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The Art of Democracy: Photography in the Novels of Joyce Carol Oates/Rosamond Smith

By Daly, Brenda | Studies in the Novel, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

The Art of Democracy: Photography in the Novels of Joyce Carol Oates/Rosamond Smith


Daly, Brenda, Studies in the Novel


Photography first makes its appearance in Joyce Carol Oates's novels in Childwold when 14-year-old Laney is taken to an art exhibit, a place she has never been before. While studying a wall of portrait photographs of working class people, she is moved to tears by "the beauty in their plain, hard faces, their severe mouths ... the beauty in their old worn clothes." Silently she asks, "These people remind you of, remind you of.... But your own people, are they so dignified, so stubborn? Their faces so beautiful?" (144). Moments later, Laney observes other visitors who appear to be wealthy: "look at the coats, the gloves, the expensive leather boots, the smooth confident faces" (145). This scene raises questions about the relationship between the visual arts, especially photography, and the class position of the observer that Oates does not explore in Childwold (1976). Such questions are central, however, in two more recently published novels, Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart (1990) and The Barrens (2001), an anti-thriller with Oates "writing as Rosamond Smith." Both novels challenge a visual canon that perpetuates unjust socioeconomic hierarchies, and both portray white male photographers who, like Laney and Oates herself, were born into working-class families. In addition, both novels employ formal techniques borrowed from photography--photomontage, deep focus, and double exposure--to challenge a foundational American myth, "the myth of the isolated self." (1) This myth threatens American democracy, as Oates's fiction demonstrates, by preventing us from recognizing our interdependence and obstructing our understanding of the need for caretaking by society as a whole.

This paper will argue the need to read Oates and Smith as separate authorial entities so that we may observe, to begin with, that both Oates and Smith affirm a democratic vision, which raises the question: given Oates's use of a pseudonym, is this vision somehow double, or divided? I want to be clear at the outset that I am not seeking to construct a unified author. Although it would be possible to examine what Julia Kristeva terms the writer's "intrapsychic" status in Because It Is Bitter and The Barrens by analyzing the writer's position relative to frequently employed intertexts (Waller 280-81)--in particular, Hieronymous Bosch's triptych, "A Garden of Delights"; William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell; and Friedrich Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil--such a study is not the goal of this paper. (2) I am not engaged in a search for intra-psychic traces nor in what Peter Rabinowitz characterizes as "a search for the author's private psyche"; rather, this paper reads both novels "in a particular socially constituted way that is shared by the author and his or her expected readers" (22), that is, through a study of Oates's (or Smith's) manipulation of novelistic conventions and intertexts. For example, both novels critique the myth of the isolated, competitive individual and the privatized family; however, because The Barrens is a parody of a subgenre, the psychological thriller, Smith employs techniques different from those Oates employs in Because It Is Bitter.

These differences may be understood by expanding Kristeva's concept of the fluid subject--the subject in process--to include the authorial subject. In other words, as Oates re-visions different genres, she divides her consciousness not only into different characters but also into different authorial personae. As Oates herself has suggested, a writer's identity, in contrast to her social identity, is playfully fluid; hence, the verb writing is more accurate than the noun writer. Oates argues further, using terms similar to Kristeva's, that if a writer can multiply her subjectivity through the creation of characters, she is, by creating a pseudonym, simply carrying "the mysterious process a step or two further, erasing the author's social identity and supplanting it with the pseudonymous identity" ("Pseudonymous Selves" 397).

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