It isn’t every day that the most prolific American author of our time comes through St. Louis to speak specifically to writers, on the subject of writing and rejection. And that of course, meant a full house in one of Washington University’s hallowed halls, with the overflow sitting on the floor and standing among the books to hang on every spoken word of writer and Princeton professor, Joyce Carol Oates.
How many books has this woman published in her long career? Seventy? What about the plays, the articles, the criticism and essays? Oh, who the hell cares. She’s put out five books in just the last two years. Coming into St. Louis during our first December snowstorm, the elegantly gaunt Oates expressed a little fear of not making the trip, and then launched into a carefully prepared program.
She opened saying that the best part of the paper she was presenting were the wonderful quotes she had from other writers. She treated us to a smorgasbord of quips from Emily Dickenson, Hemingway, and the Bronte sisters, to name just a few.
But she had to know we weren’t there for that. We were there for her. What knowledge would she impart to this sea of academics and would-be authors? In a career spanning decades, surely she has insights into success and failure beyond something we could find in Bartlett’s Quotations?
But no. “This is from Anais Nin. With more than 15,000 pages, she’s way beyond me,” Oates said coyly, setting the next one up. She talked of Samuel Beckett, whose father, mother and brother never read a single page of his work, and his experimental prose never did well in his homeland of Ireland. “I forgive nobody,” she quoted him. Again and again, she repeated the greats and served very few of her own thoughts. “How close that word ‘baud’ is to ‘blog,’ she did say, causing almost riotous laughter. Not because it was so funny, but because everyone wanted to encourage her to be herself. Next, she glossed over the troubled lives of some of the world’s greatest authors: Ernest Hemingway, Eugene O’Neill, Dostoyevsky, Flannery O’Connor, “…and several of my contemporaries whom I dare not name…”
Well, that was just mean. She should have named them, damnit. Joyce Carol Oates is probably one of those types who love to drop veiled hints about Christmas presents all year long too; driving her family half-mad.
Perhaps most annoying was the fact that she kept watching her own time. “I’d like to talk here more about such and such, but we’ll have to skip over that…” She edited herself (‘butchered’ would be more accurate) down to a slim half-hour, giving us only a couple real points of interest: When you start at the top, there’s no where to go but down. Be persistent. Some of the greatest works have had twenty years of rejections. Heard it all before? Yeah, me too.
If you decided to spend the evening at Duff’s “Get Born” open mic instead, or if you chose to keep warm and dry, spending the night at home writing, relax. You didn’t miss a thing.