A Conversation with Joyce Carol Oates

The eNotes team visited this year’s LA Times Festival of Books to bring you recaps of the captivating interviews with some of the most anthologized writers. You may recognize the first as part of your syllabus if you’ve ever read her infamous short story, “Where Are You Going, Were Have You Been?” It’s the prolific and talented Joyce Carol Oates!

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In 1984 Joyce Carol Oates relegated a manuscript she’d been working on, complete but imperfect, to a dark drawer. As its pages yellowed and mildew took up residence, the would-be novel emerged into the light of day just once every seven years or so, only to promptly return. “Writing is very intuitive,” Oates says of her most recent (or most recently published) novel’s thirty year history. “You can’t quite force it.” Luckily for her readers, the manuscript found its way back into Oates’ hands at just the right time, for now we have The Accursed.

Oates began her conversation on the novel with some explication on its genre. As a formalist, she admits the attraction of writing in various styles. Over the years she has dabbled in just about everything, though the same vein of sinisterness is rather pervasive throughout. As for The Accursed, Oates herself called it her foray into “a neo-Gothic genre… a post-modernist horror.” (In case one couldn’t tell from the book cover, it has a bit to do with vampires.)

But the author could just as easily be noted for dipping a toe into the historical fiction pool, given the number of historic figures who meander in and out of the plot. Set in Princeton in 1905, The Accursed‘s minor players include writers and politicians who lived in the college town at that moment in history; Franklin Roosevelt (then just 23), Upton Sinclair, Mark Twain, and Jack London to name a few, which Oates labels the “Shakespearean sub-figures” of her work. In a minor way, their presence as relative rabble-rousers of their time advances the themes of The Accursed: those of “class betrayal” and racial discrimination—hardly light topics for a vampire novel.

To unpack these themes a bit more, it is imperative to point out the timing of that mildewy manuscript’s resuscitation. When Oates picked it up again in 2010, America had at last elected an African-American man as its president—a decision that is a far cry from the attitudes of 1905 upper class Princeton, though the threads of racial tension remain. The author admits that her choosing to revive the novel at that particular time is not unlike Miller’s writing of The Crucible when he did, since it takes a contemporary problem and places it in another time, thereby highlighting it more.

In all, one could look at Oates’ latest as a Gothic family drama, a supernatural romance story (complete with the bride being kidnapped by a vampiric seducer at the altar), even a historical satire.  Or one could simply recognize The Accursed for what it is outside of Oates’ formalist play—an homage to American history, literature, and themes, however sordid those may be.

Ready to test your knowledge? Take the eNotes Joyce Carol Oates quiz here!


To the Beat of Our Own Drum: My Life Among the Beat Generation

This guest post comes to us by way of one of our eNotes educators, wordprof. Besides serving as one of our literary experts, having written two books on drama and worked for Purdue University, wordprof has much to share for having witnessed firsthand one of the most interesting time periods in American literary history. Read on to find out a little more about one of our best educators as well as the decade dominated by the Beat movement.

There is an interesting way to think of History: it is any time you didn’t live through. The Beatnik era, however, for me is not history, because I was there, in San Francisco in the 1950’s, and I experienced the emergence of a new sensibility, in the contrasting lifestyles of the time.

San Francisco (of course, New York also) experienced a dynamic, innovative time just before the invasion of the “Flower Children” in the 1960’s.  It was known as the Beatnik era (named by Herb Caen), combining the Russian suffix –nik from Sputnik (1957) to the “Beat” designation from Kerauoc’s “Beat Generation” (meaning many things, including “The Beatitudes,” because there was a beatific, nonviolent atmosphere to the art of the time). I remember at the time that the aesthetic atmosphere brought an interesting contrast between the commercial, conservative atmosphere of the Ayn Rand  mentality (The FountainheadAtlas Shrugged), and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind, and the like.

