Where I've Been and Where I'm Going: Essays, Reviews, Prose

Overview

Whether probing the psyche of serial killers Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy, evaluating the championship mettle of Mike Tyson, or illuminating the work of Herman Melville, the art of Rene Magritte and Edward Hopper, and the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Joyce Garol Oates displays an astonishing breadth of knowledge and interests. In this collection of nearly fifty essays, articles, and reviews, one of our country's leading literary figures and social critics explores myriad facets of the American experience, in ...
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Overview

Whether probing the psyche of serial killers Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy, evaluating the championship mettle of Mike Tyson, or illuminating the work of Herman Melville, the art of Rene Magritte and Edward Hopper, and the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Joyce Garol Oates displays an astonishing breadth of knowledge and interests. In this collection of nearly fifty essays, articles, and reviews, one of our country's leading literary figures and social critics explores myriad facets of the American experience, in fiction and beyond, from Fitzgerald to Plath. Melville to Updike, Flannery O'Connor to Timothy McVeigh.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
All of these approximately 50 essays, reviews and prose pieces, produced over the last decade by one of America's most prolific and respected writers, have been previously published in such distinguished venues as the New York Review of Books and Salmagundi. Indeed, Oates's reputation as a serious, incisive writer needs no bolstering; this collection instead reinforces what we already know. Oates's insightful and seemingly inexhaustible commentary alights on an impressive range of subjects. The literary and the lurid go hand in hand in several of the more major pieces, including Oates's well-known New York Review of Books essay on the creative urges of serial killers ("I Had No Other Thrill or Happiness"), and a piece on fairy tales and their female reinterpreters, featuring Anne Sexton and Angela Carter ("In Olden Times, When Wishing Was Having"). Though she claims not to be unduly biased by her gender, Oates does address many feminist concerns, including misogyny in Raymond Chandler's work and the fear of domesticity in Updike's Rabbit series. Other subjects include Grace Paley's "miniaturist art," the morality of boxing, the mysteries of P.D. James and Dorothy Sayers and the tragic vision of Joseph Conrad. Despite what one may assume, these earnest pieces are not philosophically dense reading--in fact, some of Oates's more theoretical contentions would not hold up to rigorous traditional critique. Rather, her prose pieces gain their intensity from their laserlike focus on the concrete details of human sensibility. This unwavering focus unites all Oates's disparate topics, but it also gives the book a uniformity of mood and tone. As with most gatherings of occasional pieces, this admirable collection is best read in small doses. (July) FYI: Broke Heart Blues (Forecasts, May 17), Oates's latest novel, will also be released by Dutton in July. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
A professor of humanities at Princeton, Oates has written numerous novels, short stories, poems, plays, and essays and won many important literary awards. These 50 pieces have been published previously, in the past few years, in such places as the New York Times, Kenyon Review, and London Review of Books. They include literary criticism, book reviews, and introductions to books, emphasizing authors and the art or act of writing. There are essays on Jack Kerouac, P.D. James, Emily Dickinson, and Edward Hopper, among others. Of her own view of authorship, Oates says: "So to me any act of the imagination, no matter how coolly calibrated or layered in that uniquely adult vision we call irony, is first of all an act of childlike adventure and wonder." This collection may be of interest to academic or public libraries.--Nancy Patterson Shires, East Carolina Univ., Greenville, NC Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Thomas LeClair
Among many interesting pieces in Where I've Been, and Where I'm Going, the most original is her essay on serial killers, whom she considers as romantic artists that bear some resemblance to the self-described ''romantic traveler'' Joyce Carol Oates.
The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780452280533
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 7/1/1999
  • Pages: 450
  • Product dimensions: 5.28 (w) x 7.98 (h) x 0.89 (d)

Meet the Author

Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates
In a prolific and varied oeuvre that ranges over essays, plays, criticism, and several genres of fiction, Joyce Carol Oates has proved herself one of the most influential and important storytellers in the literary world.

Biography

Joyce Carol Oates is one of the most influential and important storytellers in the literary world. She has often used her supreme narrative skills to examine the dark side of middle-class Americana, and her oeuvre includes some of the finest examples of modern essays, plays, criticism, and fiction from a vast array of genres. She is still publishing with a speed and consistency of quality nearly unheard of in contemporary literature.

A born storyteller, Oates has been spinning yarns since she was a little girl too young to even write. Instead, she would communicate her stories through drawings and paintings. When she received her very first typewriter at the age of 14, her creative floodgates opened with a torrent. She says she wrote "novel after novel" throughout high school and college -- a prolificacy that has continued unabated throughout a professional career that began in 1963 with her first short story collection, By the North Gate.

