Illustration of Joyce Carol Oates. (/ )
All right, let’s cut to it — our audience, curiosity whetted by the ubiquitous social media, wants avidly to know: What is the most embarrassing thing that has happened to you lately?
Do you mean as a “writer” — or just more generally?
Don’t be circumspect! Interest in you, at least minimal interest, derives from your being a “writer.”
Well — I was in the grocery store yesterday, in the dairy section, when a woman who’d been staring at me quizzically asked, “Are you some kind of writer?” Vaguely, I shook my head no, as if I might not have heard the question, and eased away without glancing back . . .
And then someone who knew me breezed by saying in a loud voice, “Hello, Joyce!” — and the woman must have overheard . . .
That is embarrassing! Denying your own writer-self, and even as the cock began to crow, someone comes along and outs you! Is this some kind of absurd modesty?
I could not explain to the woman: “I am not ‘Joyce Carol Oates’ right now, but a shopper in a grocery store. And the dairy section is freezing.”
If police had arrived and demanded your I.D., you’d have had to confess — what?
My driver’s license, passport, social security — are all in the name “Joyce Carol Smith.”
Why not “Oates”?
Because my legal self, my property-owner self, is “Joyce Carol Smith.”
The name of my first husband, Raymond, who died in February 2008. [Pause.] We all have numerous identities that shift with circumstances. The writing self is likely to be a highly private, conjured sort of being — you would not find it in a grocery store.
Is there something frankly embarrassing or shameful about being a “writer”?
The public identification does seem just a bit self-conscious, at times. Like identifying oneself as a “poet,” “artist,” “seer,” “visionary.”
Yet you are, are you not, a “writer”? After all these years?
If I’m required to identify myself on a form, I write “teacher.” I’ve been a teacher almost as long as I’ve been writing. [Pause.] I think of myself less as a writer than as a person who writes — or tries to. Each morning is a kind of obstacle course in which the obstacles seem to have all the advantage.
A curious and unconvincing sort of modesty! Your name is on your book covers, after all.
But my name is not me.
Our readers think that you owe that woman in the grocery store an apology. [With malicious smugness:] I will post this on our Web site and see how many viewers excoriate you for your behavior. Move over, Paula Deen!
Excuse me, but —
Excuse me. I’m the one asking the questions. What are you trying to say in your ineffectual, stammering way? That you are — or are not — the “writer”?
I’d have liked to quote to the woman in the grocery store Henry James’s beautifully succinct remark about the public and private lives of writers: “A writer’s life is in his work, and that is the place to find him.”
Well, Henry James was a man of his era. Most things, if not all, were in the province of the “male.” The “female” was ancillary.
You’re just apologizing for the rampant sexism of that bygone era. If you admire a writer, you make excuses for him. James is just one example.
Henry James is a paragon of the artist — a “writer’s writer.”
Sounds deadly: “writer’s writer.” Let’s get back to the crucial question: Are you, or are you not, the “writer”?
The point of James’s remark is that the “writer” is embodied in his — or her — writing. The place to look for James, for instance, is in his books.
But you’ve been teaching, as you’ve said, most of your life. What about that?
As a teacher, I don’t teach myself — in any way. If I’m teaching a fiction workshop, my focus is on the work of student-writers and exemplary works of fiction by classic and contemporary writers.
You don’t teach literature as a writer? How is this possible?
I don’t teach literature from my perspective as “Joyce Carol Oates.” I try to teach fiction from the perspective of each writer. If I’m teaching a story by Hemingway, my endeavor is to present the story that Hemingway wrote in its fullest realization.
When you appear in public as “Joyce Carol Oates,” who is that?