The contrast could most easily be seen in the two dominant book stores—Paul Elder’s Books, downtown, where multiple copies of such novel bestsellers as Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago (1957) and Nabakov’s Lolita (1957 in English translation) were stacked in towers in the expanses of window displays, and City Lights Book Store in North Beach. The latter, co-owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, featured single copies of books on shelves marked “Alternate Lifestyles” and “Non-Western religions,” where my friends would keep in touch with me by leaving notes on the cork bulletin board made available to all.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti stands outside City Lights Bookstore, which devoted itself to selling alt and ,yes, banned books.

The reading habits of this period reflected a vital new interest in Eastern philosophies and literature, prompted in large part by translation of eastern thought by Alan Watts ( The Way of Zen, 1957) and by English editions of Herman Hesse’s work (Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, Glass Bead Game, Journey to the East).  The Lebanese writer Kahlil Gibran of The Prophet and the ancient Egyptian “Hermes Trismegistus” of The Kybalion also became widely read; Krishnamurti and the theosophists were much admired, along with existential philosophical writers—Jean-Paul Sartre (Being and Nothingness, but more often Existentialism and Human Emotion), Albert Camus’ novels, Andre Gide, Dostoevsky, Ouspensky’s Tertium Organum,  all much read, passed along, and discussed. It was a time of experimentation for all.

Other influences, both philosophically and stylistically, were Walt Whitman, T.S Eliot, Ezra Pound, and especially E. E. Cummings, not only because of his distinct poetry, but for his prose autobiographical The Enormous Room and his seminal Norton Lectures i. six nonlectures. (I enjoyed a brief correspondence with Cummings that started as a paean to his genius and an inquiry about whether we should capitalize his name in our writings, and ended up with a request to be his apprentice, to which he responded in a postcard: “This nonhero is too busy being to teach.”)  Erich Fromm’s Art of Loving (1956), in many ways a contrast to the other popular literature of the time, was also read widely.  My personal “book of wonder” during these years of the Beatnik era was Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness (written earlier but enjoying a revival), a conjecture about the next phase of human development, followed by a collection of brief biographies of persons who had transcended self-consciousness into “cosmic” consciousness (Francis Bacon, Walt Whitman, Gautama Buddha, etc.). It was all very beatific.

As for my own enlightenment, I had my spine read by a “chiropracter” who could tell me all about my previous lives (I had been a sailor and an astronomer!). I was charted by a “personology” expert, who read my face, hair, and head bumps to determine my predilections toward a profession in this lifetime.  I also tried to teach myself Greek by reading interlinear translations of The Odyssey (no luck), and took playwriting lessons at the Sears-Whiteside School of Drama.

That was the world of the “Beatnik” wannabe.

Between that world and the world of ego-driven commercialism lay a chasm only bridged by San Francisco’s geographic splendor.  Besides the obvious tourist attractions—Pelican Island (Alcatraz), the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, Fisherman’s Wharf–there was Golden Gate Park, containing, besides expansive grass valleys, dozens of commemorative statues (many hidden by fast-growing shrubbery), as well as the De Young Museum and the Japanese Tea Gardens.  At the park’s western edge, guarded by two old-fashioned windmills, was the Pacific Ocean beach, a free public expanse of sand beyond which nothing existed except the Farallon Islands and the mysterious East.  At the top, northern tip of the beach, was Seal Island, close enough to shore to observe the seals without the coin-operated  binoculars, overlooked by the Camera Obscura and the Cliff House restaurant and bar, next to Sutro’s Bath House (since burned down).  These sites were somehow almost reserved for natives to discover (despite the gift shops), again because the beach was free and we were always broke.

