By Greg Johnson
Originally published in Kennesaw: The Magazine of Kennesaw State College, Spring/Summer 1993
One day in February 1991, home from teaching my afternoon class in fiction writing, I opened a thick manila envelope that had arrived in the mail. Sent by the staff of the research library at Syracuse University, this packet contained a detailed description of “The Joyce Carol Oates Archive,” which had been placed at Syracuse—Oates’s undergraduate institution—in 1990.
Although I had already published a critical study of Oates’s work, I was now planning a new book that focused on her short fiction, and assumed that the newly deposited archival materials would provide considerable insight into her creative process. I had also contracted to write the authorized biography of Oates, and the Archive naturally would become one of my major sources for that project as well.
Oates’s productivity has long been legendary, and I knew, as a close follower of her career, that she was actually far more productive than even her 60 published books would suggest—there are literally hundreds of short stories, poems, essays and reviews that remain uncollected, published through the years in a wide range of magazines. Still, I first read the details of the Archive’s holdings with an increasing sense of astonishment, incredulity and what can only be described as awe.
This accounting of the Archive’s contents revealed that many of the accepted notions about this author’s work, and her work habits, were sheer nonsense, fabrications by critics and so-called “literary journalists” who had, for the past quarter-century, tirelessly speculated, complained and just plain gossiped about the phenomenon of “Oates.”
My absorption in Oates’s work had begun almost two decades before, when I was an undergraduate at Southern Methodist University. My first encounter with one of her stories quickly led me to seek out her published collections and novels; as an aspiring fiction writer myself, I read her work with a sense of excitement and discovery, a new awareness of the possibilities of fiction. At some point, I wrote to her, and first met her in 1976, after one of her readings. Through the years, our ongoing correspondence and occasional meetings had gradually led to my professional involvement with her work.
During my first plane ride to Syracuse, I reread the document I’d been mailed—a single-spaced, 19-page narrative called “The Joyce Carol Oates Archive: Introduction.” On the first page was a capsule summary of the library’s holdings: “Ms. Oates’s literary archive documents the writing and production of over 50 books and hundreds of short stories, essays, articles and poems. There are 4,000 pages of journal, 5,000 letters, 50,000 pages of manuscripts and typescripts, and 920 volumes of published books and periodicals.”
Even more amazing was the information that these materials covered only the period 1973-1990. Some time ago, Oates had written to me that before 1973, she had saved none of her letters or manuscripts, although she had already published 18 books by that time (at the ripe old age of 35). Letters, drafts, manuscripts, even a number of completed but unpublished novels—everything, she said, had been “cheerfully thrown away.”
When I arrived in Syracuse, it didn’t surprise me that the archivist in charge of Oates’s manuscripts, Kathleen Manwaring, is a tremendously energetic, enthusiastic, knowledgeable young woman with prematurely gray hair. She showed me to the large reading room where she had brought the first boxes of Oates materials—drafts of her short story manuscripts—that I’d indicated by mail I would want to examine. There were a dozen large tables in the room, and at a couple of them, other scholars—both historians, I would later learn—already sat at work.
Kathleen showed me to “my” table, where she had placed perhaps 10 cardboard storage boxes; she was still in the process of bringing out the materials I wanted, and she indicated another table where she would stack the rest. “You’ll need two tables,” she said, smiling.
And so, for several days, I studied the manuscripts. My critical analysis of the short fiction would attempt to be comprehensive, so during that first visit to the Archive I tried to assess all the holdings and decide which materials I should ask the staff to photocopy, for more leisurely and intensive study at home. My first, overwhelming impression was of the sheer amount of labor represented by the manuscripts, for they betray the stereotype of Oates as an author who writes rapidly or carelessly—or easily.