Oates's breakthrough occurred in 1969 with the publication of them, a National Book Award winner that established her as a force to be reckoned with. Since that auspicious beginning, she has been nominated for nearly every major literary honor -- from the PEN/Faulkner Award to the Pulitzer Prize -- and her fiction turns up with regularity on The New York Times annual list of Notable Books.

On average Oates publishes at least one novel, essay anthology, or story collection a year (during the 1970s, she produced at the astonishing rate of two or three books a year!). And although her fiction often exposes the darker side of America's brightest facades – familial unrest, sexual violence, the death of innocence – she has also made successful forays into Gothic novels, suspense, fantasy, and children's literature. As novelist John Barth once remarked, "Joyce Carol Oates writes all over the aesthetical map."

Where she finds the time for it no one knows, but Oates manages to combine her ambitious, prolific writing career with teaching: first at the University of Windsor in Canada, then (from 1978 on), at Princeton University in New Jersey. For all her success and fame, her daily routine of teaching and writing has changed very little, and her commitment to literature as a transcendent human activity remains steadfast.

Good To Know

When not writing, Oates likes to take in a fight. "Boxing is a celebration of the lost religion of masculinity all the more trenchant for its being lost," she says in highbrow fashion of the lowbrow sport.

Oates's Black Water, which is a thinly veiled account of Ted Kennedy's car crash in Chappaquiddick, was produced as an opera in the 1990s.

In 2001, Oprah Winfrey selected Oates's novel We Were the Mulvaneys for her Book Club.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Rosamond Smith
    2. Hometown:
      Princeton, New Jersey
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 16, 1938
    2. Place of Birth:
      Lockport, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A., Syracuse University, 1960; M.A., University of Wisconsin, 1961

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


Where Is an Author?


The artist's life is his work, and this is the place to observe him.
—Henry James


It all came together between the hand and the page.
—Samuel Beckett (on the composition of Waiting for Godot)


Why do we write? Why do we read? Why is "art" crucial to human beings?

    The engine that gives its mysterious inner life to a work of art must be the subterranean expression of a wish, working its way to the surface of narrative. In fairy tales and legends, the "wish" is often explicit: for a rendering of justice rare in life, for romance in the face of improbability, for a happy ending. In a more sophisticated art, the "wish" may be so buried as to be unacknowledged by the artist, or even repudiated. "Never trust the artist," D. H. Lawrence warned in his iconoclastic Studies in Classic American Literature (1923). "Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it." Often, writers don't know what they're writing until they've completed it. For some of us, the composition of any sustained, structured work would not be possible if there wasn't a secret code or connection between the story (or what we call for lack of a more precise term "story") and an interior, hidden pattern. A sense, in a way visual, of the story's trajectory: where it begins, where it ends, its dominant images and tone. Though the act of writing can be emotionally volcanic, a white-hot frenzy in the initial processof creation, in its later stages, those of revision, recasting and restructuring, it is the most icy-cold of activities. "So cold, so icy, that one burns one's fingers on him! Every hand that touches him receives a shock. That is why some think he is burning hot." This aphorism of Friedrich Nietzsche's suggests the formalist's self-conception: the self as viewed from within. To present emotionally dynamic material is to confess that one has felt, and perhaps extremely, but is not now feeling, emotion.

    Is the artist, by temperament, a perpetual antagonist to the crowd? the state? the prevailing ethos? This collision of the ethical/ tribal/familial world and the world of the individual; the world of the individual soul and the universe of sheer numbers—"laws" of nature: This is the drama that arrests me, and haunts me, in life as in writing; in reverie, most keenly during insomniac fugues when "I" seems to dissolve, and an impersonal kernel of being, primarily one of inquiry, emerges. (For me, these fugues began in early adolescence.) In asking, like Lewis Carroll's child-heroine Alice, Who am I? am I really asking Who, or what, is this "I" that asks this question, asked repeatedly, with such hope, yet perhaps futilely, through human history? Is this "I" unique—or is it in essence identical with the multitude of other "I"s?—as we are presumably composed of identical matter, turn and turn about, mineral deposits from the stars of how many trillions of years ago, in varying compositions, except never varying in our temporality: "Oh Life, begun in fluent Blood,/And consummated dull!" (Emily Dickinson, 1130, c. 1868)

    Or is this, too, a fiction?—an artfully constructed and sculpted wish? In the collision of the personal and the impersonal, in the arena where language and silence touch, the possibility of art arises like flame.


