BookExpo 2014: The Future of Gender Balance and Why Conversations Need to Grow Up

It became clear on Friday morning at a BookExpo America panel devoted to “Packaging, Positioning and Reviewing in the Fiction Marketplace” that all the VIDA counting and the justifiable grandstanding is getting in the way of building on heartening truths: namely, that women have gained significant (and in many cases dominant) ground as authors, as editorial tastemakers, and as reviewers in the past year.

“I met two of my counterparts,” said New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul. “The books editor of the Chicago Tribune is a woman. The Los Angeles Times editor is a woman. USA Today is a woman. People is a woman. New York Magazine is a woman. There are more women book critics than there are men. So that’s kind of the good news, I think.”

Paul picked up a recent issue of the Review and shuffled through the table of contents. “Woman, woman, woman, man, woman.” She claimed that there was nothing deliberate in these review assignments. It was a practice that the previous editor, Sam Tanenhaus, also engaged in. So is there really gender bias?

“I agree,” said Jennifer Weiner. “A lot of it is affinity, not bias.” While commending the rise of women editors, Weiner insinuated a sinister gender bias that emerged from the top. “I think if you gave us the roster of who those women report to, it might sound different. I wonder if they answer, at the end of the day, to men. Does that matter or make an impact?”

Later in the panel, Paul was to correct Weiner, claiming that the Review had full editorial independence. “Not once did Jill [Abramson] or Bill [Keller] ever interfere with my editorial choices.” And while that may be true, it became clear during the conversation that Paul doesn’t really reflect on what her editorial choices mean. Still, I’ll take Weiner’s speculations — even when woefully wrong, such as the notion that men’s reading habits are limited because they are guided by cover design or that people are somehow shamed by what they read on the subway — as a more useful indicator of gender bias than Paul’s high-handed remarks. Because unlike Paul, Weiner was willing to use case examples to bookend her thorny ideological sentiments.

illtakeyouthereWeiner cited the wildly divergent covers for Joyce Carol Oates’s I’ll Take You There — the Ecco hardcover a striking drawing, the paperback being composed of flowers — as an example of how drastically publishers are willing to alter their covers for women audiences. And she mentioned her own battles with Target, who demanded that the cover for her new book All Fall Down be tinted blue, with the street in Philadelphia considered too gritty for audiences coveting the usual sunny hues.

“As publishers, you’re working with the availability of images,” said William Morrow Executive Editor Rachel Kahan. She pinpointed one big reason why some of the women’s fiction covers all look the same: the clip art is usually comprised of skinny white yoga models, not regular people. This may account for some of the whitewashing seen on YA book covers and why every book about Africa tends to look the same. When the images used to sell women’s books don’t resemble what’s contained between the covers, much less a reader’s real world, then it seems only natural to ask why we’re still talking about gender balance. The issue is far more complex.

There are still disheartening yet treatable statistics. Moderator Rebecca Mead looked into the gender bias of the New York Times‘s daily reviewers over the course of one year and discovered that it still skewed mostly male: Janet Maslin reviewed 42 male authors and 23 women. Dwight Garner reviewed 43 men and 21 women. Michiko Kakutani reviewed 69 men and 16 women. But the issue is largely a matter of waiting for the old boys to croak (namely, Robert Silvers) and for the VIDA pie charts to include more matching sets of semicircles. [UPDATE: Please see 6/2/14 Update below on the gender ratio numbers. Please see my independent audit reflecting troubling gender parity.]

Covers, said Paul, have never factored into the Review‘s assignments. I already knew this. So I took the liberty of asking a provocative question at the panel’s end, pointing out to a recent Facebook thread which dared to ask, “Large novels (600+ pages) by women whose dominant mode isn’t narrative realism? I can only think of two offhand: The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing and The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein.” I then cited five literary and/or risk-taking titles that The New York Times Book Review had not reviewed:

