[Paleopsych] NYTBR: (Joyce C. Oates) 'Uncensored': Them and Her
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'Uncensored': Them and Her
New York Times Book Review, 5.4.17
By A. O. SCOTT
UNCENSORED: Views and (Re)views.
By Joyce C. Oates.
370 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. $24.95.
IT'S almost impossible -- at this point, it seems positively impolite
-- to begin a discussion of Joyce C. Oates without marveling at her
productivity. Since her first story collection, ''By the North Gate,''
appeared in 1963, she has published more than a hundred books in at
least a half-dozen genres and forms. Her latest one, ''Uncensored,''
gathers 39 essays -- more than half from The New York Review of Books
and The Times Literary Supplement, the rest mainly from other
periodicals (including this one) and books -- on a variety of
subjects. It's a reminder that her prodigious literary energy isn't
limited to fiction, or even to writing.
There may be some books out there that Joyce C. Oates hasn't
written, but there don't seem to be very many that she hasn't read.
She doesn't so much review individual books as assess entire bodies of
work, sorting wheat from chaff and finding the point at which talent
meets its limits. Among the objects of her careful, passionate
scrutiny are Muriel Spark, Sylvia Plath, E. L. Doctorow and Anne
Tyler, as well as a host of lesser-known novelists, memoirists and
Of course, every serious writer of fiction must also be a serious
reader; the only way the art can really be mastered is through a
compulsive, self-administered pedagogy of worship, derision, imitation
and intimidation. But not every good novelist is also a good critic.
Book reviews, for many (perhaps most) fiction writers, offer, along
with modest payment, the opportunity to settle a score, repay a favor
or fulfill the general obligation of guild solidarity. Reviewing the
work of a fellow novelist is a means, at once generous and
self-serving, of endorsing the notion that novels should continue to
be written and, once written, read -- a notion usually defended with
The pervasive suspicion that serious reading is becoming a marginal
pursuit contributes to the anxious, timid, supportive tone of much of
what passes for literary criticism these days, and the timorousness of
the enterprise is part of what makes Oates's robust, painstaking and
self-assured essays both exemplary and somewhat anomalous. Among
novelists of large reputation, only she and John Updike seem to
possess the confidence (in themselves and in the novel as a form), not
to mention the stamina, to pass frequent judgment on the proliferating
work of their precursors, contemporaries and junior colleagues.
Like its predecessor, ''Where I've Been, and Where I'm Going,''
published in 1999, ''Uncensored'' makes room for a few nonliterary
figures alongside its diverse roster of living and dead writers.
Muhammad Ali is the subject of a characteristically thorough and
well-informed (if not terribly original) essay, as is the enigmatic
painter Balthus. (The earlier volume included pieces on Jeffrey Dahmer
and René Magritte.) But to the extent that an assembly of occasional
prose can have an organizing theme, this one is preoccupied with
English-language fiction -- novels mostly -- principally but not
exclusively American, by writers ranging from Ernest Hemingway to
Michael Connelly, from Willa Cather to . . . Joyce C. Oates.
Inevitably, a novelist's criticism will be read not only for insights
into the writers under review but also, to the extent that these
writers are influences, rivals and comrades, for clues about the
novelist's own work. The exercises in self-criticism that come near
the end of the book -- prefaces to new editions of the linked novels
''Them'' and ''A Garden of Earthly Delights'' and an account of the
composition of the novella ''I Lock My Door Upon Myself'' -- offer
evaluations, unburdened by modesty, of those books, and concise
summaries of their author's ideas, then and now, about sex, class,
violence, family and other aspects of contemporary American life.
But these brief apologias take on a deeper glow of illumination when
read against Oates's more impersonal considerations of others, which
reveal fascinating affinities and aversions. Her ''homage'' to Emily
Brontë, for example, conveys an unmistakable sense of where Oates
herself comes from -- a tradition of ''intense, precise, often lyric
observation'' that connects Brontë with Thomas Hardy and D. H.
Lawrence and dwells in the borderlands between realism and romance.
Oates argues, apropos of ''Wuthering Heights,'' that ''all works of
art whether 'romantic' or 'realistic' are in fact the products of an
intense, interior romance: that of the artist for his or her
subject,'' and it's hard not to see this as a confession of her own
impulses. If ''Wuthering Heights'' is ''a paean to the beauty and
mystery of the real world,'' the same might be said of novels like
''Them'' and ''We Were the Mulvaneys,'' which confer upon 20th-century
American social and family life, that sturdy staple of realist
fiction, some of the terror and strangeness the century before knew as
Oates's dislikes -- gathered in a section called ''Not a Nice Person''
-- can be as self-disclosing as her passions. It is interesting to
learn, for instance, that she doesn't think much of Patricia
Highsmith, and perhaps a bit surprising, since they might seem to
share a taste for the gothic and the grotesque. But with the exception
of ''Strangers on a Train,'' there's not much in Highsmith's oeuvre
that meets Oates's approval; to her, Highsmith stands ''at the shadowy
juncture between entertaining misanthropy and psychopathology.''
Whether or not one shares Oates's revulsion at Highsmith's grisly
tales about animals wreaking violence on people, or her disenchantment
with the later novels, Oates's brisk debunking of Highsmith's
reputation clarifies, by implicit contrast, an important aspect of her
own work. Oates has a moral and psychological interest in portraying
sadism, while Highsmith takes an aesthetic delight in practicing it.
AND Oates is, perhaps to an unfashionable degree, a moralist,
gravitating in her criticism, as in her fiction, toward large
(sometimes unwieldy) questions of power, honor, domination and
exploitation. Given the gravity of these concerns, the almost total
absence of humor from her writing shouldn't be surprising. In her
sentences, you often hear the heavy tread of what might be called the
higher obviousness -- a deadening combination of generalization and
ringing portent: ''Ours is the age of what might be called the New
Memoir''; ''Twentieth-century Irish literature has been a
phenomenon''; ''The short story is a minor art form that in the hands
of a very few practitioners becomes major art.''
But if any critic has earned the right to occasional pomposity, surely
it's Joyce C. Oates, and in exchange for a few moments of
lecture-hall droning, ''Uncensored'' provides ample instruction and
welcome provocation. It's good to catch up with Oates's reading, even
if you can never hope to keep up with her pace.
A. O. Scott is a film critic at The Times.
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