Books

What Joyce Carol Oates Knows About Fame

According to the literary icon, 84, a subject as big as Marilyn Monroe can’t be diminished by fiction.

by Erin Somers
Joyce Carol Oates talks about her tweets

I regret having to ask Joyce Carol Oates — five-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, winner of the 1970 National Book Award, whose books number more than 70, whose own longtime editor could not tell me how many novels he’d worked on with her and had to run some quick numbers in his head, who published four books last year alone at age 83 — about her Twitter presence. But I do, because, fairly or not, that is what a lot of people know her for these days.

I interview Oates on a Tuesday afternoon via Zoom. Oates is not at home in Princeton, New Jersey, but traveling in New Mexico. It is 11 a.m. where she is. She sits on a patio in front of sliding glass doors and wears a baseball cap. A guy named Barry helps her log on and she jokes about him being her tech guy and I say “I have one of those, too,” without really knowing what I mean.

We have talked for half an hour already by the time I bring up the tweets. Oates has been gracious, forthcoming, and thoughtful on all topics. We have discussed the film adaptation of her novelization of Marilyn Monroe’s life, Blonde, directed by Andrew Dominik and starring Ana de Armas (on Netflix Sept. 28). We have discussed how the novel resonates 22 years after publication, whether it feels different post-MeToo. We have discussed her latest book, Babysitter, which was published by Knopf last month. Finally, when I can put it off no longer, I ask her about Twitter.

How does she approach it? “It doesn't really seem like something that's engraved in stone,” Oates says. “It's more like I'm just talking, like you talk to your friend on the telephone.” She adds, “I’m always surprised when anybody cares.”

People care enormously. Oates has 223,000 followers. When her tweets go viral, they are the object of every heightened internet emotion, feigned or sincere, from hilarity to outrage. They are quote-tweeted, screenshotted, dropped into group chats. Some of these tweets include a lurid photo of her severely blistered foot (click at your own peril), the time she described works of autofiction as “wan little husks,” the assertion that the nonbinary pronoun they will “not become a part of general usage,” and a critique of a house decorated with miniature skeletons for Halloween that alluded to “everyone you love decomposing.”

Frequently, she offends the same publishing community that celebrates her. In July, she tweeted a link to a controversial New York Times op-ed about publishing by Pamela Paul, writing, “a friend who is a literary agent told me that he cannot even get editors to read first novels by young white male writers, no matter how good; they are just not interested. this is heartbreaking for writers who may, in fact, be brilliant, & critical of their own ‘privilege.”’

“I’m always surprised when anybody cares.”

In our conversation, Oates provides a more nuanced explanation of what she meant. “Of course, I don't think that white people have been disadvantaged,” she says. “White male writers have been the mainstream for millennia, but I would just assume that everybody knew that.” She tells me she was referring to unpublished students who will never be given an opportunity. “They're discouraged, and other people will say, well, yes, but Black writers have even more discouragement. I agree with that. The identity issue is very complex, because we do want to have diversity.” Online, some of this context wasn’t apparent. Writers and publishing workers who have fought hard for small gains in equity at an excruciatingly slow pace — a New York Times study of books released by major publishers in the U.S. between 1950 and 2018 found that 95% of authors were white — replied, in hundreds of different ways, Pity the white man.

I have a few guesses as to why Oates’ posts provoke such emotional responses. One, they are genuinely funny and/or incendiary. Two, the platform rewards overreaction. Three, it is likely that many people reacting to her public persona, especially younger people, have not read her. They have little context for her other than the way she presents on Twitter, which is as an elder statesperson of literature, who behaves like a shitposter.

Joyce Carol Oates has written dozens of books, but her editor Daniel Halpern suggested to me that talking about her productivity is boring. Yes, she is prolific. Halpern, who has worked with her since the early ‘70s, first at Ecco Press and now at Knopf, contextualizes her output by saying that roughly three pages a day every day would produce two or three novels a year. “And she certainly can write more,” he adds. “With her experience.” It’s funny how this makes it sound doable.