Living as a young adult in the mid-50′s to early 1960’s, I witnessed the contrasts daily. In North Beach, for example, (not a beach, but the Italian-American area surrounding the intersection of Columbus and Broadway streets) one could walk from a sublime, subtle Benny Bufano bronze statue of St. Francis in front of St. Francis Church, to the frighteningly commercial art studio and gallery of Walter Keane, where the big-eyed clown portraits reeked of poor taste.  Elsewhere throughout the Bay Area, Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn (my friend, a student at S.F. School of Fine Art, did his gardening and mowed his lawn), and Paul Thiebaud were carving out Fine Art careers. (I remember one abstract expressionist painting at the DeYoung originally called something like “Study No. 2” but renamed “The Unnatural Battle of the Four Primal Elements” but I don’t recall the artist’s name.)

The contrast in drinking establishments, too, was always apparent, from the upscale nightclubs—The Condor, Finnochio’s, Bimbo’s, Vesuvio’s, and the Buena Vista at the cablecar terminus—to “The Place”, a simple bar where anyone could speak publicly on the topic of the day, on Blabbermouth night, posted on a blackboard behind the bar. I myself spoke to “Is Nixon a Stone Fetishist?” (when he was vice-president and was stoned by the crowds as he toured South America on a “goodwill mission”) and to “Is Nudism a Form of Catharsis?” before nudism entered the free enterprise system with Carol Doda.

Poet Allen Ginsberg (right), at North Beach’s popular hangout Caffe Trieste. He’s joined by City Lights clerk Shig Murao, who was once arrested for selling Howl to an undercover police officer.

In music (pre-British Invasion), Bob Dylan, Odetta, and Mose Allison sang out from apartment windows, while Flamenco dance music and West Coast Jazz floated out of the nightclubs (financially out of reach for the Beatniks, who would cluster on the sidewalks just outside the bouncer-doorman’s jurisdiction). A startlingly good recording of Porgy and Bess, with Mel Torme and Francis Faye, came out—in vinyl, of course—with a real red handkerchief in a pocket on the cover. Comics considered cutting-edge at the time would be featured at the Hungry I—Lenny Bruce, Nichols and May, George Carlin.

Entertainment—other than the private gatherings in apartments decorated with free posters of faraway places (handed out by downtown travel agencies) featuring cheap wine and Tarot card readings, I Ching yarrow stick interpretations, and Mah Jongg games—was self-generated. We played chess at the Co-Existence Bagel Shop (where no bagels were served), or attending Auteur theatre. We watched Jules et Jim, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, La Dolce Vita and a dozen others, or the free performances in Golden Gate Park of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. There was a growth of experimental theatre, with 1957′s Waiting for Godot, (an outstanding production directed by Herbert Blau, with Jules Irving as Lucky, performed downtown and then at San Quentin prison), Albee’s The Sandbox, Kopit’s Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad, the Happenings of Allen Kaprow, and an interest in the New York theatre experiments emerging at the beginning of the 1960’s, Living Theatre, Open Theatre, etc.  In the conservative category at the same time, the best were the movies The Vikings and The Horse’s Mouth and on stage a traveling production of West Side Story.  I remember the Jack Tar hotel (finished in 1960) being built, ugly, rectangular, devoid of charm, an outsider to San Francisco’s opulent tradition of upscale hotels—the Mark Hopkins, and the St Francis.  As one critic put it: “It looks like the box that the Mark Hopkins came in.”

The changing landscape of Broadway and Columbus signified the ushering in of a new era and the end of the time that belonged to the Beats.

Geographically and socially, the Beatnik era ended around 1962, not only because of the Kennedy assassination, but also because Carol Doda at the Condor brought a different kind of tourism to the Columbus and Broadway area (her larger-than-life image in neon became a visual reminder of the change in atmosphere). The creative forces of the writers and poets were moving on, to Telegraphic Hill and to the Eastern cultures that Zen, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Krishnamurti had introduced them to—Japan, China, India, Tibet. The new neighborhoods were the Castro district and the Haight-Cole area (later claimed and re-named by the Flower Children as the Haight-Ashbury area, surrounding the panhandle of Golden Gate Park.) The writing generation just before the Beatniks, such as William Saroyan (Fresno), Jack London (Oakland), and John Steinbeck (Monterey), had branded California as a literary haven, but the Beats took San Francisco as their own (Saroyan lived on Carl Street in the Haight-Cole district before returning to Fresno). They—we—branded it with the indelible image still found today between the stacks of City Lights, or the pages of On the Road.

