alibi online
Free Will AstrologyAlibi's Personals
 V.16 No.48 | November 29 - December 5, 2007 

Book Review

Her Own Life

The Journals of Joyce Carol Oates, 1973-1982

The Journals of Joyce Carol Oates, 1973-1982

Edited by Greg Johnson

She has been a famous American starlet, a murderer and a senator. She has also been a lawyer, a religious zealot and a 16-year-old girl. In fact, with more than 1,000 stories and 100 books to her name, Joyce Carol Oates must have created at least 10,000 characters by now—enough to fill a small town. Enter any bookstore and you can spy this place in the distance, twinkling darkly, her other America.

But the one person Oates has seldom been in public is herself—until now. Biographer Greg Johnson has compiled and edited a selection of her journals from 1973 through 1982, a period when she published 29 books, including some of her most experimental fiction (a prose poem novel) and poetry of great intensity and rawness—Women Whose Lives are Food, Men Whose Lives are Money. All this and she apparently had time to take country drives and garden, too.

Yes, that’s right, folks, the woman has a life. Here is the National Book Award-winning author of Them and scads of other novels receiving—and enjoying!—visits from her parents, lunching with friends and parties with her husband, the critic and professor Raymond Smith. When work is done they hit the road and take in the great sweep of Americana.

Readers curious for a glimpse of the literati will get an eyeful here. Oates lunches with novelist Gail Godwin (“very attractive”); meets, admires and befriends Susan Sontag (living beyond her means in an enormous rented apartment with no savings); runs into the novelist Stanley Elkin in London; and tries (and fails) to strike up conversation with Robert Pirsig and his wife. She even has that most modern of accoutrements: a stalker.

Oates also begins a warm and convivial friendship with John Updike, who appears as much as any other novelist in these pages. “He’s self-deprecating in a playful way,” she writes. “Perhaps, like me, Updike doesn’t dare acknowledge the central importance of writing to his life; perhaps the gift rather alarms him, as it does me, at times, and has the aura of something so sacred it either can’t be spoken of at all or must be alluded to in a slighting manner.”

And what of this gift? It’s fascinating to watch Oates move between the hyper-social world of parties and teaching to the life of her mind—which is the true subject of these journals. She begins them in 1973 as an attempt to record what she calls “the refractory and inviolable authenticity of daily life: daily-ness, day-ness, day-lightness, the day’s eye of experience.”

If there is anything this book makes clear, it’s that Joyce Carol Oates is in control of her work. Ideas percolate and become stories before our eyes, are wrestled with, picked at over years. Novels grind to a halt and need to be rewritten. She is the opposite of attached—fixed, instead, to the work coming out. “Silence, exile, cunning,” she muses one day. “To which I must add my favorite: invisibility.”

But this is a dream figment, especially for a novelist who was on the cover of Newsweek in 1972 and has been a Nobel candidate for decades. Like so many writers before her, she plunges into lakes of self-doubt, is hurt by bad reviews, buoyed by the good ones, frustrated at the results of her “idiotic” labors and wonders at her standing.

These matters are the superficial frictions of making art. The deeper contact points are buried throughout this book and it must have taken some courage to reveal them. As she says goodbye in 1982 to her parents after a visit, for instance, Oates is doubled over by loss. “I can’t, can’t, can’t organize these thoughts,” she writes. “I can’t express what I feel. I feel so much!” Thus her furious, amazing production continues.

John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.


Today's Events

Pentimento at AirDance ArtSpace

Courtesy of AirDance New Mexico

A variety of aerial apparatuses and stilt work with interactive projections performed to a choir of women’s voices.

Evita at Musical Theatre Southwest

Field Dressing at Tricklock Performance Laboratory

More Recommended Events ››

  • Select sidebar boxes to add below. You can also click and drag to rearrange the boxes; close using the little X icons on each box. To re-add a box you closed, return to this menu.
  • Because you are not logged in, any changes you make to these boxes will vanish as soon as you click to another page. If you log in, the boxes will stick.
  • Latest Posts
  • Web Exclusives
  • Recent Classifieds
  • Latest User Posts
  • Most Active Users
  • Most Active Stories
  • Calendar Comments
  • Upcoming Alibi Picks
  • Albuquerque
  • Duke City Fix
  • Albuquerque Beer Scene
  • What's Wrong With This Picture?
  • Reddit Albuquerque
  • ABQ Journal Metro
  • ABQrising
  • ABQ Journal Latest News
  • Albuquerque
  • NM and the West
  • New Mexico FBIHOP
  • Democracy for New Mexico
  • Only in New Mexico
  • Mario Burgos
  • Democracy for New Mexico
  • High Country News
  • El Grito
  • NM Politics with Joe Monahan
  • Stephen W. Terrell's Web Log
  • The Net Is Vast and Infinite
  • Slashdot
  • Freedom to Tinker
  • Is there a feed that should be on this list? Tell us about it.