    In 1969, the influential if much-misunderstood Michel Foucault published a speculative essay, "What Is an Author?" A kind of thought-experiment, generated perhaps more by political bias than disinterested aesthetic inquiry, this famous essay considered the ontological status of the writer; one might say, undermined it. (Yet only in theory, for since Foucault's time no writers, including theorists of the Foucault school, have surrendered their names on the spines of their books, nor their advances and royalties. As in hothouse plantings, bibliographies of even obscure writers flourish; but the plantings are discreetly fenced off from one another, and named.) Still the debate over what is called "authorial presence" continues, and has not been resolved, for, in such debates, it is language, or a critical vocabulary, that is at stake, and not a quantifiable reality. Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida have argued, though not this succinctly, for the "death of the author"—the theoretical claim that "there is nothing outside the text"—"there is no center or integrated core from which we can say a piece of literature issues." (There is no Mozart from whom the music issues; there is the Mozartian text, which shares with other Mozartian texts certain characteristics, like voiceprints, or fingerprints, but no essential identity.)

    One might stand the theory on its head, as in a phantasmagoric scenario in which any and all things written by a "historic individual" (with name, fingerprints, DNA, etc.) are part of the oeuvre of the writer; not merely the revised, polished hardcover books he/she has nurtured into being with such determination. Certainly, collectors of manuscripts act upon this assumption, appalling to the writer: They are willing to pay high sums of money for minor work, juvenilia, letters tossed off in unguarded moments, mere jottings—for, one might argue, these are the truer testaments of the elusive self, because unmediated. If you are a writer of reputation you may argue eloquently, like T. S. Eliot, that art is in fact the "extinction of personality"; nonetheless, any original manuscript of yours, in your own inimitable hand, any embarrassing love letters, diary entries, in Eliot's case anti-Semitic and misogynist pornographic fantasies, will be worth far more than any chastely printed book with your name stamped on the spine. For human beings seem to honor instinctively the individual sui generis, despite philosophical theories arguing the nonexistence of individuals. To escape the prison house of identity, writers have often fled to pseudonyms in the hope that the text will be, simply, a text, with an anonymous-sounding name attached to which no prior assumptions accrue. To begin again!—to be born again!—not as an author, but purely as a text!

    Yet it's symptomatic of our profoundly secularized era that, French theory and the "New" Historicism to the contrary, any and all biographical data can be applied to the writer as a "historic" individual; nothing too obscure, too mundane, too trivial, too demeaning is ruled out as an instrument of illumination into the writer's motive. (A well-regarded academic-literary journal recently printed an essay on Sylvia Plath's last poems interpreted in the light of premenstrual tension, for instance.) Massive contemporary biographies, bloated with unedited taped interviews, bury their ostensible subjects beneath a vertiginous mass of data, and the writer's forlorn plea The artist's life is his work, and this is the place to observe him is ignored. Yet, most writers will acknowledge that they do not inhabit their books—the more clinical term is "texts"—once they have completed them; they—we—are expelled from them like any other reader, for the act of composition is time-bound, and time is an hourglass that runs in one direction only. To consider the text as an art work is to acknowledge that there can be nothing outside the text. Authorial intentions have long been dismissed from serious critical consideration, though outside the lecture hall there may be intense, gossipy interest in such old riddles as the nature of Henry James's wound, did an individual named "Shakespeare" write the body of work attributed to "Shakespeare" or is someone else "Shakespeare," is the "I" of the next poem you read the poet or an invented persona? As Michel Foucault reasonably asks, "What difference does it matter who is speaking?"

    What difference does it make to know that Marcel Proust was a homosexual? Does this biographical information alter the text of Proust's great novel?—does it expand the text?—detract from the text?—qualify, or enhance, its greatness? Can it be argued that Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, written by a homosexual, is a more subtle, codified work of fiction than the identical novel would have been had Wilde been heterosexual? No matter the plea embodied in the question "What difference does it make?" it seems, in fact, to make a difference to most readers.

    For the feminist critic, it makes a considerable difference to know that the text has been authored by a woman: For a woman's discourse will presumably differ from a man's, even if the texts are identical. If the author is a woman, her text has very likely been generated by "female rage"; her art work may be intimately related to her body. To protest against such narrow corseting of motive is to deny one's gender-identity. Far from erasing identity, this popular strategy of criticism has reenforced identity by means of gender. Does a woman, in fact, possess a special language, distinct from male language? Or is it purely Woman, and no individual, who possesses such a language? And what of the "androgynous" artist? As a writer, and a woman, or a woman, and a writer, I have never found that I was in possession of a special female language springing somehow from the female body, though I can sympathize with the poetic-mystic yearning that might underlie such a theory. To be marginalized through history, to be told repeatedly that we lack souls, that we aren't fully human, that we're "unclean," therefore can't write, can't paint, can't compose music, can't do philosophy, math, science, politics, power in its myriad guises—the least of our compensations should be that we're in possession of some special gift brewed in the womb and in mother's milk. For the practicing woman writer, feminist/gender criticism can be wonderfully nurturing, for obvious reasons: Texts by women are read attentively and sympathetically; "lost" writers are continually rediscovered, and wrongly dismissed writers (Kate Chopin, for instance) are given the respectful scrutiny they deserve. On the most practical level, as the feminist critic Elaine Showalter has said, "The best thing the feminist can do for women's writing is to buy women's books."

