Joyce Carol Oates - 'Letters to a Biographer'

Joyce Carol Oates - 'Letters to a Biographer'


The cover for 'Letters to a Biographer'.

This book collects letters from Joyce Carol Oates, one of the more popular American authors of the twentieth century, to Greg Johnson, biographer. In the introduction, Oates says she could not have ‘imagined that Greg would be my primary correspondent through most of my adult life.’ He first wrote to her in 1975 and they’ve still not stopped exchanging letters, although the introduction of email has shortened the contents of their letters, according to Johnson; this book contains a selection of letters from 1979 to 2005.

I must say, I wish the letters from Johnson were included. Oates often refers to what Johnson last wrote to her, and even though there’s supporting information, it’s like eavesdropping on a phone conversation on a train.

Oates is entertaining. She’s funny in her letters to Johnson, far funnier than she is on Twitter. What about her letters?

They often contain things related to work. Writing. Publishing. PR. Progress in writing.

The Paris Review interview went very well, primarily beciause an old friend, Bob Phillips, interviewed me. So there weren’t any silly or irrelevant questions. It’s my most personal and accurate statement about myself, and I am hoping it will make future interviews unnecessary; the process is not only a time-consuming one, it’s absurdly self-conscious. I liked the Joan Didion interview very much (strangely, she was interviewed by Linda Kuehl, who was the first literary journalist to interview me, many years ago; I was shocked to hear that she had committed suicide). Margaret Drabble, an old (but now rather distant) friend, said some fascinating things too.

It’s interesting to see Johnson approaching Oates about writing a biography about her.

I’d be delighted if you did a critical biography someday; the emphasis being upon, not the life, but the writing. Yet it’s true that people whom I know, teachers especially, are beginning to show signs of terminal mortality. (Donald Dike, poor man, died of cancer of the throat years ago.) Nor are my parents (who are due to arrive in about an hour for a few days’ visit) getting any younger.

As someone who interacts with authors and publishers, I can say this: Oates’s response is extremely chilled-out. Imagine hearing from someone who wants to write a biography about yourself. Well. She chills. On the other hand, she does fret about stuff.

Through the book, Oates does worry and fret about her parents’ health. They get older, they get ill. They die. She writes almost solemnly about that. On the other hand, who would lay shit out in letters to be published? I’m almost convinced (by my own mind, not by Oates nor Johnson) that she’d include that stuff in letters à la Roland Barthes, whose book about his mother’s death lays much out there.

Thank God. [The manuscript of ] The Wheel of Love [1970] is lost. Vanguard, somehow, simply “misplaced” the manuscript. At the time, I didn’t seem to feel a great loss. What fun, to peruse Bob Phillips’s papers. Bob is without a doubt the most literary-gregarious/generous/just plain nice guy of his generation. He has more energy than anyone I know, and he’s already thriving at Houston where he’s chairing the graduate writing program. If the English literary style is best represented by Kingsley Amis, a foul-mouthed sexist/ racist/alcoholic (his memoir is appalling)—I’d like to think that our American style is represented by Bob Phillips.

Before Oates sold zillions of books due to being included in ‘Oprah’s Book Club’ - hi, Jonathan Franzen - she did things that seemed PRish:

On Feb. 12, at 9 p.m., NBC will show a documentary on Mike Tyson in which I’m very briefly interviewed. I’m dreading how it will turn out . . . my feelings about Tyson are unformed, inchoate. I’ve thought that what happened to him is a tragedy, and I’ve thought that what he did excludes him from being taken that seriously. But it seems likely he’ll never be a great boxer now, which is a loss to the sport. (This most ambiguous of “sports”!)

This is OK. Speak about ‘sports’ while being famous. Well. It’d serve someone like Fran Lebowitz better than Oates, given that they have style to add while interviewed in video. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Oates live, but she’s a lot better in print than in video.

I mean, just see a bit of what she’s thinking about writing on Emily Dickinson:

The issue of a writer’s “unevenness” is intriguing. I’ve wondered—whose work is “even”? Not Faulkner; not even Emily Dickinson; nor even Shakespeare. I acquired Sense and Sensibility, the only Austen novel I hadn’t read, to read on our plane flight back the other week, and was astonished at how slow, dull, didactic, and unsparkling it was—hardly a Jane Austen novel, at all. Trying to maintain a dutiful interest in its turgid, repetitive plot and its minimally interesting characters, to get me through the hours of the ight, plus two more hours in a car from Kennedy, was quite a chore! (The suggestion that a prolic writer is “uneven” implies that other writers’ work is consistently good, which can’t be the case. And one would prefer a lesser work by a major writer— Lawrence’s The Lost Girl, for instance—over the strongest work of another writer not of Lawrence’s stature.)

And yes, I said she’s funny:

(I realize that critics have to say something about a writer! In Europe, again, I was asked the usual, “Why is your writing so violent?” A few times I said jokingly that, by American standards, it isn’t; I was known as the “Jane Austen of Detroit” for a while. Whether this was perceived as humor, I can’t say. Next question!)

On having her book Zombie, based on the life of Jeffrey Dahmner, to be published in the magazine The New Yorker:

My story was postponed once again at [the New Yorker]—no particular reason given. I’ve given up expecting it to appear at all. I never see the magazine, in any case. The “copyediting” there is horrendous—like being picked at by a swarm of carnivorous gnats.

