Friday, January 23, 2015


Joyce Carol Oates has been publishing novels and short stories since the early 1960s, averaging a book or two per year into the 1990's. She's won a couple of National Book Awards and several O. Henry Prizes for her short stories. Some of her works are pretty dark. Her story collection NIGHT-SIDE focuses on experiences with the paranormal. Her '90s novel ZOMBIE was supposedly partly based on the Jeffrey Dahmer case. She's been appearing in horror anthologies for years.
Her JOURNAL 1973-1982 (2007) shows her at work agonizing over several books and dozens of short stories.
She writes constantly. She writes so much that her novels and short story collections start to back up on her. She writes so much that whole novels and collections go unpublished.
In the decade covered by the JOURNAL, Oates starts writing a series of "Postmodern Gothic" novels -- books that are 600 to 1,000 pages long: BELLEFLUER, A BLOODSMOOR ROMANCE, THE CROSSWICKS HORROR, and MYSTERIES OF WINTERTHURN, along with other, shorter novels.The backlog piles up to the point that she lets CROSSWICKS go unpublished -- despite having poured months of work into it.
And when she's not writing novels, she's doing short stories, or essays, or reviews. It's like she never stops.
It helps that she has a strong marriage, and supportive surroundings. She several times refers to her life as "idyllic" -- and it is, even though she seems kind of above-it-all sometimes.
She's not hurting for money. She's embarrassed by her stories appearing in PLAYBOY and PENTHOUSE and VIVA, and says she and her husband don't need the money. And they don't -- the paperback rights for the best-seller BELLEFLUER sell for $385,000, and a later book sells for $50,000. Oates ends up a professor of creative writing at Princeton. But even before any of that happens, she and her husband are living comfortably.
She travels, and meets other writers like John Updike, Philip Roth, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Susan Sontag, Gail Godwin, Anne Tyler, John Gardner, and more.
What impresses me is Oates' determination and drive -- her absolute conviction that what she sees has GOT to come out, no matter how long it takes, no matter how miserable it makes her, no matter how outlandish or extreme it might be. She says at one point that she is addressing in fiction material that she would never be able to tackle directly. I wonder what drives her, and though she gives some family history, we never learn what powers her creativity.
Her very happy marriage must have meant a world of support to her -- her husband Ray also ended up a professor at Princeton. Now I have to read Oates' A WIDOW'S STORY, about what happened after Ray died unexpectedly from a hospital-borne illness a few years back.
I'm not exactly a fan of Oates' fiction, but her JOURNAL shows a writer hard at work mulling over problems encountered in writing her novels, reacting to the public's reactions to her work, and living a low-key, quiet, creative life. In many ways, it does sound idyllic.

Brian W. Aldiss has also been writing since the early '60s, and has won science fiction's top awards while tackling novels, short stories, memoirs and criticism. His TRILLION YEAR SPREE is an excellent critical history of the science-fiction field. His first novel, THE BRIGHTFOUNT DIARIES, showed me how I could write my first e-book, after years of putting it off.
The only review I read of HARM (2007) before buying it indicated that Aldiss wrote the novel in anger over current events -- terrorism and torture, surveillance, personal security issues, and other aspects of the war against terror.
Now I wish he'd been a little angrier.
In HARM, a British citizen who happens to be a Muslim gets jailed for writing a satiric novel in which one character jokingly suggests assassinating the British Prime Minister.
For this, he is jailed and tortured repeatedly, for months. No charges are brought. There is no trial. His wife is also interrogated and tortured. The interrogators want names, plans, contacts. They don't believe the book was a joke.
As the torture goes on, the hero ... dissociates ... and seems to ... travel ... to an alien planet, where he becomes a different person. This new planet is certainly no Eden. nor are his adventures there very enjoyable -- except as a break from the torture sessions.
Some neat things happen on this planet. The insectoid life forms that live on the planet are pretty neat. The village of Haven seems not such a bad place. Best of all is "The Shawl" -- the million pieces of a shattered moon that blocks out the sun during two days out of every 12. There are some interesting uses of mood on this alien planet.
But. The planet's native "ruling" race gets wiped out. Nobody in a position of power there can be trusted. They all seem deranged. Some of the writing in this setting is awkward and cliched. Not sure how much of that was on purpose.
I'm also not sure that the alien-planet setting mirrors or contrasts the main story to any useful purpose.
There's also no escape from the nightmare back here in "the Real World."
Hate to sound bloodthirsty, but I think the torture sessions should have been MORE brutal. I don't think Aldiss should have let his readers off the hook. There should have been no relief.
Spending a whole novel in George Orwell's Room 101 (from 1984) might have been too much. But in these days of short attention spans, I don't think it does a writer any good to downplay his message.

No comments: