Acclaimed for her novels and short stories, Joyce Carol Oates is also an unparalleled literary critic whose insights and commentary have graced the pages of such publications as the “New York Review of Books,”the “Times Literary Supplement,” and the “New York Times Book Review.” This new collection brings together some of her most brilliant and provocative pieces, covering a diverse range of subjects and ideas. The rough country is both the treacherous geographical/psychological terrains of the writers she analyses—Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx, and Margaret Atwood among others—and also the emotional terrain of Oates’s own life following the unexpected death of her husband, Raymond Smith, after 48 years of marriage.
As literature is a traditional solace to the bereft, so writing about literature can be a solace to the bereft as it was to me during the days, weeks, and months when the effort of writing fiction often seemed beyond me, as if belonging to another lifetime when I’d been younger, more resilient and reckless, Oates writes. Reading and taking notes, especially late at night when I can’t sleep, has been the solace, for me, that saying the rosary or reading “The Book of Common Prayer” might be for another. The result of those meditations are the pieces of In Rough Country-balanced and illuminating essays that demonstrate an artist working at the top of her form. As she engages with forebears and contemporaries, Oates provides clues to her own creative process, for prose is a kind of music: music creates ‘mood’. What is argued on the surface may be but ripples rising from a deeper, subtextual urgency.
Preface: In Rough Country
- A Poe Memoir
- The Woman in White: Emily Dickinson and Friends
- Cast a Cold Eye: Jean Stafford
- The Art of Vengeance: Roald Dahl
- Revisiting Nabokov’s Lolita
- Shirley Jackson’s Witchcraft: We Have Always Lived in the Castle
- “As You Are Grooved, So You Are Grieved”: The Art and the Craft of Bernard Malamud
- “Large and Startling Figures”: The Fiction of Flannery O’Connor
- Boxing: History, Art, Culture
- Remembering John Updike
- Homer & Langley: E. L. Doctorow
- In Rough Country I: Cormac McCarthy
- In Rough Country II: Annie Proulx
- Enchanted! Salman Rushdie
- Philip Roth’s Tragic Jokes
- A Photographer’s Lives: Annie Leibovitz
- “The Great Heap of Days”: James Salter’s Fiction
- Margaret Atwood’s Tales
- In the Emperor’s Dream House: Claire Messud
- After the Apocalypse: Jim Crace
- The Story of X: Susanna Moore’s In the Cut
- “It Doesn’t Feel Personal”: The Poetry of Sharon Olds
- Too Much Happiness: The Stories of Alice Munro
- Nostalgia 1970: City on Fire
- The Myth of the “American Idea”: 2007
- “Why Is Humanism Not the Preeminent Belief of Humankind?” Address upon Receiving the 2007 Humanist of the Year Award
- In the Absence of Mentors/Monsters: Notes on Writerly Influences
- Revisiting Lockport, New York
The “rough country” of my title has a double meaning: it refers to both the treacherous geographical/psychological terrains of the writers who are my subjects—Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx, Margaret Atwood among others—and also the emotional terrain of my life following the unexpected death of my husband Raymond Smith in February 2008 after forty-eight years of marriage.
As literature is a traditional solace to the bereft, so writing about literature can be a solace to the bereft as it was to me during the days, weeks, and months when the effort of writing fiction often seemed beyond me, as if belonging to another lifetime when I’d been younger, more resilient and reckless. Overnight everything seemed to change for me, and inside me—the death of a “loved one” is a universal experience yet, to the bereaved, it is singular as a mountain thundering downhill in an avalanche that swallows you up utterly, batters your brain and fills your mouth with rubble. I could compose short stories—slowly and painstakingly—with perhaps one-tenth of the efficiency I’d formerly taken for granted—bizarre and surreal stories about loss, grief, “surviving”—but I have not been able to imagine anything so ambitious as a novel, even a short novel. Like a person whose vision has become blurred following a blow to the head, I can’t seem to see beyond the relatively brief span of the short story.