Obviously, Oates is a person who wants to stir her reader. Stir, stir, until she doesn’t recognise the tool with which she stirs. This is also OK.

Like a lot of celebs, she is kind of the starfucker:

We spent part of an evening with Christopher Walken (whose lm, with Sean Penn, At Close Range, I particularly admire), introduced by Larry Groebel (the Playboy interviewer), in Santa Monica. An intelligent and well-spoken person, like virtually all of the well-known Hollywood actors we’ve met. (Walken had wanted to meet me because he admires On Boxing. His lm Homeboy—also True Romance— are supposed to be excellent, we’ve been told. It’s interesting how many actors (Pacino, Hoffman, Ryan O’Neal, Walken, Mickey Rourke, Jack Nicholson) are serious fans of boxing. No doubt they see the boxer’s performance as the real thing, set beside which their own performances are synthetic and without much risk. Dustin Hoffman had even wanted to be a boxer, as a boy.) . . . Don’t apologize for liking thriller lms! Chase Twichell likes maudlin, soap-operaish lms, no matter how bad; Gordon Edelstein likes grotesque, violent lms; Russell likes to watch old movies . . . any and all old movies, if they’re late at night. Ray and I seem to spend our evenings reading, and working, without any time for lms, which we regret. Someday, we intend to catch up. (We are the only two people in North America not to have seen Pulp Fiction.)

This is OK. We all are, to some extent. Who can tell. I’ve no idea about Oates, really. This is a book of letters. I can’t ask her if she was drunk or sober while writing this, if she was a person bored next to a Esso petrol station waiting to leave while secretly happy to just stretch her legs, not forcibly engaged in conversation. Well. We don’t know. Who knows?

She’s a bit of a name-dropper. She engaged with Jeanne Moreau. Who drops that name? A name-dropper, that’s who. Oates is a very deft writer but also one who doesn’t let her guard down much; on the other hand, this collection of letters is edited by someone who isn’t Oates.

I wish the book would bring more clarity. It might, depending on whether Johnson’s letters might be somehow added at a later point in time, but it’ll likely not happen.

Regarding her mention of work, it’s interesting to see the start of Blonde:

I’ve been quite fascinated with my new novel Gemini [the working title for Blonde], and am on page 220 already, with much more than half to go. [The original manuscript would eventually run 1,400 pages, her longest novel to date.] It will give me the opportunity to explore the phenomenon of acting about which I’ve learned some interesting things as a playwright and so at one remove from the life onstage. How actors, often lacking coherent identities, thrive upon immersing themselves in fictitious roles and are restless if not miserable without them. (I guess this sounds familiar.) To see the world from the actor’s perspective is to see it in an entirely new way. At the same time, I wish I had more genuine interest in my “career” right now. I do like meeting people, very much . . . but to represent, or to actually be, “JCO” isn’t always that interesting. Maybe we could all scramble our identities & I could “be” someone else for a while. Sarah Orne Jewett?

Do you have any opinions re. titles: Gemini: An American Epic, or Miss Golden Dreams (the title of Monroe’s infamous nude pin-up). I rather need the “constellation” theme, but feel uneasy that Don DeLillo, in Libra, got there first. What do you think?

Her spats with other authors are interesting, even though they require some Internet-looking for clarity. Example:

About Jamaica Kincaid: she didn’t insult me exactly, but took offense when I seemed to be defending Tom Wolfe (while explaining that I had not read his novel) and Charles Frazier as examples of serious writers who are nonetheless best sellers. Jamaica, who is not herself an enormous talent, interrupted my remarks on Cold Mountain to say it was a “bad novel”; when a man in the audience asked her why, she just repeated it was a “bad novel.” Jamaica had been angry because her publisher, her very editor, are responsible for [Wolfe’s] A Man in Full; or maybe jealous is more accurate. She called Wolfe a racist before an audience of perhaps 300 people which I thought was reprehensible, and said so.

It’s also lovely to see how Oates writes about things, people, and places that she liked:

13 July 2005 Dear Greg, . . . I finally finished my lengthy Cormac McCarthy review for New York Review and have told Barbara Epstein that I am now going on a small sabbatical. It was an exasperating experience to be taking so much time for what is, in essence, just a review at which most readers will only glance, if they don’t simply turn the page. And I’m sure that McCarthy doesn’t read his reviews. (Dan Halpern, who’d been his editor some years ago, says that Cormac will not change even a punctuation mark in his manuscripts. He takes no editorial suggestions whatever, and it shows.) However, McCarthy is undeniably a “major” writer. He has written some truly remarkable things.

This book is a funny and breath-of-fresh-air tome of letters, compared with quite a few from other authors. For sure, many people don’t write letters thinking they’ll one day be published, but Oates is funnier and simultaneously fustier than most.

If these were letters to me from a friend, I’d like to see more personality and personal stuff shine through. Sure, Oates does use some space to describe the tragic passing of her parents, but while reading the book, I often felt reminded of the editor’s hand and wondered what was left out from the book. Is this book worth reading? I definitely think so. One day, I might re-read it. Oates’s wit paired with the fact that she didn’t take herself too seriously is enough for me.