- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 30, 2007


Edited by Greg Johnson

Ecco Press, $29.95, 495 pages


There are roughly 4,000 single-spaced, typewritten pages of Joyce Carol Oates‘ journals in her archive at the Syracuse University Library. From these pages, Greg Johnson, who has written about Ms. Oates previously, has selected entries from the 1970s and early ‘80s, the period when she became an established, even a best-selling, writer. Ms. Oates began to keep a journal early in the 1970s during a fit of homesickness while she and her husband, Raymond Smith, were spending the year in England.

In a prefatory note she describes her journals as “haphazard and spontaneous,” saying that they have never been “revised or rethought” — indeed seldom, if ever, reread by her. Mr. Johnson has done an admirable job of editing and providing useful footnotes; he has also made a number of excisions of “ephemeral notations” such as what he calls “academic gossip.” As an academic I was immediately disappointed at what I might be missing, but the edited journals still contain plenty of candid references to other writers, not just academic ones.

Ms. Oates is fully aware of the dangers, the hubris, of making public her innermost thoughts and feelings: “What a folie-a-deux, our engagement with ourselves” she notes at the outset, and she more than once shows herself aware of “the narcissism of journal-keeping.”

It’s certainly true that any reader who elects to digest the 500 pages entry by entry is going to have moments at which he chokes on some bit of anguished self-questioning (“What is the truth about any relationship? — any human life — any event? There is none. There are many.”), but there are plenty of occasions when the search within is interrupted and moderated by other human moods, as the writer turns outward toward nature and toward other people.

Although I don’t trust my count, Ms. Oates has produced 32 novels under her own name or that of Rosamund Smith (surely one or two others will have appeared by the time this review does), 19 collections of stories, and multiple volumes of poems and criticism. As is to be expected, many of the entries pertain to the particular novel or story with which she’s engaged at the moment.

Students and specialists in her oeuvre will find these comments useful; for me they function mainly as a testament to her vocation as a writer, surely the central core of her life. This testament is to be respected, even honored, for its absence of self-congratulatory valentines and for the way its concern with the writing self is also selfless in its dedication to a larger motive.

In her recent “The Faith of a Writer,” she advises young hopefuls to do no less than “Write your heart out!”, advice she herself never dreamed of not following. In the daily mode this means, we learn from the journals, that her usual sleep is five to seven hours, that after writing from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. she has “breakfast” — an apple, a cup of tea — then proceeds to read for and prepare her classes (she has taught at the University of Windsor, the University of Detroit and currently Princeton).

So when we encounter a 1977 entry that begins, “Am I as lazy as I feel myself to be,” this reader couldn’t quite believe his eyes and would assure her that the answer is no, not by any human standards of what constitutes laziness. But there is something more-than-human about Ms. Oates’ endeavor.

A fair though not inordinate amount of attention is paid to domestic and personal matters. The intensity of her marriage to Ray Smith comes through strongly. We learn that she is seldom ill (“Sick for the first time in nine years but didn’t miss a day of teaching”); that her pleasure in food occurs only when she has meals with her husband or with friends, since eating “has no pleasure if one is alone.”

At one point she speaks of “fasting,” which she really can’t do as she would like to because her husband would be distressed (she mentions an earlier time when she was “probably” anorexic and compares herself to her beloved Chopin, who was “as frail as I and even weighed a bit less”). In a convincingly detached manner she notes that “I seem never to have developed the maternal instinct,” contrasting herself with Sylvia Plath’s “odd obsessive desire” to have children. Ms. Oates believes that the only point of having children is “for the children only,” rather than to provide a “badge of normalcy” in the eyes of others.

But the heart of these journals, and what distinguishes Ms. Oates from many female writers, is her chafing under the notion of being a female writer. She sees, plausibly, the resentment her novels often provoke in reviewers as partly attributable to her writing about subjects “generally claimed by men” and contrasts such resentment with the “universal acclaim” bestowed on Eudora Welty: “However Eudora Welty is Eudora Welty, and I can only be myself.”

Still, she wonders whether if she were a man her work would be taken more seriously. Is that work, she asks herself, “in its scope and ambitions and depths and experimentation really less impressive than that of, say, Bellow or Mailer or Updike?” Without eliciting an answer, she dismisses such “brooding” as not productive. What’s heartening about her attitude toward serious male writers is that rather than resenting them she takes active pleasure in their writing as well as their company.

There are agreeable accounts of satisfying times spent with Norman Mailer, with Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud, with John Barth and John Gardner, most especially with John Updike, whose work she seems especially to admire. This attitude may have alienated her somewhat from feminist sentiment in the 1970s, but as with Elizabeth Bishop it testifies to her unwillingness to be classified and typed as a writer by gender.

She is moved by Mr. Roth’s “The Professor of Desire” and wonders “whether the emphasis on passion, sexual love, lust, etc. isn’t simply a sort of literary convention,” just as her own imagination turns “instinctively toward the central, centralizing act of violence.” What’s overall most surprising and, even with the journals at hand, most mysterious about Ms. Oates’ career is the fascination, in her art, with violence.

Yet, in her own person she is committed (with Flaubert over her shoulder) to the “ordinariness of a sane, routine, domestic, cared-for life, in which energies are tenderly cultivated, never dissipated.” Perhaps the most touching recurrent theme in these entries is her love and concern for her parents and her sadness in imagining a life without them.

In an outspoken declaration she imagines the role she hopes to fulfill in the eyes of others: “I have wanted to be a model wife; and a model daughter; and a model professor; and a model friend (this, in limited doses); and a model writer (in the sense that my writing doesn’t drive me mad, or turn me away from others).” As Joyce Carol Oates approaches age 70, it appears that, whatever skepticism may be provoked by talk about being a “model” anything, she has done pretty well in living up to the pledge—indeed has become, in a claim Mr. Updike once made for her, our foremost woman of letters.

William H. Pritchard teaches English at Amherst College. His latest book is “Shelf Life: Literary Essays and Reviews.”

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