The International Writers Magazine:Book Review
Ive Been, And Where Im Going
by Joyce Carol Oates (Plume Books 1999)
Dan Schnieder review
picking up this 1999 Joyce Carol Oates book of nonfiction pieces,
called Where Ive Been, And Where Im Going, Id
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 its 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 shell be doing literary vaudeville for us? No, it just sounds
cool, even though it has little to do with the books contents.
In an essay called The Aesthetics Of Fear, Oates has a quote from Tod
Brownings 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 lets 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 readers way.
Indeed, this is borne out in essay after essay, larded with the worst
critical clichés and even more execrable clichés of phrasing
imaginable. Its 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
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 artists ethics, and
the artists 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
3) from The Miniaturist Art Of Grace Paley:
Its this open destiny of life and of art that Grace
Paleys 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 generations 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- its
where we go, and what we do when we get there, that tells us who we
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
5) from The Riddle Of Christina Rossettis
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 souls urgent and unspeakable yearnings.
If I have to tell you why this ending blows, youre hopeless
6) from Tragic Conrad: Heart Of Darkness and The
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, mans flawed and treacherous soul.
When critics talk of art or an artists humanity, you know theyre
bailing out on quality, but, really, was that tacked on end necessary?
7) from Arthur Millers 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 Im having
a little fun in the art of this review? For shame, Schneider! Whats
in the rest of the essays is no better, of course, than the drivel just
quoted. Its 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 shes 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.
Its 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 Bartletts. 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 doesnt 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 Faulkners critical pounding, or
Jackson Pollocks. Such a lack of discernment is the trait of a
poor critic, and this is all too evident in other essays of Oates
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 Dickinsons 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,
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.
Dont get me wrong, I admire Dickinsons best poems, but theyre
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 Hoppers 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
This book shows off Oates, a humanities professor at Princeton, in the
worst possible light, as a typical example of all thats wrong
with modern publishing and Academia, and why its filled with,
at best, hacks. Oates, unfortunately, stands at the pinnacle of being
a hacks 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 Ive Been, And Where Im Going is that it captures
this intellectual and artistic stillicide, in miniature, all too well.
© Dan Schneider,
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