Reading and taking notes, especially late at night when I can’t sleep, has been the comfort for me that saying the rosary or reading The Book of Common Prayer might be for another. Immersing myself in the imaginations of other writers, constructing a line of argument which is the structure of a literary essay—in contrast to the less calibrated and predictable swerves and leaps of fiction—has been a lifeline. Reading, which had always been, in my former life, my reward for a full day of writing, became, in my new uncharted life as a widow, an end in itself of almost mystical significance. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins”—this line from T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” echoed obsessively in my thoughts. I came to feel that I was making my way word by word, sentence by sentence, across something like a narrow swaying footbridge above an abyss—this footbridge wasn’t my construction but comprised of others’ work, for which I was infinitely grateful. Working into the early hours of the morning—as I’d never done when I was married and our lives adhered to a conventional and commonplace domestic routine—reading in bed still partly dressed amid a nest of pillows, my mother’s knitted quilt, papers, books, and bound galleys, and when I was very lucky one or another of our two cats—who were slow to forgive me for the abrupt and mysterious disappearance of the individual who by custom fed them their breakfast each morning as well as “talked” to them through the day as required—became the new center of my life, an oasis of quiet in contrast to the nightmare cacophony of daytime: the phone ringing, ceaseless e-mails, “death-duties” to be executed ad infinitum. Days were filled with other people and none of them my missing husband: people in whose eyes I saw sympathy, pity, uneasiness, concern. By night, I was an avid reader and writer; by day, a widow.
What a widow is, is defined by an absence.
What a widow is not, is a whole/unmaimed individual.
Working late into the night was a melancholy sort of pleasure but when I did sleep, in the way of the insomniac’s sudden stuporous coma-like sleep like a précis of death, it was very difficult to wake up—to wake fully—in the morning—whatever “morning” was. Where getting out of bed had once been effortless, unthinking, now the very concept getting out of bed acquired an almost supernatural significance: fraught with danger, terror, dread. What is more awful than waking, getting up?—when you want so very badly to sleep; when your brain aches for the extinction of all thought, especially the awareness of time. Sleep becomes if not happiness, a reminder of happiness; a respite from the duties of daylight that involve memory, thinking, making decisions and actions. There were mornings in the late winter and early spring of last year when it seemed to me that the very air of my bedroom had turned viscous and heavy; that gravity exerted some sort of new, palpable pressure, as if I were lying on the bottom of the ocean. My brain was a kind of cotton batting which deep-ocean-thoughts of menace could make their way only slowly and what a risk, to disturb this paralysis! Nothing is so exhausting and daunting to the insomniac as getting out of bed and so my remedy was to forestall this by propping myself up against pillows and returning to whatever I’d been doing when I’d finally turned out the light and tried to sleep a few hours before. In this way though I had committed myself to opening my eyes yet I need not yet complete the ordeal of getting out of bed. I recalled that Edith Wharton famously wrote her novels in long-hand in a similar posture in her enormous canopied bed, tossing sheets of paper onto the floor for a maid to gather up. I had no maid, nor did I toss my notes onto the floor, but I quite understood Wharton’s instinct in this case to forestall contending with whatever—in Wharton’s case house-guests, “social life”—awaits beyond one’s bed.
During these months, and well into this new year of 2009, Robert Silvers of the New York Review of Books has been my cherished friend. Like his late co-editor Barbara Epstein, my beloved editor for more than twenty years at NYR, Bob is the most exacting of editors as he is a warmly encouraging and thoughtful reader. There is something thrilling—if also daunting—about undertaking to review a book one hasn’t yet read and assessed; if your inclination is, like my own, to wish not to publicly criticize any work of art, in acknowledgment of the difficulty of creating anything whether meritorious or otherwise, it’s an endeavor in which the reviewer risks exposure, as in a fun house mirror. The most painful of the essays included here is “Boxing: History, Art, Culture” for this was undertaken in February 2008 before my husband was stricken with pneumonia and hospitalized at the Princeton Medical Center; during Ray’s week in the hospital I worked on the essay in frantic bursts in the interstices of driving to the hospital, teaching my classes at Princeton University, and dealing with household duties; at night, after visiting hours at the hospital, I researched and worked on the essay until 2 A.M. or so—I was proud of myself in the small ridiculous ways in which we are proud of ourselves at such desperate times; my husband, who did not usually read my fiction, was looking forward to reading this essay, or so he said. No one could know the effort that went into this single “review” that would appear in a May 2008 issue of NYR—out of all proportion to its length and significance as a text; no one could guess that there is a break in the essay between the second section and the section that begins with the words “From the bare-knuckle era of John L. Sullivan”—the pages before were written by a woman with a husband, the pages following were written by a woman who had lost her husband. It was Nietzsche who said Between one and none there gapes…an infinity.
