: The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates

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The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates: 1973-1982

Author: Joyce Carol Oates
Publisher: Ecco

On New Year’s Day, 1973, Joyce Carol Oates began keeping a journal that she maintains to this present day. When the journals began, 34–year–old Oates was already a recipient of the National Book Award (1969), with many O. Henry awards, and others, under her literary belt. For all her warm critical reception, however, the author had been (and would remain) fairly reticent about the personal details of her life and background.

Housed in her archive at Syracuse University, the journals run to more than 5,000 single–spaced typewritten pages. This volume focuses on excerpts from that first decade, 1973–1983, one of the most productive of Oates’s long career. Far more than a daily account of her writing life, the journals offer a candid discussion of Oates’ many friendships with other well–known writers—Philip Roth, Anne Sexton, John Updike, and many others; she describes her teaching, her relationship to the natural world, her family, her vast reading, her critics, her travels, and other topics central to her life during this time.

On New Year’s Day 1973, Joyce Carol Oates began keeping a journal, which she maintains to this day. Already a well-established literary force by the age of thirty-four, Oates had written three books that had been named finalists for the National Book Award (in 1968, 1969, and 1972), and her novel them won the award in 1970; she had also received a number of O. Henry Awards, in addition to many other honors. Despite the warm critical reception from the literary world, however, the young author was naturally reticent about her personal life and would remain so throughout her career.

The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates, edited by Greg Johnson, offers a rare first glimpse into the private thoughts of this extraordinary writer. This volume focuses on excerpts from the journal written during the crucial first decade, 1973-1982, one of the most productive of Oates’s long career. Housed in her archive at Syracuse University, the journals themselves run to more than 5,000 single-spaced typewritten pages. Far more than just a daily account of a writer’s writing life, these intimate, unrevised pages candidly explore Oates’s friendship with other writers, including John Updike, Donald Barthelme, Susan Sontag, Gail Godwin, and Philip Roth, among others. Oates also describes, in vivid and captivating detail, her university teaching, her love of the natural world, her rural background, her vast reading, her critics, her travels, and, predominantly, the “silent, secret” life of the imagination.

What emerges is a fascinating portrait of the artist as a young woman, fully engaged with her world and her culture—a writer who paradoxically thought of herself as “invisible” while becoming one of the most respected, honored, discussed, and controversial figures in American letters.


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On April 3, 1975, Joyce Carol Oates spotted a small mention of herself in a New York Times article on women “workaholics.” She was dismayed to note that the writer failed to mention that, in addition to her writing, Oates also taught at the university. She protests in her journal: “But that’s half my life!…maybe more than half. If I had nothing to do but write, I would write constantly and would be what is known as ‘prolific.’ Which of course, I wouldn’t want.”

It’s probably safe to say the writer is being ironic. More than three decades later, if you Google the phrases “Joyce Carol Oates” and “prolific” the search engine will return 46,900 entries.

When the author began to keep a journal on New Year’s Eve, 1973, at 34 years old, she certainly had some inkling that at least one purpose would be to preserve her thoughts for posterity. At that time, she had published six novels (one of which, them, was the winner of a National Book Award), four short story collections, three books of poetry, and one book of criticism. Ten years later—the end date of the first volume of her collected journals, released this week—she had written by my calculation eight novels, nine short story collections, one novella, three books of poetry, four plays, and three books of essays and criticism.

What to do with these thoughts, culled by editor Gregory Johnson from more than 4,000 single-spaced typewritten pages now housed in the Syracuse University Library, is an open question. (The author herself preferred not to re-read her work before publication. In her introduction, she writes: “[R]evisiting the past is like biting into a sandwich in which, you’ve been assured, there are only a few, really a very few, pieces of broken glass.”) With any other writer of Oates’s admittedly high caliber—and despite her uneven output, much of her work is strong enough to merit her often-mentioned presence on the shortlist of contenders for the Nobel Prize—it would be relatively simple to map the author’s private thoughts alongside the work produced during the time period, and deliver a tidy thesis on how each informed the other. In this case, that’s work best left to a grad student willing to spend more than a dozen years ABD. (One exasperated critic, Chauncey Mabe, from the South Florida Sentinel, threw up his hands and substituted a “to-do” list for Ms. Oates in lieu of a review).

Nor is this diary of much use for someone looking for salacious literary gossip. Invoking journal writers, such as Sylvia Plath, who “use their writing skills as scalpels to cruelly cut up anyone who comes into their paths” Oates refuses to use her journal as an instrument to vilify others. “If the reader is looking for ‘cruel’—‘malicious’—‘wickedly funny’ portraits of contemporaries, he/she is not likely to find them here.” The cast of distinguished literary characters who meander through the journal is staggering: A partial list includes John Updike, Donald Barthelme, John Barth, Joan Didion, Elizabeth Hardwick, Anne Tyler, Philip Roth, and Anne Sexton. But Oates’s good manners keep most of these portraits perfunctory at best. Often, she’s simply too shy or socially disengaged to interact at all: She chastises herself several times for failing to call Lillian Hellman, and, when told by Donald Barthelme in 1976 that she “would like” Susan Sontag, she thinks, “No doubt, but she wouldn’t like me!” (When the two women finally meet in 1979, they become good friends and bond, among other things, over Sontag’s experience with cancer and Oates’s tachycardia, a lifelong heart problem.)

