Joyce Carol Oates: Wit And Fear

Some writers prevail by sheer bulk of production. Chesterton and Belloc come to mind, for the high-brow, Edgar Rice Burroughs for the low. Joyce Carol Oates is clearly high-brow, a “serious” writer, but she impresses you first of all by amount. Still in her thirties, she has published seven novels, six collections of stories, five collections of poems, three works of criticism, an anthology, and at least three plays. Roughly, twenty fat books in a decade.

This weight of words gives a critic pause. It invites generalization; but you hesitate, because the next book, which may be out before you finish your sentence, may throw that sentence out of court. On the other hand, such speed of production suggests a sameness of texture. To write that fast, a writer must have a strong sense of “voice”—a distinctive, serviceable style that is not too hard to sustain. Oates has such a voice, and it provides a good avenue into her work and intentions. So on this basis, with due respect for the future, I venture my comments.

What John O’Hara used to call “the badges” have come to Oates in plenty. She holds a secure academic post, has held a Guggenheim Fellowship, was nominated for the National Book Award three times and won once (them, 1969). The materials of her books appear continually in a wide range of literary and critical magazines. She publishes with Vanguard Press (New York), Louisiana State University Press, and Black Sparrow—trade publisher, academic press, “small press,” the basic range of modern American publishing.

Oates grew up near Lockport, New York, a town that appears briefly in Wonderland (1971) and in a recent poem (“City of Locks,” Angel Fire, 1973). She attended Syracuse University and the University of Michigan, and published as her first book a collection of stories, By the North Gate (1963). Some of her early stories remind one of Flannery O’Connor—rural settings, grotesque and violent characters. (A long composite essay on O’Connor appears in Oates’s critical collection entitled New Heaven, New Earth, 1974.) But her ear for dialect is less sound than O’Connor’s, can compact less into the mere dialogue, and so she must add a more intrusive kind of commentary. Her typical rhetoric—witty, disquieting, always energetic—is present from the start of her career.

Oates taught for a time at the University of Detroit—Detroit, like Lockport, Buffalo, and Ann Arbor, appears in her fiction—and is now at the University of Windsor, Ontario. Some writers are uncomfortable in the academic bowers, but Oates is, confessedly, happy to be a teacher. Her scholastic surroundings come into her fiction in various ways. There are what one suspects to be “in” jokes: a French teacher named Frame (see Professor Donald Frame of Columbia, the translator of Montaigne); a footnote jab at Leslie Fiedler; a character named Silas Hobbit, which appears to wrench Tolkien into wedlock with George Eliot. At a further remove, there is parodied criticism in Expensive People (1968) and in a recent story about a postmodern writer named Cabral (in The Poisoned Kiss, 1975). Poems and stories within stories appear as well, in addition to letters purportedly to Oates herself from a student (in them).

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For all this, Oates is not an academic writer, if by academic we mean protected, self-consciously literary, or haunted by tradition. Her criticism—summarized in two anthologies, The Edge of Impossibility (1972) and New Heaven, New Earth—simply ignores the academic critic’s specialty, the construction of historical contexts. She moves directly on the text, working out its insights and drawing them into coherent overall statements.

Her criticism, too, is the criticism of a working artist, as she tends to find in her subjects the ways in which they bear a vision like her own. (Thus, logically, she is most convincing with a compatible text—unconvincing with Shakespeare, subtle and far-reaching with Dostoevsky.) From her criticism, if we move with caution, we can draw some sense of her basic concerns

Since Defoe the novel’s problem has always been the representation of reality. This is essential to Oates, too, and as she is an aggressively modern writer, the reality she represents is complex and difficult. “I believe that writing should recreate a world,” she wrote in a postscript to The Poisoned Kiss, “sanctifying the real world by honoring its complexities.” The reality of things is in their complexity, and to simplify this too far, by dogma, material security, or mere obliviousness, is to lose touch with reality. Ideally, the novel should bring us back: “We witness in art the reversal of our commonplace loss of passion …”

Defoe rescued Robinson Crusoe from his false complexities by isolating him amid the moral simplicity of nature. Oates rescues her people (and readers) from false simplicity by forcing at them the violent, irrational complexity of life. Thus “violence is always an affirmation,” since “there can be no violence out of a sense of nothing.…” Violence destroys our glass-house complacencies, the mindless nothing of suburban contentment; but this destruction is an affirmation, because it frees our vision of the truth.