All in all, if my memory hasn’t distorted the actual facts (Hinman Collator needed), the contrasting worlds served to heighten my awareness of the changes in social aesthetics that were taking place at that time. Whether the Beat Generation or the Ayn Rand Establishment won that particular battle, only history will tell.

Besides, I wasn’t in history—I was in my salad days, in San Francisco during the Beatnik era.


Confessions of a Book Abandoner

A positively shameful confession from college student and eNotes intern, Yael…

I need to confess something, guys.

I’m a book-starter. That kind of sounds like a positive thing, but it’s not.

Allow me to rephrase.

I’m a book-abandoner… a book-deserter.

I just can’t kick the habit.

In the past two years, I’ve probably started and stopped reading about 20 books. With each, as goes the one before it, I make it through about a quarter of the novel. Then I bookmark it and put it on my nightstand like I’m totally going to tackle it “one of these days,” but I know, deep down in my book-neglecting heart, that my lame attempts to try and pick it back up weeks later will result in one page being read, over and over, until I realize I’m hungry. Then, you know, it’s game over. Book goes back on the nightstand. Collects dust. Poor book. (Sometimes-and I put this in parentheses because it’s just so shameful-I even do this to used books…books who have already gone through so much. Who does that? It’s like…where’s my heart? I don’t know. I just don’t know.)

Theoretically, I love books. I love the idea of books, the feel of books. I’m one of those people (or maybe the only person) who walks down the hallways at Barnes & Noble just, you know, lightly grazing book bindings with my finger tips, flipping through random pages and thinking about all the possibilities that lie within them. I even love smelling books. Don’t you furrow your brows at me…there’s no denying it: books smell like hundreds of years of life and also like warm, cozy memories and those are the best smells that were ever invented. But…seriously? I haven’t been able to read past chapter 3 in any book since high school when reading fictional novels was required and life was a little more chipper. Harry Potter, where you at? (Obviously…on my book shelf in order from 1-7 and properly covered with their respective book sleeves, but that’s beside the point…

The real point is, I’m fed up.

I’m done. I’m ready to change.

TODAY IS THE DAY I START MY JOURNEY TO BECOME A WELL-READ, BOOK-COMPLETER. I will be a book-MASTER. (You go, girl ← yes, that was self encouragement, and it makes talking to yourself acceptable)

If you’re like me, this transformation I’ve just gone through might spark something in you. Maybe you’ll feel motivated to kick that nasty habit, stop pretending you don’t know how to “read for pleasure” anymore because textbooks burned you out, and get your act together. Seriously…just get it together. Because, if you’re like me, you may soon be an unemployed, recent graduate, looking for ways to kill time in between all that job-hunting and stress eating. Books, friends. Books. We can spend time getting caught up in other peoples’ more exciting lives, actually gain a little knowledge, and maybe even get our hands on a little bit of peace of mind and calm.

Now that you’re ready to become a librarian and the world’s most influential leader in literary criticism, let’s discuss book choice.

It doesn’t really matter. Any kind of reading is the good kind.

Personally, I want to tackle the classics. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe because everyone’s read them and I just want to be one of the cool kids. But that’s only about 80% of it.

I also think that the “classic” novels are classic for a reason, and not just because they’re old and wise. In general, I feel like it would be beneficial to read the works of writers who laid the backbone and set the pace for the next great writers. They’re the OGs, you know? You have to learn from the masters and then their students.