More interesting is that Oates is equally comfortable in all forms. The internet says her novels number 58; there are also novellas, plays, short stories, poetry, nonfiction. This, says Halpern, puts her “in a rarefied group of writers.” Oates’ friend, the Pulitzer-winning author Richard Ford, refers to this versatility as her “literary polymathism.” Speaking of their friendship of 45 years, he tells me that he was initially drawn to “her willingness to take literary risks — writing (brilliantly) about Marilyn Monroe, about Ted Kennedy, about college presidents who resembled college presidents she knew.” He continues, “I liked the way she completely inhabited her self as writer — without stint.”

Even in spite of this confidence, Oates tells me that writing a new book never gets easier. Each book, she says, has a different set of problems. “There's something idiosyncratic about any work. I have friends with one book published, but the second book is much harder. It's like they're stumbling. Like they thought they could walk or run or dance, but then the next time they try it, they stumble on a step.”

Oates’ latest novel, Babysitter, follows a wife and mother named Hannah Jarrett, living in the affluent suburbs of Detroit in the 1970s. Hannah has an affair with a stranger she meets at a gala and finds herself in the orbit of a serial killer. The book contains elements of horror, including sections narrated by the murderer’s victims, all of them children who he rapes and tortures first. There is a slippery quality to the events in the novel. Is it all actually happening, one wonders, or was Hannah killed early on and the rest is imagined from beyond the grave? “I like to write about alternative lives and universes,” Oates tells me, “I can think of a more probable alternative universe than the one we’re in.”

Compartmentalizing, Oates says, is “part of our human mechanism for survival.”

Oates’ work is often this dark. She grew up on a farm in Lockport, New York, and has described her immediate family as “happy” and “close-knit.” But her extended family had a history of violence, including the death of one grandfather in a bar brawl and a great grandfather by suicide after attempting to murder his wife and child. Her writing is characterized by tragedies like these, in addition to sexual violence and every manner of abuse.

The acclaimed writer Edmund White, who has known her for almost 30 years, tells me, “Sometimes a book like Middle Age or Expensive People can be droll, but typically, books like Blonde or We Were the Mulvaneys are big, passionate sagas that explore the deepest, even tragic human feelings, ones that wouldn’t be visible through a long-distance satirical lens.”

But the darkness in Babysitter is so unrelenting that it made me curious about Oates’ ability to embody a strangled child and then get up from her desk and, for instance, go buy fruit at the grocery store. From her patio in New Mexico, she says that although writing early drafts sometimes makes her emotional, there is a distancing that occurs in “organizing the paragraphs and the pages and the chapters that ultimately become a book.” Compartmentalizing, she tells me, is “part of our human mechanism for survival.”

The film adaptation of Blonde evokes the novel well: it is almost three hours long, stuffed, stylistically virtuosic, self-serious. Published in 2000, Blonde is Oates’ longest novel, and it tells the story of Norma Jeane Baker’s transformation from brown-haired, round-faced child into the bombshell Marilyn Monroe. The book distills Marilyn's life, adds some characters, combines others. Elements of biography mix with pure fiction. I first picked the book up in high school because it was kicking around my house and my mother, who didn’t usually censor my reading, told me it was too old for me. This alerted me that it contained more than the usual amount of sex, but it also contained other things that interested me: artifice, violence, fame, complicated femininity, language that felt alive.

The register of both the book and the movie hovers between horror and melodrama. The film is sometimes in black and white, sometimes in color. Flashbulbs are used so often that I was warned ahead of time. At one point, Marilyn speaks to her gestating fetus and the fetus speaks back in a squeaky baby voice. Later, the viewer witnesses a speculum being inserted into Marilyn’s vagina from inside Marilyn.

Oates tells me she watched the movie about a year ago on a computer screen, but hasn’t yet seen the final cut. She found the experience of watching the film emotionally draining. “It’s not a feel-good movie,” she says, but “a movie that girls and women will really identify with, because we all identify with Norma Jeane Baker.”