  1. Porochista Khakpour’s The Last Illusion: (publication date: May 13, link to screenshot of NYTBR search showing no results)
  2. Paula Bomer’s Inside Madeleine: (publication date: May 13, link to screenshot of NYTBR search showing no results)
  3. Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing: (publication date: April 15, link to screenshot of NYTBR search showing mere capsule)
  4. Mona Simpson’s Casebook: (publication date: April 15, a review had not been published until this afternoon and I obviously did not see it)
  5. Cynthia Bond’s Ruby: (publication date: April 29, link to screenshot of NYTBR search showing no results)

Paul claimed, “We’ve reviewed four of the five.” [UPDATE: See 6/14/14 UPDATE below.] But it’s clear from the evidence that she was either lying through her teeth or is now so hopelessly slipshod at her job that reviews of books that aren’t huge will never run on a timely basis. That would certainly fit the Review‘s abominably dilatory standards for two National Book Award winners: Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones (published August 30, 2011, reviewed December 30, 2011) and Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule (published November 25, 2010, reviewed by Maslin and profiled by Chip McGrath, but never reviewed in the NYTBR). I mentioned these two names. Paul brushed it off.

I asked what could be done to encourage more wild, edgy, and ambitious literature from women? Books from outsiders. Ambitious books written by women that can be included, now that women are, thank the heavens, storming the gates. For this, I was informed later on Twitter that I was insulting. An amental agent, whose superficial sensibilities are writ large in her most recent sale (“a guidebook for those of us who can’t afford diamond encrusted pacifers or superyachts but still aspire to our own version of the glamorous life”), also misquoted and condemned me as a moron:

And the Women’s Media Group suggested that I was oppressing the room with my loud voice:

The mystery of plentiful 600 page novels written by women and not rooted in realism — one that I’d actually like to know the answer to, which is why I bothered to ask it — remains unsolved. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah was offered. (Sorry, it’s 496 pages.) And so was Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, which many in the Facebook thread insisted did not count. The reason I asked the question was not to suggest that women couldn’t write ambitious novels, but to get people to consider why women aren’t allowed to. As this Wikipedia list of longest novels points out, only Ayn Rand and Madeleine de Scudéry have been permitted doorstoppers. And I’m hardly the only one ruminating on this.

But the goal is no longer to have challenging discussions, to consider opposing points of view (or even the strange exotic men who enjoy reading both Weiner and Knausgaard), or to ask uncomfortable questions. The goal of organizations like the Women’s Media Group and people like Pamela Paul is to drown out the outside voices because they’re too busy congratulating themselves over opinions and sentiments they’ve already made their minds about and have no intention of changing. But I do want to thank Rachel Kahan, who made an attempt to address my question after the stunned hush, Jennifer Weiner (who has always listened to my loud voice with respect), and Rebecca Mead, who was a good moderator. These three women understood that I was not the enemy. I’m not so sure about the other ones.

[6/2/14 UPDATE: I’ve been informed by a reader that the gender ratio numbers from the three New York Times daily book reviewers were incorrect. I have performed a full and detailed independent audit (links to all reviews and methodology are provided in article) for the period between June 1, 2013 and May 30, 2014. The breakdown is as follows: Dwight Garner — Male Authors: 45.5 (65.9%), Female Authors: 23.5 (34.1%); Michiko Kakutani — Male Authors: 37.5 (69.4%), Female Authors: 16.5 (30.6%); Janet Maslin — Male Authors: 68 (68.7%), Female Authors: 31 (31.3%).]

[6/14/14 UPDATE: Two weeks after the panel, two more reviews of the five books that I cited to Pamela Paul appeared in the June 15, 2014 edition of The New York Times Book Review: Paula Bomer’s Inside Madeleine was reviewed by Dayna Tortorici and Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing was reviewed by Malie Meloy. This brings the total up to three books, out of the “four out of five” claim Paul uttered at the panel. While I approve of these coverage decisions, this nevertheless brings up another sizable problem at the NYTBR: the tendency for reviews to run quite late after their publication dates. I will take up this issue with hard data in a future post. Pamela Paul continues to refuse to discuss these issues, as does public editor Margaret Sullivan. I stand by my “mendacious” charge until Paul produces a fourth review.]

