[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
    short-story writers.

    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
    shamefaced piety.

    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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