oyce Carol Oates scares me. She writes more than I believe humanly
possible. It's creepy a little too
At the City of Books, Joyce
Carol Oates's works elbow their way through a full twenty
feet of shelving. Since her debut in 1963, Oates has written forty-one
novels, twenty-six story collections, eight poetry collections,
five drama collections, nine essay collections, a children's book,
and an opera libretto. That's ninety-one works in less than forty
years, roughly two and a half per year.
As if that weren't enough to impress Dame
Barbara Cartland (may she rest in peace), Oates is also a
busy lecturer and prolific editor. She has fifteen anthologies
to her name, and for nearly a quarter century has co-published
the prestigious Ontario Review with her husband. And she
hasn't even quit her day job. Oates is a professor at some college
or other. Princeton.
I used to chalk this extraordinary output up to a few wildly
Covey seminars. But then I found out that, in addition to
all the above, for the past fifteen years or so Oates has been
writing mysteries under a pseudonym. When? In her spare time?
Chandler himself only published seven novels. Oates, writing
Smith, has written eight so far. So I've changed my
mind. The only explanation I now find plausible for the vast dimensions
of Joyce Carol Oates's output involves a voodoo priestess and
a bag of dead cats.
But I'm getting off track. I'm not actually writing this to speculate
on Ms. Oates's otherworldly transactions. What brought her to
mind (besides the fact that she has yet another new book about
to hit the shelves) was an interesting bit of literary trivia
I learned this week. Did you know that for most of the seventies
Joyce Carol Oates taught literature alongside Alistair
MacLeod at the University of Windsor in Ontario?
What's that? Who's Alistair MacLeod? That's what makes this
so fascinating. Though MacLeod, like Oates, has been called one
of world literature's few "great" living authors, he's
next to unknown. Why? For starters, he is as laconic as Oates
is prolific. MacLeod is the tortoise to Oates's hare. He publishes
new work so rarely he's virtually forgotten between books. While
Oates seems daily to require additional shelf space, MacLeod struggles
vainly to maintain his meager six inches. This may be about to
change, for MacLeod seems to finally be getting some of that limelight
he's been avoiding all these years.
His novel No
Great Mischief, published last year, was both a critical and
popular success. In fact, it was included in the recently published
Modern Library 200 Best Novels In English Since 1950.
To top it off, No Great Mischief, which, by the way,
MacLeod published at the ripe age of 64, was his first novel.
Of course, No Great Mischief wasn't his first published
work. During the thirty odd years he's been publishing, MacLeod's
also produced two slim story collections. Pooling their resources,
these two long out-of-print collections could only boast a paltry
fifteen stories. Since the notoriety of the novel, MacLeod's publisher
has wisely seized the opportunity to republish these
stories, while MacLeod is still fresh in the memory of fickle
book editors. They even coaxed the first new story out of MacLeod
in over a decade, bringing his life's total to sixteen. While
we are indulging in tallies, that's a bit shy of one story every
two years since "The Boat" was published in 1968.
The result, Island:
the Collected Stories of Alistair MacLeod, more than justifies
the author's snail pace. It's a marvelous book. Like that other
great Canadian story writer, Alice
Munro, MacLeod's stories represent the best of what the form
has to offer. These quiet, deceptively simple portraits of the
working class people of remote Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, achieve
a power and poignancy rare in the frenetic climate of modern fiction.
Prominent writers with good memories have stepped up to the plate
en masse to proclaim their long-standing admiration for MacLeod.
Ondaatje has called him "One of the great undiscovered
writers of our time." The New York Times granted Island
the coveted front cover slot of the Sunday Book Review. The
reviewer eloquently summed up the general opinion: "There
is something immensely reassuring about MacLeod's late-career
success. Good writing, it seems, will out. Talent like his needs
no hype. Nor need it deal with metropolitan or modishly high-concept
Modishly high-concept? Bring anyone to mind? Maybe I've simply
got Joyce Carol Oates on the brain, but to my taste, this could
be taken as an inadvertent slur on the Joyce Carol Oateses of
the world. But in all fairness, it would be just as easy
in fact far easier to locate a blurb proclaiming Oates
the lone saviour of modern literature. For the "dark lady
of American literature" this sort of praise is as familiar
as boredom. It may be hard to believe that she ever stops writing
long enough to read her reviews. But presuming she does, Oates
has seen her name is close proximity to William
Faulkner and Flannery
O'Connor often enough to tire of the comparison.
Superlatives notwithstanding, one can't help wondering if Ms.
Oates hasn't diluted her talent with her manic production. I won't
indulge in the obvious gags if ten thousands Joyce Carol
Oates sat tapping on ten thousand typewriters for ten thousand
years, etc. but it seems to me that Oates and MacLeod could
profit from sharing notes. MacLeod would learn something about
the salability of sex and violence. Oates, a thing or two about
Yes, I know that Oates's most recent novel, a sprawling, freight
train rendition of the life of Marilyn Monroe, was a finalist
for last year's National
Book Award. But rarely does a book receive such polarized
reactions. While some readers thought Blonde
"seldom less than engrossing," just as many echoed the
sentiments of The New York Times reviewer, who described
Blonde as the "book equivalent of a tacky television
mini-series....pages and pages of the sort of heavy-breathing
romance-novel prose one would think beneath a writer of her distinction."
While one imagines Alistair MacLeod neurotically tinkering for
days with each sentence he writes, Oates seems to simply disgorge
the contents of her supremely rich imagination and move on.
So back to the University of Windsor. I find it hard to avoid
idle speculation. These two opposites worked together for
a decade. What was their relationship like? Did they share
notes? Did they like or hate one another? Did they recognize each
other's greatness? Did they even notice each other? Were they
envious or oblivious of the other's talent? Did they do lunch?
I suppose I could probably find some concrete information about
their relationship in one of the many works chronicling Joyce
Carol Oates's life. But I prefer idle speculation. In my version,
the young Oates and MacLeod intuitively saw in their colleague
the kernel of greatness and made every attempt to encourage one
another's work. I imagine the pair, shy as young lovers, trading
manuscripts. Oates, made nervous by the nearly imperceptible weight
of the pages in her hands, tries to boost her colleague's confidence
by casually referring to authors like Harper
Lee and Ralph
Ellison, who succeeded brilliantly despite producing little.
And MacLeod, not realizing the three pound manuscript he's holding
is already at the printer's, turns to his colleague and says,
"Joyce, this is just marvelous! I can't wait
to see the second draft."