Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The wisdom of Joyce Carol Oates

American author and educator Joyce Carol Oates came out with a Twitter Essay over the weekend about Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee and related topics that have people in the book-selling and literature industries buzzing.

Her insights are worth saving and sharing, so I'm presenting them here. (Partly because I'm still convinced that the great stuff from Twitter will get lost in the digital sands of time.)

It began with this tweet...

And here is the rest of her essay from July 18:

Buying books, especially from a local bookstore, for whatever motive — this is good, this is exhilarating, this is uplifting, any books at all.

For bookstores are not non-profits but small independent businesses that sell meritorious products (for the most part) & deserve customers.

Literary writers & poets may sneer at bestsellers ("Fifty Shades of Gray Fur") but these bestsellers keep afloat stores that sell poetry.

Writers w/ visions not notably skewed by wish to make readers feel good nonetheless profit (sic) from hordes of readers for these books.

Yes it is sad that novels dealing honestly & powerfully w/ race in America ("Light in August," "The Bluest Eye") are eclipsed by novels that purposefully misrepresent such issues, presenting a false portrait of a "good" white Southerner where evidently there was just a bigot.

But there could never be a mega-bestseller that represented the starkest reality of US life — that is not possible. So, well-intentioned fantasies are preferable to nothing at all. "To Kill a Mockingbird" is beloved because it makes people wish to be better.

That it is revealed as something of a whitewash (sic) of the portrait of the author's father, executed under guidance of canny editor, is a separate issue, non-literary & beyond the frame. In itself, this is an amazing story fraught w/ every sort of irony including revenge of a writer once young whose first, presumably truth-telling novel was rejected by editor as unpublishable (i.e., not commercial).

Now, fifty years later, editor long dead, author in late 80s, she oversees publication of this once-rejected novel to great acclaim.

In this, Harper Lee has had an extraordinary career: "classic" first novel, mega bestseller last novel, & nothing in between.

If Harper Lee did not want old/first novel published, she could have destroyed the manuscript. She had fifty presumably clear-minded years.

It should be understood that writers, like everyone else, can change their minds. Your perspective at age 30 will not be same at age 80.

Worst sort of ageism to ASSUME that anyone beyond 80, or 90, is automatically non compos mentis. Burden of proof should be on accuser.

Have not read "Watchman" but assume that it is, or was, the author's heartfelt first novel & more honest than "Mockingbird." Why not publish?

May be that "Watchman" is an awkward first novel & below "Mockingbird" as storytelling but so are many new books of fiction/non-fiction.

Ironic that the first, rejected novel was (evidently) the "mature" novel & the second, bestseller novel the less mature/child's-eye version.

Career of Harper Lee bears some resemblance to that of Ralph Ellison, whose "Invisible Man" became bestseller/classic. Unlike Harper Lee, Ralph Ellison did engage in a literary career of sorts, though he could not ever bring himself to publish a second novel.

Early success can be a curse, or a burden to overcome: Norman Mailer is an example of a writer who persevered valiantly after first success & took on the vicissitudes of a real "career" — daring to follow a much-acclaimed first novel w/ a second novel, & then a third, & a fourth.

It is psychologically easier — (though not financially) — to have a career that progresses slowly (if not too slowly) but steadily...

William Faulkner's several early novels, all "failures," forced him to confront a more personal, deeper & tragic subject: the South. Immediate early success would have annihilated Faulkner — we would not even know his name today. Failure nurtured his genius.

Please don't laugh but: failure allows you privacy & space to grow; immediate success is a spotlight glaring in your face & privacy vanished.

Once a writer is a mega bestseller he/she is a product to be marketed. You do not want your sales to plummet, so you repeat formula.

All publishing houses want books to sell: they are not non-profits or charities. But if a writer wants badly "to sell" he/she is compromised.

Norman Mailer imagined a writer's career akin to that of a professional boxer. You give all you have, if knocked down you get up. Never quit.

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