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Bibliolatry: opinions from a very independent bookseller

no. 3   

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J oyce Carol Oates scares me. She writes more than I believe humanly possible. It's creepy – a little too Dorian Gray.

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 successful Stephen 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? Raymond Chandler himself only published seven novels. Oates, writing as Rosamond 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. Michael 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 themes."

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 restraint.

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."


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