    Yet this criticism, for all its good intentions, can be restrictive as well, at least for the writer who is primarily a formalist, and for whom gender is not a pressing issue in every work. (As a writer who happens to be a woman, I choose to write about women, and I choose to write from the perspective of women; but I also choose to write about men, and I choose to write from the perspective of men; with the confidence that, dissolving myself into the self of a fictitious other, I have entered a dimension of consciousness that is not my own in either case, and yet legitimate.) Surely it is an error to reduce to a genitally defined essence any individual, whether a woman or a man; for the (woman) writer, it is frustrating to be designated as a "woman writer"—a category in relationship to which there is no corresponding "man writer."

    To return to the question "Where is an author?"—we might say, with Henry James, that the artist's life is his work, yet this is not quite the same thing as saying that the artist's work is his life, for of course it can be only part of that life, and possibly, for some artists, even the gifted, not the most valued part of that life. We might argue that there must be an ontological distinction between the writer-as- creator-of-texts and the living person, the medium of the art. The work is thus the artist. The artist is a component of an aesthetic object, a product, printed or processed or in some way made into an artifice—"artificial." The individual is born of nature, but the artist is born of that individual, yearning to transcend the merely "natural" and to make complete that which, existentially, is forever incomplete, unrealized. We might argue that all books, fiction, poetry, nonfiction, have been created by pseudonymous selves in the process of that creation, and if the name on the dust jacket is identical with the historic name, that is not the same thing as saying that the name on the dust jacket is the historic individual.

    Where is the author?—in the work, of course.

    Which is not to say that the author of the author (i.e., the historic self) doesn't exist too; at least provisionally.

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Table of Contents

Preface
I Where Is an Author?
Where Is an Author? 3
"In Olden Times, When Wishing Was Having ...": Classic and Contemporary Fairy Tales 9
The Aesthetics of Fear 26
Art and Ethics? - The F(U)tility of Art 36
The Romance of Art: Brief Pieces 46
"Zero at the Bone": Despair as Sin and Enlightenment 63
Art and "Victim Art" 69
On Fiction in Fact 76
II "I Had No Other Thrill or Happiness": Reviews, Review-Essays, Journalism
F. Scott Fitzgerald Revisited 83
Raymond Chandler: Genre and "Art" 95
Rene Magritte: Art Contra Art 114
After the Road: The Art of Jack Kerouac 118
Haunted Sylvia Plath 131
The Enigmatic Art of Paul Bowles 139
Jean Stafford: Biography as Pathography 145
To Bedlam: Anne Sexton 153
Bellow's Portraits 157
John Updike's Rabbit 161
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s Colored People 166
John Edgar Wideman: Memoir and Fiction 172
Exile and Homeland: Brian Moore 181
Updike Toward the End of Time 186
Inside the Locked Room: P. D. James 191
A Dream of Justice: Dorothy L. Sayers 203
Lost in Boxing 208
The Miniaturist Art of Grace Paley 214
American Views: Elizabeth Hardwick 222
Three American Gothics 232
"I Had No Other Thrill or Happiness": The Literature of Serial Killers 243
III "The Madness of Art": Essays and Introductions
"Then All Collapsed": Tragic Melville 269
The Essential Emily Dickinson 280
"The Madness of Art": Henry James's "The Middle Years" 291
The Riddle of Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market" 296
Rediscovering Harold Frederic's: The Damnation of Theron Ware 304
Tragic Conrad: Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer 311
Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman: A Celebration 323
Killer Kids 326
Workings of Grace: Flannery O'Connor's "The Artificial Nigger" 339
Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, 1942: Painting and Poem 344
The Artist Looks at Nature: Some Works of Charles Sheeler (1883-1965) 348
IV Where I've Been, and Where I'm Going: Prefaces, Afterwords
Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Selected Early Short Stories: Afterword 357
Expensive People: The Confessions of a "Minor Character" 361
Wonderland Revisited 365
"American, Abroad" 370
"Why Don't You Come Live with Me It's Time" 372
Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang 374
"You Petted Me, and I Followed You Home" 377
"Mark of Satan" 379
Will You Always Love Me? 380
"Ghost Girls" 383
Acknowledgments 384
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