The author of more than forty novels, countless short stories, and a wealth of published essays, criticism, personal diaries and correspondence, Joyce Carol Oates has been a titan of contemporary American literature for almost sixty years. So prodigious and voluminous is her output, critics are often quick to point out the difficulty in measuring Oates’s latest work against the incredible depth of her bibliography.
In her new collection of writing Soul at the White Heat (HarperCollins), Oates examines the nature of inspiration, arguing inspiration is often a kind of ‘haunting’ or obsession. She calls it a ‘ravishing, irresistible doubled-edged sword’ – a ‘sword’ writers must reckon with in their search for their subject. From her home in New Jersey, she spoke with me about her new work, the relationship between inspiration and writing, the power of social media, and the importance of physical activity to foster creativity.
Since her debut in 1964, Oates has tackled subjects as far and wide as the life of Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe (Blonde, 2000) to the underside of America’s working classes (Them, 1969), offering complex, powerful portraits of people coming to terms with the limits of their worlds. This output has earned her a swath of literary awards, including the National Book Award in 1970 and five nominations for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. For more than twenty years, Oates’s name has been put forth as a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature.
But people today may be more familiar with Oates thanks to her well-noted Twitter presence, with an account attracting 150,000 followers, and a profile that has mystified many because of the 78-year-old’s unique take on the social media platform. In Soul at the White Heat, Oates writes that social media is ‘insatiable in its myriad, fleeting interests,’ and represents a potential threat to the creation of more ‘permanent art’ today. When I speak with her, she is less decisive on her attitude to social media, saying that it has importantly created an outlet for criticism – ‘opinions are set out swiftly and succinctly, capsule reviews of books, movies, plays’ – and plays a key role in generating broader awareness around key political and social issues.
Ahead of the US election this month, Oates is more active on Twitter than ever, and praises the way it has created a larger consciousness for issues often relegated out of mainstream media coverage. ‘I have learned from Twitter much about my country that has been shocking and revelatory,’ she says. ‘Mainstream media may touch upon these highly disturbing stories, but don’t begin to suggest their frequency. Only Twitter, an egalitarian form of communication and “news”, can provide this grass-roots perspective.’
‘I have learned from Twitter much about my country that has been shocking and revelatory.’
Despite embracing some aspects of the digital economy, Oates nevertheless treasures the presence of the printed word. Writing in Soul at the White Heat, Oates says the book is becoming endangered as an ‘aesthetic object,’ thanks to the rise of digital reading and a decrease in print publishing and consumption. ‘I will admit that print publication is precious to me, and that online publication seems somehow less “real”,’ she says. ‘It may reach a wider audience, but the audience seems less committed, less permanent. Online material seems perishable in a way that printed material does not.’
In her new book, what proves to be one of the most revelatory essays concerns a visit to San Quentin Prison in California. Here Oates recounts her time going on one of the prison’s rare public tours, sharing with readers the intense, and at times overwhelming, vulnerability etched from her visit: ‘You are not quite the person emerging whom you’d believe yourself to be, entering’.
‘A Visit to San Quentin’ provides intimate access to Oates the writer searching for her subject, and indeed, confronting it face-on. Oates says the essay ‘is a recent example of a “personal essay” of mine, an unflinching look at the sort of experience writers often transform into art’. She has since drawn on this prison visit in her other recent work, Carthage, as well her next novel, A Book of American Martyrs, which includes scenes set within a prison’s execution chamber.
‘A character is a kind of music – the “voice” is a matter of rhythm and cadence.’
For Oates, fiction is the most difficult of all writing forms, and she often pauses on her next book with breaks writing criticism in literary publications, including The New York Review of Books, where she has been a contributor for several decades. ‘For me the novel is the most challenging of all genres, requiring not only a fair inclusive memory but a memory for emotional tone,’ Oates says. ‘A character is a kind of music – the “voice” is a matter of rhythm and cadence – and so the writer must keep in mind the consistency of character throughout hundreds of pages.’
But like any active writer thinking about their craft, Oates is continually revising her opinions of the writing process itself. Even the book’s opening essay, ‘Is the Uninspired Life Worth Living?’, is taken from a talk she has been delivering for years on inspiration. The piece explores what motivates writers to write, unpacking the driving inspiration from some of history’s most iconic – and productive – writers, including Virginia Woolf and Henry James. Oates argues that ‘inspiration’ is often a kind of ‘haunting’ or obsession, one which often drives writers to create their greatest work. ‘With the initial essay… I kept adding and adding material in my pursuit of the unanswerable mystery of why we write and create art,’ she says.
‘Indeed, it may be that the sedentary life is the dearth of creativity.’
Beyond these pieces, the book largely amalgamates previously published criticism and essays, including pieces on Joan Didion and Zadie Smith, as well as singular pieces unpacking the life of key writers from the Western canon, including Charles Dickens and Emily Dickinson. In Oates’ view, knowing more about an author’s own life can help enrich our understanding, and indeed appreciation of their work. ‘The more we know of individuals, the more we are likely to marvel at the difficulties they may have overcome in their effort to transcend the merely personal and limiting,’ she says. ‘How what the world perceives “madness” – as Emily Dickinson would observe – is “but divinest sense”.’
Much like her prison visit to San Quentin Prison, Oates continues to actively search for her writing subjects, truly prizing direct, physical encounters with places to both shape and inform her fiction. ‘Creativity is not a sedentary activity,’ Oates tells me. ‘Indeed, it may be that the sedentary life is the dearth of creativity.’
It’s a philosophy Oates extends beyond her work – besides writing, teaching, reviewing, and social media, Oates maintains a very active life, cherishing time spent outside running or cycling. ‘Physical exercise is invaluable to writing – I am convinced of this,’ she says. ‘After running, or bicycling, or walking, I am usually brimming with ideas, and it a pleasure to return to writing.’