Review of Joyce Carol Oates’ Where I’ve Been, And Where I’m Going
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/17/06
Before picking up this 1999 Joyce Carol Oates book of nonfiction pieces, called Where I’ve Been, And Where I’m Going, I’d only read a handful of her ‘poems’ and stories in assorted magazines, and a dozen or so of her essays regarding pugilism, and recalled little of what might be called style- pro or con. After having read it I am wary of her ridiculously prodigious literary output, because if it’s anything like these essays, then Oates is one of those Ginsbergian first thought, best thought writers, who takes little or no time revising. These fifty plus essays, while displaying an admirable breadth of knowledge show an alarmingly thin depth of wisdom. In short, Oates has got to be the foremost sciolist in American letters, constantly scribbling mediocre works into the void.
A sign of this comes from her alarming usage of epigraphs for essays. Epigraphs are quotes from other works designed to either state the essence of the work, or act in counterpoint to it. While this tool has been overdone in fiction, and especially poetry, its usage in essays- which are designed to explicate, seems superfluous, since why would an explicative form need its own explication? The whole book starts off with a quote from Aristotle, ‘They who are to be judges must also be performers.’ Ok, but does this have a thing to do with the book? Is Oates saying that she’ll be doing literary vaudeville for us? No, it just sounds cool, even though it has little to do with the book’s contents. In an essay called The Aesthetics Of Fear, Oates has a quote from Tod Browning’s film, Dracula: ‘There are far worse things awaiting than death.’ Now, is this a deep thought? A unique one? Is it phrased memorably? No, trois. It simply is an ego stroke let’s the reader know that Oates is a cinephile with an ability to quote from obscure sources. Especially in such a format, epigraphs, in general, and these two particularly, give a clue that not much original will be coming the reader’s way.
Indeed, this is borne out in essay after essay, larded with the worst critical clichés and even more execrable clichés of phrasing imaginable. It’s as if Oates was zombie reading. Putting aside what the essays are about, let me just give you a sample of the horrible writing that ends some of them, with comments:
1) from Art And Ethics?- The (F)Utility Of Art:
The artist as perpetual antagonist; the artist as supremely self-determined; the artist as deeply bonded to his or her world, and in a meaningful relationship with a community- this is the artist’s ethics, and the artist’s aesthetics.
This is PC drivel. As Oates says later in the essay, quoting poet Wallace Stevens, the poet has no ethical obligations.
2) from On Fiction In Fact:
Where myth and truth contend, where the ‘rounding of corners to make a better narrative’ and facts are at odds, we must learn to make our way as skeptics. The books our society publishes must be the books we deserve, suited to the moral ambiguities of our species.
The last sentence makes absolutely no sense. This is more Leftist nonsense. Do I ‘deserve’ to read PoMo frauds or sciolists like Oates? No. The use of the imperative ‘must’, though, is a classic obfuscatory tool, to try to give the claim more credence than it really has.
3) from The Miniaturist Art Of Grace Paley:
It’s this ‘open destiny’ of life and of art that Grace Paley’s Collected Stories celebrates and that has made of Paley one of the enduring talents of her epoch.
This sentence is pure Blurbery 101. But, note that Oates goes beyond even the customary ‘generation’ or ‘time’ in her hagiographical thrust. To her, Paley is of an ‘epoch’. Perhaps she used up her blurbery quota of ‘generation’s in her prior review.
4) from Three American Gothics:
Part One, on Jeffrey Dahmer:
So the serial killer like Jeffrey Dahmer remains a riddle, a koan, not simply in human terms but in biological terms as well. We understand him, finally, no better than we understand ourselves.
Part Two, on Timothy McVeigh:
Where we come from in America no longer signifies- it’s where we go, and what we do when we get there, that tells us who we are.
This is classic Left Wing mamby-pambyism. Trying to associate the whole of society with two psychotic killers of different stripes. Nothing can be learned of society at large by such killers, only of a small segment. Imagine trying to claim that the study of another infinitesimal slice of our society told you of the whole- say, professional jai-alai players.
5) from The Riddle Of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’:
Like most powerful poetry, ‘Goblin Market’ eludes absolute meanings….the poem is enhanced by the vivid, sensuous images by Dante Gabriel Rossetti that express so poignantly the soul’s urgent and unspeakable yearnings.
If I have to tell you why this ending blows, you’re hopeless….or only fourteen.
6) from Tragic Conrad: Heart Of Darkness and The Secret Sharer:
Joseph Conrad is one of the great visionaries bearing witness to the predicament of civilized man: How to match the ‘technique’ and ‘method’ so ironically celebrated in Heart Of Darkness with a corresponding humanity that acknowledges, but does not succumb to, man’s flawed and treacherous soul.
When critics talk of art or an artist’s humanity, you know they’re bailing out on quality, but, really, was that tacked on end necessary? Absolutely atrocious.
7) from Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman:
Arthur Miller has written the tragedy that illuminates the dark side of American success- which is to say, the dark side of us.
I saved the worst for last. Ooh….a pun. You mean I’m having a little fun in the art of this review? For shame, Schneider! What’s in the rest of the essays is no better, of course, than the drivel just quoted. It’s amazing to me, that this woman is so well regarded. Her intellectual prowess is that on par with Zippy the Pinhead. But, even worse than the bad writing is that she’s totally clueless as to what constitutes good art. While this does not augur well for her own fiction, it does explain her mass production-like book writing.