Teddy Wayne, Miley Cyrus, and Jezebel: White Culture, Free Speech Entitlement, and the Fear of Engagement

“I don’t pay attention to the negative. Because I…I’ve seen this play out so many…how many times have we seen this play out in pop music? You know now. You know what’s happening. Madonna’s done it. Britney’s done it. Every VMA performance, anyone who perform — you know, anyone who performs. That’s what you’re looking for. You’re wanting to make history. Me and Robin [Thicke] the whole time said, ‘You know we’re out to make history right now.'” — Miley Cyrus, her first post-Video Music Awards interview on MTV News.

mlkgoogledoodle

On August 28, 2013, I fired up my browser on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech. I was appalled. I was glad to see King recognized in a Google Doodle, but why were King’s words reduced to mere text? On January 16th, Google had celebrated Frank Zamboni’s 112th birthday with a game that allowed you to maneuver through an ice rink. On Valentine’s Day, you could click on a heart to rotate two Ferris Wheels. On February 19th, Copernicus’s 540th birthday was recognized with a slowly animated solar system. On June 10th, there had been an elaborate Maurice Sendak Doodle. Even Debussy’s 151st birthday ushered in an impressive animation set to “Clair de Lune.”

If the mainstream baseline of online culture could not be bothered to offer more than a perfunctory nod to King, what was the point in celebrating?

Days before, the Internet had been aflame with Miley Cyrus’s disastrous twerking at the MTV Video Music Awards. Beyond the trashy bombast, people were bothered by the cultural appropriation, with some commentators comparing the performance to a minstrel show. One of the smartest and most heartbreaking responses came from Tressie McMillan Cottom, who described one summer in which she and her then partner had been the only black couple during happy hour. White men and women approached Cottom with racist suggestions. She wrote about how the dancers behind Miley Cyrus fit into a wretched history of black female bodies as “production units.” She pointed out how “Cyrus might be the most visible to our cultural denigration of bodies like mine as inferior, non-threatening spaces where white women can play at being ‘dirty’ without risking her sexual appeal.”

I had thought that white culture’s worst impulses could be curbed for a day with a dignified celebration of a man who, unlike Miley Cyrus, made history for the right reasons. Wasn’t King worth more than a static image or a token acknowledgment? Even with the expensive rights attached to the speech, couldn’t Google, estimated to be worth more than $200 billion, have kicked in a few clams to use the audio in its Doodle? Why had white culture silenced one of black culture’s most indelible icons fifty years after the fact? Wasn’t King worth more than a Zamboni?

* * *

Lindy West has spent the past few years establishing herself as an outspoken pundit on rape jokes and comedy with Jezebel posts such as “Hey, Men, I’m Funnier Than You” and “How to Make a Rape Joke.” She was invited to appear on the May 30, 2013 episode of Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell to discuss her views further with Jim Norton. She suffered abusive fallout.

But white culture overlooked one vital element of this regrettable chapter. West did not appear on The View or The Colbert Report, but a television show hosted by an African-American, a show that also happened to be a smart and entertaining corrective to The Daily Show‘s predominantly Caucasian concerns. The show often discussed issues pertaining to race. What’s striking about West’s exchange with Bell is how she adopted a pugnacious tone towards the amicable host from the beginning:

Bell: And so I’ll ask the same question to you, Lindy. Do you think comics should say anything they want without consequences?
West: Uh, well, first of all, I think that question is dumb.
Bell: Thank you. Thank you very much.
[STUDIO AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]
West: Because…
Bell: (nodding his head up and down) Good start for me. This is feminist versus comic, not this comic [pointing to self]. Over there. [pointing to Jim Norton]
West: So sorry. Um, no, because, uh, everything has repercussions. So if you’re talking about legal repercussions, uh, yeah, I do not think that comedy should be censored. And we’re not here to talk about censorship. And I’m pretty sure we agree. Uh, what I’m talking about is the kind of repercussion where you choose to say something that, like, traumatizes a person who’s already been victimized and then I choose to call you a dick. And that’s the repercussion.

Bell asked a perfectly reasonable question for his television audience, many composed of African-Americans who may not have been acquainted with Jezebel, so that everyone could understand West’s position. What was West’s response? “I think that question is dumb.” She then asserted her privilege by stating that she had the right to call anyone a dick as a free speech repercussion.

