Her Art Laid Bare: Provisional Notes about Joyce Carol Oates

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Invisible Writer: A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates. By Greg Johnson. New York: Dutton, 1998. Pp. 492. $34.95.

The Collector of Hearts: New Tales of the Grotesque. By Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Dutton, 1998. Pp. 324. $24.95.

My Heart Laid Bare. By Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Dutton, 1998. Pp. 532. $26.95.

After Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife came out in 1971, it took William Gass twenty-four years to produce his next novel, The Tunnel. During that same period, 1971-95, Joyce Carol Oates, who has dismissed Gass's prose as "frankly gaseous," published twenty-five novels-in addition to eighteen short story compilations, three collections of novellas, five volumes of poetry, six editions of plays, and eight books of essays, as well as scores of uncollected stories, plays, screenplays, and essays. There was even a libretto, for the operatic adaptation of her 1992 novel Black Water. Oates may or may not be what her biographer Greg Johnson calls her, "America's preeminent woman of letters" (What about Susan Sontag? Eudora Welty? Toni Morrison? Cynthia Ozick? Adrienne Rich? Elizabeth Hardwick? Of Americans above and below the border, what about Margaret Atwood? Elena Poniatowska?), but she is surely its most prolific intellectual.

In a culture that does not encourage second acts, or even long first ones, Oates is remarkable not only for intensity but also for tenacity. Henry Roth managed to break six decades of silence after his first novel Call It Sleep (1934) by spewing out 3200 new manuscript pages in his final, ailing years. But year after year for more than three decades, Oates has created and sustained an extraordinary career that rivals that of Balzac if not Kathleen Lindsay (190373), the South African novelist memorialized in the Guinness Book of World Records for having published 904 books. Though she is well advanced into middle age, Oates, who was born in 1938, remains a prodigy, even if measured only by the fact that her books in print have long outnumbered her years on earth. Oates wrote-and discarded-a dozen novels before the age of twenty. By twenty-five, she had published her first book, the story collection By the North Gate (1963), and for at least the rest of the century you could, despite the vagaries of the publishing season, always count on a couple of new Oates books. During 1998, when she turned sixty, the Oates bibliography increased by six-an ambitious novel, My Heart Laid Bare an assortment of stories, The Collector of Hearts; a children's book, Come Meet Muffin!; a collection called New Plays, Hover, a compilation of photographs by Gregory Crewdson for which she and three others wrote the text; and an anthology she edited titled Telling Stories. At least two novels, Starr Bright Will Be with You Soon and Broke Heart Blues, are scheduled for publication in 1999.

The mere thought of such enterprise exhausts many mortals, but Oates-who responds vehemently to her critics, in print and in private-reserves her weariness, publicly, for reviews that begin formulaically by marveling at her output, as if it were not possible to write much and write well-or for a woman to do either. She is right to find implicit sexism in those who deride the freakishness of her workaholism but prize the vast output of John Updike and Georges Simenon. Particularly irked by the fact that the novelists of his era who were most facile and successful were female, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who published barely more in a lifetime than Oates does in one year, railed against the "damned lot of scribbling women. I wish they were forbidden to write on pain of having their faces deeply scarified." Barbara Cartland's scary corpus of more than six hundred romance novels reinforces the stereotype of female prattle, as does the virile silence of J. D. Salinger. Yet the mother of all storytellers, Scheherazade, was, like Oates, both accomplished and insomniac. It took her 1001 nights to impress her male audience. …