Beginnings of stories, in particular, are rewritten again and again. Fairly early in her career, she developed a habit that remained consistent: she begins by folding a piece of ordinary typing paper in half, and then making stray handwritten notes along the narrow “columns” thus created. She uses both sides of most sheets, so there are four columns of these notes per page, most of them very rough, discontinuous; at this point, she is feeling her way into the story. Some pages suggest that she has temporarily lost direction and so she sits daydreaming, writing stray words, phrases, names of other writers and many versions of her own name—”J.C.Oates,” “Joyce Carol Smith,” etc. There are also numerous drawings: especially women’s faces, almost always in profile, special attention given to the eyes. Then she returns to the story in progress, trying out a sentence or two in her unhurried, elegant handwriting. Some of these worksheets break off abruptly, making the scholar wonder if perhaps the story had suddenly “come together” in Oates’s mind, sending her to the typewriter.
But the typewritten drafts, too, show evidence of tentativeness, false starts and ceaseless revision. On many pages, she types a sentence or two, then turns the page upside down and starts again; she gets a bit further on this second attempt, but again stalls, takes the sheet out of the typewriter, turns it over, and tries it once more. Countless stories have five, eight, even a dozen such hesitant beginnings, suggesting—to this writer, at least—an almost superhuman doggedness and patience, an absolute refusal to give up. Equally amazing is that there are entire drafts of stories whose title and characters are instantly recognizable, but which are substantially different from the work that finally appeared in print. Clearly, a first draft is only that; days later, or even years later, a story might be subjected to a full-scale reimagining, a process to which the word “revision” scarcely does justice.
Occasionally, as Kathleen had warned me, the manuscripts are confusing because they are not dated, and because Oates—evidently an environmentalist long before it was fashionable—is frugal with paper, often writing drafts of new stories on the reverse side of discarded drafts of other stories, of abandoned novels, of letters and journal entries. There are notes on University of Windsor stationery, on Princeton University memo pads, on the backs of classroom hand-outs, on the backs of “fan” letters.
Oates’s tendency to use every available space on a sheet of paper, combined with her habit of doodling and sketching in the margins, conveyed to me the same impression that Joe David Bellamy had mentioned in his 1972 interview-by-mail: Oates’s responses were “crowded onto the page, typewritten single-spaced in shotgun style with ‘X’ed-out corrections, almost without margins, as if the pages themselves had seemed scarcely large enough to the writer to contain the potential deluge of language.”
Since that first experience in the Oates Archive, I’ve gone once more, this time to read that 4,000-page journal. When I began researching the biography, Oates had asked if I would be interested in editing her journal for publication one day, and in eventually serving as her literary executor. I agreed, and although I also agreed to discuss the journal only in the pages of the biography itself, I can say generally—and very confidently—that this two-million-word document, which so amply records the daily ebb-and-flow of her personal, artistic and intellectual life over the past two decades, will one day be regarded as one of the world’s great diaries.
Now that my book on Oates’s short fiction is complete, I’ve also taken the opportunity to study the manuscripts of her novels, plays, criticism and poetry. Although some time ago I gave up being surprised at the extent of Oates’s engagement with her work, the novel manuscripts in particular are astonishing in their complexity, their evidence of ceaseless revision and, of course, their sheer volume.
A few examples should suffice. For her 1989 novel American Appetites, there are 3,000 pages of worksheets and early drafts; even the 500-page “final” manuscript has extensive revisions. Worksheets and manuscripts for her 1987 novel, You Must Remember This, total 3,500 pages; for one of her still-forthcoming books [published 1998], with its working title My Heart Laid Bare, there are 5,000 pages. Even a relatively minor novel, Nemesis, published under a pseudonym (“Rosamond Smith”) in 1990, took 3,000 pages of drafts to reach its final form. (And these drafts are manuscripts, not “printouts.” Oates does not use a word processor.)
Of course, Oates is still in mid-career, but even if she stopped writing tomorrow, her Archive would remain as ample proof that her work represents one of the richest legacies in American fiction. “If I had to do it all over again, I’m not sure that I could,” she told a recent interviewer. She said wryly to another that her epitaph might read: “She certainly tried.”
Just as she inspires younger writers, she continues to derive sustenance from previous masters of the art of fiction. A quotation from that other prolific American novelist, Henry James, is affixed to the bulletin board over her desk, and perhaps best expresses her own ultimate view of her life and writing: “We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”