Now 81 years old, Joyce Carol Oates has published 58 novels (or maybe even more by the time you read this), as well as scores of short stories, plays, poems, and essays. She has taught at Princeton for four decades and she has, presumably, a certain number of fans. She has certainly won a good many awards.
But she also has more than her share of detractors. Critics have routinely pointed out that her prolificity is painfully evident in her work – that she seems so driven to churn out books that she doesn’t take the necessary time to craft her sentences, shape her plots, and develop her characters. When asked by an interviewer about Oates, a far more gifted author who was fourteen years her senior, Truman Capote, called her “a joke monster who ought to be beheaded in a public auditorium or in Shea [Stadium, the former home of the New York Mets] or in a field with hundreds of thousands. (Laughs.) She does all the graffiti in the men’s room and the women’s room and in every public toilet from here to California and back, stopping in Seattle on her way! (Laughs.) To me, she’s the most loathsome creature in America.”
When Capote’s interviewer, Lawrence Grobel (from whose book, Conversations with Capote, these quotations are taken), asked Capote if he had ever met Oates, he replied that he had, “and to see her is to loathe her. To read her is to absolutely vomit.” Asked if she had “ever said or written anything about you to deserve such vituperation,” Capote said: “Yes, she’s written me a fan letter. She’s written me extreme fan letters. But that’s the kind of hoax she is. I bet there’s not a writer in America that’s ever had their name in print that she hasn’t written a fan letter to.” Capote’s words sound harsh, but other writers have testified to Oates’s brilliance at networking, brown-nosing, soft-soaping, and log-rolling – all of which may well explain why she has won so many prizes and been so amiably reviewed.
Certainly she is no great writer. Even more certain is that she is simply not very intelligent. Like other successful mediocrities, she has cleaved long and loyally to the orthodox politically correct view on pretty much everything you can think of. We were reminded of this when we ran across an article the other day that reprinted a 2015 tweet by Oates: “All we hear of ISIS is puritanical & punitive; is there nothing celebratory & joyous? Or is query naive?” To which Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, who is far smarter and better informed than Oates (and also a more engaging writer), succinctly replied: “They feel celebratory & joyous when they behead a hostage, kill a confessed Christian or slay concertgoers, so yes.”
We wondered if Oates’s inane ISIS tweet was a one-off or if her Twitter feed contained a number of equally boneheaded comments. The answer was (b). In a tweet from last May she asked: “Is Elizabeth Warren just too brilliant, too deserving of the Presidency? Compared to many/ most candidates, isn’t she just simply the most qualified? And if so, what can possibly go wrong?” This about a woman who pretended to be an American Indian so she would enjoy career advancement and who, after taking a test that showed she had a negligible amount of American Indian blood, foolishly crowed that she had been proven right. But of course Oates’s enthusiasm for Warren is understandable: they have both lived for a long time inside the same Ivy League bubble, they both share the same standard-issue Ivy League politics, and if Oates considers Warren brilliant it’s because Warren, while certainly no genius, is probably a few points higher on the I.Q. scale than Oates.
As much as she loves Warren, Oates – unsurprisingly – hates Trump, attributing his popularity to “racism, misogyny, fear of change, wish to believe simplistic explanations for highly complex issues; novelty of an ignorant, anti-intellectual person jeering at his superiors, as (possibly) many others would like to do but dare not.” She blames Trump for mass shootings – never mind that they happened under his predecessors, too. She also blames him for ICE policies that date back to Obama, if not to Bush junior. When her friend and colleague Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, died, Oates’s take was that “it is just plain heartbreaking that she didn’t outlive loathed racist T***p Dark Age & welcome a new era.” Also, she’s apparently bought into the idea that if Trump loses the 2020 election the nation will be overrun with “#T***pTerrorists to fight for him.” Similarly, in her take on the HBO series Chernobyl, she managed to link it to gun control in the U.S.: “4,000 persons died as a consequence of the notorious nuclear accident; but nearly 40,000 persons die yearly in US from gun violence alone.” Truman Capote was right: she’s a literary lightweight and a cynical operator, cleaving with consistent fatuity to PC views on everything under the sun. Which is surely a big part of the reason why this literary mediocrity has received the approval of so many of the guardians of the literary pantheon.