Post Your Opinion
Douglas Fetherling
by Douglas Fetherling

It's insulting to anyone but a genre writer-someone who cranks out romances or westerns, for instance-to be called prolific. Serious writers are interested in craft, not athleticism, and each moves to the rhythms of his or her own metabolism. So let us just say that Joyce Carol Oates has the metabolism of a hummingbird. The recent appearance of her novel, Broke Heart Blues (369 pages, $34.99 cloth), means that Oates has had three new books out within almost as many months. The other two are The Collector of Hearts: New Tales of the Grotesque (321 pages, $34.99 cloth) and Starr Bright Will Be with You Shortly (263 pages, $33.99 cloth). The latter is by "Joyce Carol Oates Writing as Rasamond Smith", a device she uses for separating out her less serious works of fiction-her entertainments, as Graham Greene used to say about his own. All of these Oateses are published by Penguin Books Canada.

Amid such productivity, then, it's easy to miss the paperback reissue of Greg Johnson's Invisible Writer: A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates (Penguin Books Canada, 492 pages, $22.99). This thoroughly workmanlike study, whose bibliography lists 136 books by Oates, including chapbooks, plays, and anthologies she's edited, has several strong attributes. Among them is a heavy reliance on the subject's diaries and letters. This technique gives us the immediacy of her off-stage voice. But Invisible Writer is a far from lively study. One reason is that Oates is notoriously shy and reserved for such a public figure. Another is that this is one of those day-by-day, week-by-week biographies that tend to make every event in the person's life seem no more or less important than every other. On an oscilloscope or seismograph, the narrative would be a straight line, with no sharp peaks or drops. I was especially disappointed in the way Johnson missed a great opportunity to write with passion and insight when dealing with Oates' years living in Canada in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The other writer of whom Oates always used to remind me was Colin Wilson. Consider their shared interests in the gothic and the occult, in lurid crime and the psychology of violence in general, especially as these relate to the fabric of their respective societies: British in his case, American in hers. Even more importantly, look at how they've both been stigmatized or lionized, but in any event patronized, by their blue-collar backgrounds, with their telltale class and regional accents: his in Leicester and London, hers in Lockport, NY. And, of course, there's the matter of their productivity over so many genres of writing, an act of defiance that inevitably brings the charge of dilettantism.

More recently, though, I've come to think of Oates as being more like Margaret Atwood, who's mentioned only once, and peripherally, in Johnson's book. In addition to their dedication to feminism and fondness for the gothic, they share the same literary courage, resolve, dexterity, and surefootedness. There's one other similarity: an understanding that writing and reading, though borderless by nature, spring from pockets of local energy that must be nurtured. This is why Oates' all-too-brief residence in Windsor, Ontario, where she and her husband taught at the University of Windsor after fleeing both the campus and the cityscape of Detroit, is such an important little episode in Canadian writing.

Cities, even small cities if they're lucky, experience periods of artistic energy, often with one towering figure who acts as the lightning rod. In the early and mid-1960s, for example, Alden Nowlan performed this role in Fredericton, and Greg Curnoe, the painter, in London, Ontario. Both localities became most vibrant for a time. The presence of Carol Shields has something of the same effect today in Winnipeg, where much activity is taking place at the universities as well as at important private-sector institutions, despite the sad loss recently of Tim Brandt's Heaven bookshop and gallery.

Oates had this kind of animating effect in Windsor, drawing round her a talented group of writers including John Ditsky, C.H. Gervais, Dorothy Farmiloe, Leonard Gasparini, Dick Hornsby, Eugene McNamara, Alistair MacLeod, Don Polson, and Peter Stevens. (Apologies to those I've left out.) Of these, only McNamara is treated in Johnson's book, and that's because of an intense though short-lived feud he had with Oates, who caricatured him in a famous short story.

The other day, I was talking to Marty Gervais about that era, and he credited Oates' "great effect" in energizing the scene by constantly founding things, helping others, working both within and without the institutions. When she came across to Canada, her big breakthrough novel, A Garden of Earthly Delights, had just appeared, winning the National Book Award in the US; this brilliant woman who seemed, on the outside, a combination of Simone Weil and Olive Oyl, was a hot media property.

She helped out on the Windsor Review and founded the Ontario Review, taking the latter with her when she moved on to Princeton University. She was published in Gervais' little magazine, Black Moss, which grew into today's Black Moss Press, one of the most determined of the small literary publishers. There was a great deal of support for the scene from the Windsor Star, where Gervais became book-review editor (and where he still works as a feature writer). Other important physical and moral spaces included the Art Gallery of Windsor (the original one, not the one the Ontario government recently turned into a casino) and a beer parlour called the Dominion House, both sites of important reading series. Oates brought fellow big names to Windsor and worked tirelessly to help the writers who lived there. "Despite her diffident personality," Gervais remembers, "she had a great sense of humour, was a terrific prankster, and she could be wonderfully lively-as she was when I interviewed her on stage not that long ago at Harbourfront in Toronto. She was also good at lining up arts patrons. Joyce and her husband had a big house on the river-next to RCMP headquarters!-and it became a centre. It was all quite exciting for a while."

Oates naturally took a lot of flak because she was and is an American. She was, after all, an academic nomad. She had no permanent interest in Canada or Canadian culture as such. But at least she knew the necessity of participating in and encouraging what she found here. One can't always say the same of foreign writers who happen to spend a year or two in Canada. One of the most important novels ever written in Toronto-Running Dog by Don DeLillo-was composed in the early 1970s while DeLillo was in Canada. His wife, a New York banking executive, had been posted briefly to the company's Canadian operation. They lived in Summerhill Gardens in the middle of the city, but DeLillo saw no Canadian writers and no Canadian writers knew he was there. Not even the poet, editor, and famous literary talent-spotter Dennis Lee, who was living next door, was aware of DeLillo's presence. Greg Gatenby tells the story in his book, Toronto: A Literary Guide (McArthur & Co., 622 pages, $19.95 paper).

Putting aside the matter of which author you prefer to read, Oates or DeLillo, who would you rather have living in your neighbourhood? 


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us