After my husband’s sudden death, of what was called a hospital infection, only a few hours after we’d been discussing his discharge within a few days, I could return to this essay only sporadically, with a residual sort of excitement, as there might be observed, in the waning light of the iris of the eye of a decapitated beast, some residual alertness to stimuli, but it was not revised and completed for some time. Yet in the immediate aftermath of my husband’s death, in a kind of vigil that night, when several friends of ours came to stay with me, stunned as I was, and tenderly solicitous, it happened that—for something to say of an abstract and impersonal nature, I suppose—I spoke about the essay I was writing, the ambitious scholarly book I was reviewing, and of the very long history of boxing—how what seems to us recent may in fact have its roots in antiquity, in almost pre-history. How minuscule, how finite, how fleeting the individual. Whatever else I managed to say that night, I don’t remember, and I have little memory of what my friends said, but this “profound” thought remains. There is pathos here, but perhaps a kind of beauty as well. Ideas, literature, art remain after much else falters and falls away. It is not a permanent victory by any means, but it is a victory of a kind and it is a victory we all share.
Joyce Carol Oates
June 1, 2009
Jeff Simon, The Buffalo News, July 4, 2010, p. F9
Oates’ essay and review collections have always been among the best of and most important, if too-little-considered, productions of a legendarily prodigious output. Her intelligence is so incisive and sharply honed from all those decades of writing and teaching that she is always arresting, whether suggesting that James Salter’s fiction may well have been influenced by the films of Antonioni and Bertolucci, or in “Boxing: History, Art, Culture,” calling Mike Tyson an “avatar” of Sonny Liston and, like all boxers, “steeped in ambiguity” rather than good or evil. A great collection.
Louisa Thomas, New York Times Book Review, July 16, 2010
The temptation in reading criticism by an author better known for her novels and stories is to inspect it for clues to her own work. And you’ll find them here, in Oates’s attention to the claustrophobia of small towns and families, the warping influences of class and sex, the power and powerlessness of women, the persistent distrust of organized religion and of American mythologizing. But Oates seems to take special, even unusual, pains not to bend her subjects into her own narrative. She is, instead, intensely focused on the books at hand, marking highlights, supplying context, guiding the reader through passage after passage. Her attention, even in a critic’s mode, is unfailingly generous.
Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 2010, pp. 405-406
A poignant, nostalgic collection of literary criticism … the author effectively combines her highly tuned sensibilities, sharp research and concise, vivid prose.
Donna Seaman, Booklist, July 1, 2010, p. 19
Oates’ knowing and voluptuously inquisitive journeys through books reveal glimpses of her private self and map her inspirations and feelings of “kinship” with other writers. Her latest collection of reviews and essays is the most poignant, open, and trusting to date.
Karen Holt, Barnes and Noble Revew, July 6, 2010
Oates is at her best when writing about McCarthy and Proulx. She dives into McCarthy’s all-male world of psychopaths and savages and comes up gasping in astonishment at his lyricism and emotional range. About the horrifically bleak landscape of his post-apocalyptic novel “The Road” she writes, “This monochromatic vision would be unbearable except for McCarthy’s beautifully rendered ‘poetic’ prose. Here is an incantatory voice that makes of devastation — doom itself — something rich and strange.”
Susan Balée, Hudson Review, Winter 2011, pp. 683-690
Joyce Carol Oate has done something good book reviewers do–she’s turned me on to an author I knew only slightly and made me want to read her work, In her new collection of literary and personal essays, In Rough Country. she includes a wonderful review (first published in the New York Review of Books, where Oates is a regular contributor) of the collected stories ofJean Stafford.3 Stafford’s short stories were well received in the 1950s and ’60s, and a couple of them can be found in anthologies of American writers, but Oates takes us on a tour of her less-well-known works and makes a cm for their brilliance.
Paula Green, New Zealand Herald, August 6, 2011, p. 40
The insightful detail of each review is a strength of the collection. In a review of a Bernard Malamud biography, Oates provides a potted history and then justifies why a biography is long overdue and why Philip Davis has written a good one. Oates suggests most biographies “trudge along the surface of a life, amassing and presenting facts, like rubble on a shovel” but this one offers gems, insights and observations on nearly every page. You can turn this comment around and read it as a way to appreciate Oates’ reviews.
Image: Rough Country by Gary Nored