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Violence also works in Oates’s very conception of the nature of art. Things coalesce only if the imagination can fasten itself to something definite, precise—the “harde yron” Wallace Stevens’s persona is always chasing, with varying desperation and success. In Oates’s fiction, violence provides the imaginative focus. “All of Dostoevsky’s novels,” she writes, “deal with the long preparation for the consummation of a violent act, without which the works could not be imagined.” And: “Art is built around violence, around death; at its base is fear.” Fear generates art, for it pushes us beyond comfort and starts us talking.


Lionel Basney is associate professor of English at Houghton College, Houghton, New York.

Rock, Secular And Sacred

A rock song popular several years ago began with these lyrics: “I believe in music.” For many teenagers—and those from Christian homes are not necessarily an exception—rock music has replaced religion. It provides emotional satisfaction and mystical excitement. Few adults understand its pull. Rock expert Dennis C. Benson has put together a handbook to help adults understand what the “rock generation” is all about. It also will help adults guide teen-agers into an awareness of what the rock situation means. And Benson has done that from a Christian perspective.

The Rock Generation (Abingdon, $6.95 pb) includes two records of interviews with some of rock’s biggest names: Alice Cooper, John Lennon, and the late Cass Elliot and Jim Croce. An intriguing game called “Probe One” gets kids into the book. The remaining twelve probes relate to the records and are geared to move teen-agers beyond adoration to a discovery of what’s behind the rock scene. Benson suggests several exercises for creative use of the book at the end of each chapter. They go beyond discussion and involve movement, drama, singing, and listening. He also includes pertinent Bible passages to aid discussion. Some of the interviews illuminate what the Bible says; others contradict it. The kids can decide why and where. Benson understands kids and rock music. This is a book church youth leaders ought to own.

As a contrast to the music and performers discussed in Benson’s book, try playing for your teen-agers the latest record by Lamb, Lamb III (Messianic, 7516 City Line Avenue, Philadelphia, Pa. 19151; no record number). Joel Chernoff and Rick “Levi” Coghill are Lamb, and together they write and perform some powerful, haunting music. A few of the songs are sung in Hebrew; the translations are included. Most of the lyrics are taken from the Old Testament. Benson talks about the importance of record jackets in rock music, and Lamb’s latest is one of the best I’ve seen (either secular or sacred). The gnarled hands and hooked face of Jeremiah capture the mood and color of much of the music in the album. This album includes fewer praise songs than the two previous records. Lamb presents the Gospel in a unique fashion.

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Hope of Glory, a group of five guys, has a less unique sound, but its album Same Sweet Song (Tempo, 1900 W. 47th Place, Mission, Kans. 66205; R-7143) succeeds in combining several styles. With a rock, sometimes folk, sound and a band/orchestra instrumental backup, Hope achieves the right musical feel for the lyrics. Its version of “Same Sweet Song” is one of the best I’ve heard. The offbeat cuts, “Quimosabe’s Last Ride,” “One Man Show,” and “Motorcycle,” make the album a good addition to anyone’s Jesus-music collection. Each number features as soloist Rick Thigpen, who gives life and spirit to the performances. The group should make him their lead singer.

Many groups imitate the country and western sound, but nothing comes close to the real thing. Well-known country singer Wanda Jackson has a new album on the Myrrh label, Make Me Like a Child Again (MSA-6556). For those who like their religious music to have a Nashville flavor, this is the album to buy.

From Myrrh England comes an album by a five-man group, Liberation Suite (MSA 6557). Most of the cuts have upbeat tempos with a heavy use of brass instruments. “Led to Roam,” the first song on the album, effectively uses the flute. And the lead song on side two has a quiet jazz interlude and an interesting treatment of the lyrics.


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