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December 15, 2017

Oates, Reap & Sow

On this day in 1938 Joyce Carol Oates was born. One of contemporary literature's most productive writers, Oates has more sections in her bibliography than most others have individual entries. At the rate she publishes these numbers may be unreliable, but they give the idea: almost 50 novels and novellas, over two-dozen story collections, 8 poetry collections, 5 play collections, 3 opera librettos, 1 children's book, 9 essay and non-fiction collections, 16 anthologies edited or co-edited. Plus the creative writing job at Princeton, and the talks, newspaper articles, etc. Oh, and the 6 screenplays, sold but not yet produced (not to be confused with the 8 movies which have been made from her books but not adapted by her).

There is something more than "prolific" going on here -- some say Oates has the "midnight disease," hypergraphia -- but the writing bug bit early and hard. She began making picture stories at age three, with pretend writing underneath each frame. She remembers these to be "complicated narratives," and that many were done on the backs of her father's sheets of sandpaper. She remembers getting the gift of Alice in Wonderland from her grandmother:
    If you could transpose yourself into a girl of 8, in 1946, in a farming community in upstate New York north of Buffalo, imagine the excitement of opening so beautiful a book to read a story in which a girl of about your age is the heroine; imagine the excitement of being taken along with Alice, who talks to herself continually, just like you. . . .
She had written "thousands of pages of prose" by the time the same grandmother bought her a typewriter, Oates now fourteen. She immediately began "consciously training myself by writing novel after novel" -- some dozen of them, she estimates, all thrown away as soon as completed. There were some boys and some groups at Syracuse University, but mostly there was getting top grades, and the typewriter. Classmates estimate a novel a semester; sorority sisters gave her the room most able to muffle the all-night clickity-clack.

Joyce Carol Oates may have been the Emily Brontë of Lockport, New York -- shy, isolated, chaste, lost in her own fictive kingdom -- but there is more than Gothic imagination to all the violence and sexuality in her books. She recalls school as her introduction to an inbred "underworld" of "incredible cruelty, profanity, obscenity," the farm boys "giggling, gloating, rolling their eyes." She was molested behind the school outhouse, the experience even in 1993 still "so vivid in my memory, surrounded by such powerful inchoate emotions." In Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang, Maddy Wirtz is a teenage girl growing up in a blue-collar upstate New York town in the 1950s. She "was the one perceived as having the power of words"; her chronicle of the gang's activities was to make it real, and be accomplished on the used typewriter she had saved hard to purchase at her uncle's store. The price is not only raised but changed at the last moment, in a back room; Maddy manages to escape, and report back to the sisterhood her disgust at what almost happened. Foxfire payback will initiate Maddy into violence, and begin an escalating series of revenges on a male and stupid world.

Things will spiral out of control, but Maddy, at least, moves on -- to become an astronomer, and acquire "the proper telescopic instrument for examining look-back time." She remains tattooed with the gang's name, and passion: "FOXFIRE BURNS AND BURNS! FOXFIRE IS NOW!"

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