The material has a new relevance post-MeToo. Oates says, “the phenomenon of the MeToo movement casts a sort of shadow backward or forward on work that otherwise would be interpreted differently. I can see that Norma Jeane Baker was such a victim.”

In her introduction to a 2020 reissue of the book, feminist literary critic Elaine Showalter calls it Oates’ most ambitious novel, “a book about the fate of a female star in the Hollywood world of mirrors, smog, and shadows, a world where women's bodies are commodities traded for titillation and profit.”

“It’s not a feel-good movie,” she says, but “a movie that girls and women will really identify with, because we all identify with Norma Jeane Baker.”

At the time it was first published, it got a mixed reception. Some critics took offense at Oates’ distillation of Marilyn’s life, her composites and additions and streamlining. Some had aesthetic objections, to its maximalism, to its ugliness. Laura Miller, writing for the New York Times, called it “fat, messy and fierce,” but conceded “the achievement is remarkable.” The Guardian panned it pretty brutally. Salon called it “hyperreal and overwrought.”

Showalter’s intro to the 2020 edition recounts that Oates once half-jokingly said in an interview that in the process of writing about her, Monroe had become her Moby Dick. When I talk to Showalter, we both admire this comparison, the blonde and the white whale, their symbolic potential, the way they open up their respective novels to every possible social topic and tangent.

Though Monroe wrote poetry and was a well-documented reader, Showalter tells me, “The link between Joyce Carol Oates and Marilyn Monroe to many people would seem too big to bridge.” Oates does not approach Monroe as a fan, says Showalter. She approaches Marilyn “as a woman, but as a particularly American woman, whose life connected her to all kinds of important strands in American society, all of which, in a sense, used her rather than the other way around.”

Marilyn Monroe has been dead for 60 years, but national interest in her never abates. She brings out a protectiveness in people, and, even now, that protectiveness has a disturbing edge. This summer alone there were no less than three Twitter discourse cycles about her. The first was about whether Kim Kardashian should have worn her iconic “Happy Birthday Mr. President” dress to the Met Gala. The second debated whether Ana de Armas’ accent makes her unsuitable for her starring role in the movie. The third dealt with whether it is ethical to make a movie of a fictionalized version of Marilyn Monroe’s life, when Monroe herself is not around to consent.

“There are things that belong to the collective unconscious. Writing about one's own friend or brother or mother or father — in a way, that would be cruel.”

When I ask Oates about the third (the first two being too stupid to broach), she has something interesting to say about the ethics of portraying real people in fiction. She says there is a difference between writing about someone you know personally and someone as iconic as Monroe. She said, “I think anybody can write about Abraham Lincoln. We can all write about World War I. There are things that belong to the collective unconscious. Writing about one's own friend or brother or mother or father — in a way, that would be cruel.” But, she continues, “If I write about John Kennedy, it scarcely matters to John Kennedy. There's no diminution of him. There wouldn't be any adversity there. It’s like the Grand Canyon.”

Concluding a Zoom call is always anticlimactic. The pathetic little wave I can never stop myself from doing, the thank-you-and-goodbye that feels both rushed and endless. The moment of lag, before the window closes, when both parties just blink at each other. It is in this lag that I wonder to what extent I am writing about the Grand Canyon. To what extent does Joyce Carol Oates belong to the public domain of the mind? Writers can never equal movie stars in terms of fame, and yet she is very famous, and has been for decades, and the internet has only exacerbated this. If celebrity makes it hard to see someone, internet celebrity muddles things further. Twitter creates a false sense of access and knowability. It fosters misunderstanding, maybe by design.

Something Richard Ford says about Oates sticks with me: “A reader can like a JCO novel or not — and there are plenty of them to choose among (and I like many, many of them) — but her preeminent presence in our culture is a vouchsafe that reading (and thus writing) is worth your life.” The place to look for what is best in Joyce Carol Oates is not on Twitter, but in her books. You have to log off to read them.

Photographer: Vincent Tullo