A Writer’s Faith

By Stuart Mitchner

Joyce Carol Oates had been living in Princeton for 25 years when she published The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art (Ecco 2003), one of two works she named when asked to mention books that were “close to her heart.” The author, who will be teaching her last class at Princeton University in the spring semester of 2015, also cited High Lonesome: New & Selected Stories 1966-2006 (Ecco 2006), which contains “my favorite stories of my own up to that time.”

New work published this month includes Lovely, Dark, Deep (Ecco), a collection of short fiction, and Prison Noir (Akashic), the second book she’s edited, after New Jersey Noir, for Akashic’s Noir Series. The Sacrifice, a novel due early in 2015, is set in a “racially troubled” New Jersey city in the late 1980s; she is also working on a memoir to be published in fall 2015.

THE ACT OF WRITING

The Faith of a Writer is a landmark in the literary genre most famously represented by The Paris Review’s Writers at Work series, the fifth of which includes an interview with Oates, along with, among others, John Cheever, Joseph Heller, Pablo Neruda, and Joan Didion. Oates also edited the eighth volume in the series, providing an introduction that concludes by paraphrasing Flannery O’Connor and John Hersey to the effect that “the very act of writing is an act of hope” and that “writing is the only real reward.”

The assertion of writing’s capacity for hope and fulfillment pervades The Faith of a Writer, which thoughtfully and unaffectedly merges personal history with enlightened appreciations of a range of works, beginning with “the marvel” of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Illustrated with “bizarre creatures” and “a perpetually astonished-looking Alice,” Lewis Carroll’s book came to “a farm child, in a work-oriented household,” as “the great treasure” of her childhood and would prove to be “the most profound literary influence” of her life.

ON PRODUCTIVITY

When you open Lovely, Dark, Deep, the first thing you see, under the heading “Also by Joyce Carol Oates,” is a list of 25 volumes that for most writers would be the total of their published work. But these are 25 story collections. You’d need another full page to list the novels, volumes of poetry, plays, childrens books, and essays. Interviewing her for The Paris Review, Robert Philips addresses the issue upfront “We may as well get this one over with first: you’re frequently charged with producing too much.” After noting that “productivity is a relative matter,” Oates points out that “it may be the case that we all must write many books in order to achieve a few lasting ones….Each book as it is written, however, is a completely absorbing experience, and feels always as if it were the work I was born to write.” Later, she adds that “each book is a world unto itself and must stand alone, and it should not matter whether a book is a writer’s first, or tenth, or fiftieth.”

Oates touches on similar issues in the afterword to High Lonesome when she speaks for most short story writers in saying that “each of our stories exacts from us the same approximate commitment and hope. Prose fiction is, in essence, the realization of an elusive abstract vision in elaborate and painstaking construction, sentence by sentence, word by word. The daunting task for a writer is: what to include? what to exclude? Throughout our lifetimes a Sargasso Sea of the discarded accumulates, far larger than what is called our ‘body’ of work, for each story is an opening into the infinite, abruptly terminated and sealed in language.”

THE JCO DYNAMIC

What might called the JCO dynamic can be seen in the contrast between the language of the afterword and that of the voices and styles assumed in the narratives of particular stories. The title piece in High Lonesome offers a striking example. The tone in the opening and closing sentences, though more personal, is at least remotely comparable to the tone of the afterword. The story opens with a question: “The only people I still love are the ones I’ve hurt. I wonder if it’s the same with you?” and ends, “This lonesome feeling I’d make a song of, if I knew how.” To construct a story to fit between that invitingly suggestive opening and those poignant last words would be a challenging exercise for students of creative writing, after perhaps including the admission that follows the opening question: “Only people I’m lonely for. These nights I can’t sleep.” Right away Oates has sounded the terms of the theme with which she begins The Faith of a Writer: “Writing is the most solitary of arts.” And at this point the voice is not all that distinct from the authorial self responding to questions in the interview or composing an afterword or “autobiographical essays on the craft of writing.” In “High Lonesome,” however, there’s a transition in tone as the voice changes from asexual neutrality to masculine immediacy: “See my heartbeat is fast. It’s the damn medication makes me sweat. Run my fingers over my stub-forefinger—lost most of it in a chain-saw accident a long time ago.”

As you learn, the truth is that a portion of the narrator’s forefinger was bitten off by his cousin, a deputy sheriff whose skull he crushed with a claw-hammer. Here in full force is the violent, full-blooded, visceral presence that inhabits the author’s most characteristic work. What redeems the graphic account of the killing for literature is the sound rising out of the violence, “a high keening sound” the narrator associates with the singing of his in-law grandfather whose suicide after a police sting gave the killer his motive (“the deputy sheriff betraying his own kind”). At first he thinks the keening sound is coming from his dying victim, “but making this high sharp lonesome sound it finally comes to me, is me, myself.”

At the end, the metaphorical integrity of the concept gives literary force to the “phantom pain” in the “ugly stub-finger” (“a kind of comfort like your finger is a whole finger somewhere”) and to objects such as the sheriff’s badge and gun taken and saved like relics of the act by his killer, and even the “bloody clothes” buried in “the marshy pasture” where the old man who sang “this high old lonesome sound like a ghost tramping the hills” killed himself. The effect suggests a line that the author quotes from W.B. Yeats in The Faith of a Writer—“A terrible beauty is born.” The more neutral voice returns at the end (“such a mood comes over me here”) as Oates takes implicit possession of the story (“This lonesome feeling I’d make a song of, if I knew how”), turning the “feeling” and the “mood” into a song that is very much her own. As a reader, I might feel more comfortable with a story like “Small Avalanches,” where the point of view of the female narrator coheres more fluidly with the author’s, and where the narrative situation inspires thoughts of other writers. But the brutal poetry of “High Lonesome,” and the dynamic driving the narrative, are one hundred percent Joyce Carol Oates, and that’s as it should be.

ONLY HAVE FAITH

It’s interesting to find a less explicit but no less driven version of the JCO dynamic in “To a Young Writer,” perhaps the frankest, most uninhibited chapter in The Faith of a Writer, where an author who has endured more than her share of critical/litchat abuse says, “Don’t expect to be treated justly by the world. Don’t even expect to be treated mercifully.”

In the next paragraph, the young writer is told that “Life is lived head-on, like a roller coaster ride.” Though the sentence proceeds to contrast the ride to “cooly selective art” that can be created only in retrospect, the author rollercoasters right over the qualifier, “Better to invent wholly an alternate life. Far better!” You can feel the passion that invests the piece building toward the end—“Only have faith: the first sentence can’t be written until the last sentence has been written.” Which brings to mind the first and last sentence of “High Lonesome” and a word as resonant as “faith” in Oates’s celebration of the writing life, repeated twice in the italicized admonition of the first and last sentences of the essay: “Write your heart out.”

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