The fact is there is not a single idea that is new, nor unique, to Oates. What is missing from the book, in fact, is anything ‘Oatesian’. There is no Oatesian style, there is no Oatesian wit, there is no Oatesian wisdom. To read these essays is to encounter Joyce Carol Oates, professional cipher. Even the third section in the book reflects her utter vapidity. It’s called The Madness Of Art. But, let me now get back on track in exploring Oates’ utter lack of wisdom in any area. In Where Is An Author?, Oates argues of the role of critic, even quoting from D.H. Lawrence: ‘The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.’ Oates tends to agree, but this is patent nonsense, and the sort of quote hurled at a dupe reporter by someone with an eye on Bartlett’s. A critic judges, period. Just as an artist produces art, period. Neither has any function nor duty outside of that, only the hope that excellence will be exhibited in both pursuits.
In Art And ‘Victim Art’, Oates astonishingly opens with this, showing how out of touch with reality she is: ‘The very concept of ‘victim art’ is problematic. Only a sensibility unwilling to grant full humanity to persons who have suffered injury, illness, or injustice could have invented so crude and reductive a label.’ Hello? Earth to Oates! It was not critics who invented the term ‘victim art’, as Oates’ phrasing implies- with the inflammatory slander added, but the ‘victim artists’ themselves. She later states, ‘That a human being has been in some way ‘victimized’ doesn’t reduce his or her humanity, but may in fact amplify it.’ Bullshit! Only limousine liberals believe that ‘poverty is noble’ bilge. Suffering amplifies nothing. It simply exists. Only wisdom amplifies humanity- not suffering, nor love, nor compassion, nor greed. Later in the essay she tries another historical switcheroo, by implying that it is critics who first took up the idea of labeling anything they want art, by stating, ‘To declare some works of art ‘non-art’ presupposes a questionable authority.’ Just the opposite is true. It was bad artists who claimed things were art if the artists said they were, which presupposes an intellectual vacuity on the part of audiences. Similarly, only bad artists claim that all art is subjective. She ends the piece with a standard tack, by listing examples of great artists who were overlooked to damn the critics and art powerbrokers of their day. While true in some of the cases, she also lumps in many cases where the initial damnations were right on target, such as Faulkner’s critical pounding, or Jackson Pollock’s. Such a lack of discernment is the trait of a poor critic, and this is all too evident in other essays of Oates’ as well.
In a piece on the art of René Magritte, for example, she proffers a by the numbers review, showing utterly no art in her own writing, nor approach to his creativity. The same with her off the rack review of Jack Kerouac, replete with requisite blurbable material. In a piece on Herman Melville, she uses the worst sorts of clichés, such as calling Edgar Allan Poe ‘our martyred genius’. Another sure sign of critical bankruptcy is when the critic wantonly starts using collective pronouns in their sweeping generalizations or banal observations, as if the whole of their readership is not wincing at the pallor of their ken. In a piece on Emily Dickinson Oates again shows she knows nothing of the art nor history of poetry, misinterpreting selections, and repeating the fallacy that Dickinson was an influential poet. Nothing is further from the truth. Dickinson is a poetic singularity, a branch with no evolutionary descendents. Whitman is the branch from which all modern poetry springs, but the feminist in Oates just cannot help distorting. Worse, she claims Dickinson as a Visionary, when she was clearly the exact opposite. She gazed inward, to the point of dulling repetition. Even Oates states:
Consequently, much of the external world, the ‘real’ world one might say, is excluded from Dickinson’s art; the national disgrace of slavery, the very fact of the Civil War, for instance, are not once named in her poetry though she was writing no less than a poem a day during the terrible years 1862-63. The very antithesis of the public-minded, war-conscious, rhapsodically grieving Walt Whitman! Dickinson never shied away from the great subjects of human suffering, loss, death, even madness, but her perspective was intensely private; like Ranier Maria Rilke and Gerard Manley Hopkins, she is the great poet of inwardness, of that indefinable region of the soul in which we are, in a sense, all one.
So, to call her a Visionary, then, is to show that Oates either does not understand the meaning of the word, or does not care to be accurate. Don’t get me wrong, I admire Dickinson’s best poems, but they’re two or three dozen short poems at best, that the hundreds of others merely state and restate in ever diffusing ways and power. The old saw about all her poems being akin to The Yellow Rose Of Texas in rhythm is unfortunately true, and far too many of them are ghastly in terms of music and closed-mindedness. To claim her a Visionary is to demonstrate Oates is just like the rest of the critical slugs out there, lazily cribbing her ideas from others. In her Conrad piece she cannot help but note that both Conrad and his characters were racist. Well, duh! But, worst of all, in a piece on Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks, Oates has to start the piece with one of her terrible poems made of chopped up prose that merely recapitulates the painting, and adds nothing new.
This book shows off Oates, a humanities professor at Princeton, in the worst possible light, as a typical example of all that’s wrong with modern publishing and Academia, and why it’s filled with, at best, hacks. Oates, unfortunately, stands at the pinnacle of being a ‘hack’s hack’, as this book amply demonstrates. How someone who has written so obscenely many books can still be so utterly clueless as to what constitutes clichéd and banal writing is beyond me, save that it proves she has very little in the way of writing ability, much less critical ability. She is to criticism what Thomas Steinbeck is to literature- a styleless, generic cipher. That these pieces were originally published in places with reputations as large as the New York Times, Kenyon Review, and London Review Of Books, also comments amply on their assorted falls from grace, as well, as ignominious part in the dumbing down of art and culture in general. The only thing remotely positive I can state of Joyce Carol Oates’ Where I’ve Been, And Where I’m Going is that it captures this intellectual and artistic stillicide, in miniature, all too well.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
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