Now if you hate Jane Austen and Dostoyevsky and are about to say to me sternly “Yael, don’t you dare put that Hemingway anywhere near me,” be soothed: there are millions of books left out there to read. All kinds and all sizes, from all different kinds of countries and different kinds of people. You have a world of novels to choose from. So choose randomly, haphazardly, and without much forethought. Scratch that, without any forethought. And do it often. (A good analogy is to act like you would if you were at a grocery store in the ice cream aisle, and that for today only, all the ice cream had 0 calories and 0 grams of fat. I mean…just go to town. Take all of it. All. Of. It. Even the weird flavors.) Books are one of those world wonders that will enrich your life in so many ways you can’t even begin to realize. The lessons you learn, the relationships you make, the inspiration you’ll take, and the enjoyment you’ll get from reading a book is something you really can’t get elsewhere.

So go to your nearest library or book store, grab some books, smell them (seriously, just try it) and read them. Finish them. Even if you don’t like them very much, you’ll get something out of it. That’s what I’m going to do at least, and honestly if I can do it…I really think anyone can.

Oh, and also if anyone wants to start a book club, I’m interested. I’ll bring the snacks.

Sincerely,

Your-Book’s-New-BFFAEAE (that’s best friend forever and ever and ever)


Celebrating 200 Years of Pride and Prejudice (and Darcy, mmmm)

“I want to tell you that I have got my own darling child from London.”

These are the words Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra 200 years ago, on January 29th, 1813. And the “darling child” she spoke of? None other than her firstborn novel, of course–Pride & Prejudice.

The novel was published just a day before, after many years of submissions to and rejections by various London publishers. Austen had completed the manuscript with its original title of “First Impressions” in 1797. From there, so many prospective publishers declined to even see the work that P&P underwent 14 years of heavy editing to become what it is today. At last, the editor Thomas Egerton bought the book for a meager £110, the equivalent of just $172 today.

Thankfully, as it is a truth universally acknowledged, Pride & Prejudice went on to become not only the “fashionable novel” of its time, but one of the most beloved (and borrowed) stories of English literature. 200 years on, it inspires everything from its explicit spin-offs (Death at Pemberley, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, etc), to the more subtly taken chick-lit and movie plots of today. And now, in the week of this milestone anniversary, a slew of articles dedicated to all things Austenesque. So feast your eyes on these literary nibbles, Darcy lovers:

12 Things You Didn’t Know About Pride & Prejudice

The 2 Problems in Pride & Prejudice, According to PD James

Making the case for the best Darcy: will it be Colin Firth, or Matthew Macfadyen?

The Real Face of Jane Austen

Here’s another interesting couple of tidbits I came across today… Ever wondered what Austen’s contemporaries and fellow authors thought of her self-confessed “light, and bright, and sparkling” novel? It seems that Charlotte Brontë was none too impressed, though surprisingly it was on account of the novel’s lack of a characteristic landscape more than anything else:

Charlotte Brontë, in a letter to [the critic] Lewes, wrote that Pride and Prejudice was a disappointment, “a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but … no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck.”

Meanwhile, in 1937 the poet W.H. Auden cheekily mused that Austen was far too experienced for a gentlewoman of her time and social standing:

You could not shock her more than she shocks me,
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.

So there you have it, a few juicy details surrounding by far the greatest romance plot in British literature. But if you’d like to learn more, there are plenty of eNotes study guides for, you know, all that important academic stuff:

Pride & Prejudice Study Guide

Jane Austen Biography

Historical Context of the Novel

Character Analysis of the Novel

and much more on enotes.com!

Be on the lookout for ways to celebrate the anniversary in your area. With this many Austenites around the globe, there has got to be a Meryton ball somewhere nearby.

How will you celebrate 200 years of P&P?


Eek, it’s Frankensteinbeck! And Other Literary Puns

I came across this fantastic gallery in the Rumpus today and had to share. The artist Timothy Lee Taranto illustrates literature’s most serious authors in a less than serious light. Check out our favorite, the “Vonnugget,” below, and many more. Happy Friday!


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