The Oatsian Aesthetic: Oates vs. Morrison and Oates vs. James

One literary parlor game seems to be figuring out what’s wrong with Joyce Carol Oates’ fiction:

Matt Cheney on Joyce Carol Oates:

Once upon a time, I thought Oates’s prose style was carefully, skillfully crafted to seem careless, to capture the tumble of characters’ thoughts and their visceral reactions to the world. But, in her novels at least, that’s the way she always writes, regardless of whether it’s an appropriate tool. It has become a habit, a stylistic tic, a shortcut to avoid having to create real emotional content for her books. All thoughts are breathless, all responses are overwrought. This is not meta-melodrama, it’s just melodrama.

Miriam Burstein talks about what is quintessentially Oatesian (and then goes off to criticize it):

All of Oates’ favorite themes and technical tricks are here /in the novel Tatooed Girl/: the long, breathy sentences alternating with short, terse paragraphs; long lists of objects and events, all tumbling over each other; physical and mental breakdowns of some sort; sometimes inexplicably twisted psyches; obsessive behaviors; mundanely nightmarish atmospheres. This relatively short novel takes on a number of very big themes, including the irrationality of anti-Semitism, the ethics of Holocaust fiction (and, by extension, of imaginative writing itself), the weight of history and memory, and the collapse of personal identity. The title character, Alma, is a mysterious, sexually abused, and anti-Semitic woman who passes for a teenager; she is both physically repulsive and bizarrely alluring. Her counterpart is Joshua Seigl, ailing author of a bestselling Holocaust novel. Both Alma and her pimp/lover Dmitri (another anti-Semite) think that Joshua is Jewish–but, in fact, only his father was a Jew. Joshua, who hires Alma as an assistant, finds himself experiencing feelings of desire, paternal protectiveness, and revulsion, sometimes at the same time, while Alma first loathes him (in company with Dmitri) and then adores him (once Dmitri fades from the picture). As with so many of Oates’ novels, Joshua and Alma are drawn together because both are irreparably broken; there’s no hope for either love or redemption here.

Here’s a comment I wrote about Matt’s piece. Truthfully I have not read enough of Oates to have a right to an opinion. But then again, how many people do? (Disclosure: I bought 3 Oates novels last weekend):

This is a pretty amazing summary (btw, I had a writing workshop with Oates one time; she was great–and we had lunch later that same afternoon, and she even contributed a poem to a litmag I was editing at the time). She was polite, inquisitive and very accomodating.

I really didn’t have a particularly favorable opinion of Oates until I read Because it is Bitter, Because It Is My Heart which just knocked me over. And then I got what she was about (I think).

She has a knack for making a narrative work (regardless of subject matter or inspiration). Her works seem almost like writing exercises–albeit carefully constructed ones. She feels detached from subject matter, genre and even writing style. It’s just “here’s oates writing a crime novel,” “here’s oates writing pretty short stories, etc.” I feel self-conscious reading these third person narratives and feel they don’t always ring true.

I don’t want to fault people for being adventurous or prolific, but early commercial success gives these writers a privileged vantage point for writing. Even a mediocre novel is likely to receive press coverage, etc. She’s just not having to fight with herself (or the world) to make her literary experiments worthwhile or relevant. She’s just playing around with types and forms. She can afford to be less than brilliant sometimes. Less-than-successful writers don’t have that luxury really. They really have to try hard.

I just picked up Assignation last week and just found the prose thrilling (though the storyline not as thrilling–that’s a preliminary opinion only). Let’s compare Morrison with Oates, both teachers at Princeton. Oates is clearly the superior writer, and her feats of imagination are unparalleled, though she really has won fans for her early melodramas (Them, etc). Morrison is not a particularly competent or prolific writer, but people feel passionate about what she writes about , the witness she bears, the injustice she speaks out against. Morrison has a fan base significantly larger than Oates’ and always will.

I have to wonder which type of writer/writing will prevail. Curiously, I have found Oates’ forays into journalism (On Boxing, etc) to be more interesting than the ostensible subject matter of her fiction (much as I adore the prose itself). In these cases, she has to confront people and things and events and try hard to understand social relevance, something she doesn’t try as hard to do in her fiction.

The more I think about it, the more tempting it is to compare her to Henry James: tightly wrought prose, several periods of radical stylistic/thematic departures (so one could say that one prefers the Gothic novels, but not the horror fiction), utter mastery of the craft and yet very few memorable characters that resonate with readers. Also, both writers were profound critics.