Monday, June 8, 2015

Joyce Carol Oates's opinions are fascinating

Uncensored: Views & (Re)Views by Joyce Carol Oates is a collection of reviews and essays. It was published in 2005, and the works originally appeared in The New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times and elsewhere between 1999 and 2004. The dates, however, are irrelevant. Oates' comments about Sylvia Plath, Willa Cather, Richard Yates, Ernest Hemingway, Balthus, and her reviews of books by William Trevor, E. L. Doctorow, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Mary Karr among other are as interesting today as when they were published.

I picked the book up because I was curious to see what Oates had to say about these writers, to see if there are writers I ought to know more about (there are), and to improve my own ability to read and, ideally, to write. What does a working novelist and short story author like Oates have to say? What does she respond to in a book? What does she criticize—or feel does not work?

As a writer of fiction, I think about the challenges. How do you engage a reader? How do you create—invent, devise, fabricate, fashion, build, construct—living characters that are, after all, nothing but words on paper? How do you avoid rupturing the reader's willing suspension of disbelief, throwing her out of the story and tempting her to throw the book across the room?

The only way I know to answer questions like these is to learn what seems to work and what usually doesn't work in fiction. You can, I supposed, learn this on your own, but by doing so you are always limited by your own experiences, your own history, by what you are able to bring to and take from the text. A thoughtful reader like Joyce Carol Oates, with her history and her experience, can add alternative insights, ideas, and perspectives to your own.

One of the book's more interesting essays is "A Garden of Earthly Delights Revisited." Oates wrote the novel in 1965-66 (when she was in her late 20s) and had the opportunity to revise it in 2002. "As a composer can hear music he can't himself play on any instrument, so a young writer may have a vision he or she can't quiet execute; to feel something, however deeply, is not the same as possessing the power—the craft, the skill, the stubborn patience—to translate it into formal terms."

I have not done it (and considering the demands on my time, probably won't do it), but a fascinating exercise would be to compare the 1967 edition of A Garden of Earthly Delights to the 2002 edition. How often is it possible to compare a writer's early version of a novel with her mature edition? If you know of any others, please let me know.

No comments:

Post a Comment