In fact, the subject most dissected and lacerated by the journal writer’s scalpel is “Joyce Carol Oates” or “JCO,” a “persona,” most often referred to in the third person, whom the journal writer—however she cares to refer to herself—tends to observe from a considerable distance, with a mixture of bemusement, frustration, skepticism, and incomprehension.

On reading the galleys of her manuscript The Triumph of the Spider Monkey, she writes that she is not sure what to make of the novella “whether it’s inspired or simply awful…outrageous…a little crazy. I don’t think I would care to meet the author.” When looking at a list of publications on the author’s page of the 1979 Franklin Library edition of them, she is flabbergasted. “The list of books is overwhelming! So many books! So many! Obviously, JCO has a full career behind her, if one chooses to look at it that way; many more titles and she may as well…what?..give up all hopes for a ‘reputation’?” And when asked by a friend, the critic John Gardner, to write a family novel in which things go well for a change, she replies, “ ‘I,’ Joyce Smith, Joyce who is his friend, Joyce the conscious being, would gladly write such a novel for the edification of all; but unfortunately, that self does not handle the writing and will accept no assignments.”

All this literary shadowboxing makes the relationship between the self who does handle the writing, and the private person who writes the journals, the “conscious” person who attends dinner parties with John Gardner, murky at best. (At times, she even suggests that stories are literally the product of her unconscious self: a weeping teenage girl appears in one dream and later becomes a character in her short story “Honeybit”; and her characters Jack and Elena from Do With Me What You Will appear in a dream to argue for their right to a more peaceful ending.)

Oddly enough, the private person is frequently referred to by her married name, Joyce Smith, which may—or very well may not—suggest that “Joyce Carol Oates” finds her dark material in the past, whereas “Joyce Smith” is the woman who survived that past and became a different person upon her marriage, at age 22, to Ray Smith. Indeed, the portions of the journal devoted to her marriage, her teaching, and her daily life are consistently positive, even idyllic. Again and again, she describes waking early, writing until 1:30 or 2:00 (at which point she eats an apple and drinks tea, seemingly her only daytime sustenance), taking long walks and bicycle rides with Ray, the thrill of teaching young students (which doesn’t seem to interfere with her output at all) and sitting down to dinner, usually something meaty for her husband and a lighter dish for herself. “We get along so well, it’s like a honeymoon,” she writes of her husband. “One wonders if such good fortune can last.” Still, she despairs of the “very real difficulty of suggesting a good marriage in fiction” and at one point actually denies a similar union to her character Marya Knauer. (“I can’t have her meeting and marrying someone like Ray…I can’t hand her over to that ‘happy’ resolution, which would end, in a sense, her struggle as Marya.”)

But if “Joyce Carol Oates” draws upon at least some memories of childhood trauma while living in rural poverty in upstate New York to inform her dark, often violent work, she is loath to admit a biographical connection. Although several passages allude to witnessing the consequences of violence outside her home, her memories of her parents and immediate family are as warm as her feelings for her husband. This façade slips a bit when she recounts an episode when her parents, now bursting with good health, come for a visit. Over dinner at the house of a wealthy friend, Joyce’s father tells a “comic-grotesque” anecdote about the difficulty of raising pigs, which ends with him slaughtering the pigs, only to see the meat rot:

I know, however, that the situation wasn’t funny. He tried to raise pigs because we were poor. It was poverty behind the desperation and…it was a sort of tragedy that, after all the humiliating effort, the meat rotted. How interesting it is, then, that thirty or more years later the incident can be retold, perhaps even re-imagined, as an anecdote. A story. A story meant to amuse. For now, their lives have changed considerably—completely. There’s no danger of the repetition of the poverty of decades ago, or the fear and bitterness that attended it. So, sitting in the elegant living room of a $200,000 home in Birmingham, Michigan, telling his story to a vice president of one of the most wealthy of contemporary companies…he can be, in a way, elegant himself: a storyteller confident of his audience and of his own ability (which turns out to be considerable) to entertain. I think this is profoundly, profoundly interesting, and enigmatic only to me…

His daughter, equally confident as a storyteller, would have no doubt cast the same story as a tragedy. But it’s profoundly interesting to note that this last summer, almost exactly thirty years after that conversation in the wealthy friends’ living room, Oates published The Gravedigger’s Daughter, a novel based in part on re-imagining the life of her paternal grandmother. The protagonist, Rebecca Schwart, is born into poverty, survives a violent marriage, and reinvents herself. At the end, Rebecca ends up happily married to a good man, a man that the author—in interviews with me and others—conceded had much in common with her own husband, Ray Smith. For that, we presume “Joyce Carol Oates” has Joyce Smith—or whomever that person behind the persona is—to thank.—Amy Benfer

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