Thursday, April 26, 2012

The woman with three names

Joyce Carol Oates was awarded this year's Blue Metropolis International Literary Grand Prix.

I read one of her novels for the first time the other week, and I didn't like it much.

This past weekend I saw her interviewed by Jack Kirchhoff, Deputy Books Editer of The Globe and Mail, on the subject of her crime novels.

I find Oates to be very creepy. Her physical persona, gaunt, pale, crazy hair that's being restrained, a bit Emily Dickinson, very gothic. Her subject matter too, uncomfortable. Even the book I didn't like, I loved hating it. Felt like rubbernecking.

Oates gave us a brief overview of crime writing as an exploration of the human dilemma, starting with Ovid, through Dickens and Dostoevsky, to the Americans Melville, Hemingway, and Faulkner, and she puts herself in the same lineage.

To write a crime novel seemed more ambitious to her than straight fiction, at which she was already practiced. When she started writing under the pen name Rosamond Smith, the idea was to produce something that was swift-moving and cinematic. She was very witty in describing the experiment of shopping the first pseudoymous novel with a new agent to a new publisher, like she was cheating on her established editorial relationships.

It was an interesting session, but I had a hard time keeping straight when she was talking about her crime novels and when she was speaking more generally about her entire body of work. Kirchhoff did little to keep her on topic, and Oates — you could tell she's done this before — just talked and talked about whatever the last sentence led her to. (The general nature of the discussion meant I decided to forego attending another interview with Oates later in the day.) So this report is a bit scattered, but such was the nature of the hour.

Her writing has a ballad-like structuring, and she refers to Dickens and Hardy quite a bit, with characters that are blind and heedless, but well intentioned.

She quips at one point that one tends to think of psychopaths as male, but then has to clarify to the nervous audience, "That was a joke actually."

She's interested in darkness. Just because you can't see it doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

One of the differences in writing crime is that the tradition demands tying things up; serious fiction allows for irresolute, mysterious endings.

Kirchhoff brought up the point that Oates has been accused of melodrama (but I'm not sure if this was leveled at the crime novels or her fiction in general). She counters that there's little difference between drama and melodrams — Shakespeare was the king of melodrama!

In her early work, Oates felt herself telling a story. Now, she mediates her voice; there's more dialogue.

She likes reading Michael Connelly, and James Ellroy.

Then there are her postmodernist gothic novels (I'm not sure which ones fall into this category). She loves gothic, surreal. She described the spectrum from domestic realism — John Updike, which is beautiful and contained — to the gothicism of Cormac McCarthy, with its rich language and story that is primitive, elemental, and deeply scary.

I think it was in discussing Blonde that Oates went off on a tangent about the United States being "such a tragic, farcical country" and the "demonic forces" among the Republican candidates with their warped nationalism and sense of American exceptionalism, that America is special, and therefore everything about it is good and right. She got pretty worked up. That was something to see.

Of her own novels, Oates' favourites are Blonde (and she spoke at great length about her fascination with Marilyn Monroe, and how public figures can have such vast loneliness), My Sister, My Love (which was suggested by a real-life unsolved case, because we all have the right to speculate, to look at the evidence), and as a straight-up crime novel Take Me, Take Me with You (written as Lauren Kelly).

Definitely I will pick up one of these and give Oates another shot.
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