On June 4, 2013, Lindy West posted a video and a blog post, in which West read a series of terrible threats that she received in response to her Totally Biased appearance. (The only reason the video hasn’t been embedded in this essay is because Jezebel hasn’t allowed it to be embedded at any other site, cheapening West’s response into pageviews and linkbait.)

The abuse directed West’s way was absolutely unacceptable. It revealed awful misogyny that will take a long time to shake from the American fabric. But this shouldn’t disavow West of her free speech position, which involves another person offering “repercussions” in response to a disagreeable position. Clearly, the people who fired off bilious invective took West up on her offer. The difference here is that West has painted herself, with considerable justification, as the victim. Nevertheless, in her post, West informed her readers who the “correct” people were to abuse. Of Jim Norton, West wrote that he had been “kind and thoughtful throughout this whole thing, so don’t be mean to him.” When comedians, who were understandably ired by West’s politically correct position, expressed umbrage, they too were implicated:

Local comics — whom I know and work with — have told me to shut the fuck up. One hopes I’ll fall down a flight of stairs. (He later apologized—to my boyfriend, not me.)

In other words, West was unwilling to hold herself responsible for her own remarks — which includes telling one of the classiest African-American hosts on television that his question was “dumb” — while simultaneously placing herself in an entitled position in which she was shielded from criticism. She could condemn standup comics who fired off rape jokes, but refused to consider the consequences of her own remarks or biases. (This behavior is quite similar to what Richard H. Cooper observed of Twitter celebrities in 2012, pointing to hierarchies in which the top tier “[dispenses] admonishments to proles who get impudent” while simultaneously avoiding introspection.)

On June 6, 2013, Bell aired a followup segment about the discussion (and its aftermath):

Bell: Thousands of men protested Lindy’s claim that rape jokes encourage a culture of violence against women. And how did they do that? By flooding her inbox with threats of violence against women. Yay! Men! We’re the worst! Come on, men, what are we doing? I feel gross being a part of a group this terrible. Is this what it’s like to be white?…Now people are saying that Lindy is against free speech. She’s not. She wasn’t even arguing against rape jokes. She was arguing against what many of you asshats are doing right now to her. Attempting to silence a woman by using threats and intimidation. Now maybe that point got lost somewhere in the debate. Personally I blame the moderator….All I’m really saying is that this Internet harassment has got to stop. And that’s why I’ve developed the new technology that will put an end to hate speech on the Internet. You guys have heard of CAPTCHA? You know, when you fill in stuff on the Internet? Yeah. Well, I’ve developed SHUTCHA. As in Shutcha Damn Mouth! Exactly. Yes. Basically, before you can send me any tweets, you have to fill out this SHUTCHA to prove that you have basic awareness of black people and black culture. For example, is this word spelled correctly? [“NIGER” flashed on screen.] If your answer is “no,” then I won’t be hearing from you and you’ll have to harass a local black in your area.

Bell’s SHUTCHA joke brilliantly pinpointed the problem with white culture: namely, its willful ignorance of black people and black culture. (This is also seen with such needless concomitant terms as “Black Twitter,” a catchall designate used by clueless white people to casually position African-American voices as some Other to be deprioritized and/or ignored). But because Bell had been put on the spot and was forced to stand up for Lindy West, he was unable to remark on the more severe problem of white culture’s appropriation of other cultures — what Kiese Laymon has referred to as “the worst of white folks”:

The worst of white folks, I understood, wasn’t some gang of rabid white people in crisp pillowcases and shaved heads. The worst of white folks was a pathetic, powerful “it.” It conveniently forgot that it came to this country on a boat, then reacted violently when anything or anyone suggested it share. The worst of white folks wanted our mamas and grandmas to work themselves sick for a tiny sliver of an American pie it needed to believe it had made from scratch. It was all at once crazy-making and quick to violently discipline us for acting crazy. It had an insatiable appetite for virtuoso black performance and routine black suffering. The worst of white folks really believed that the height of black and brown aspiration should be emulation of its mediocre self. The worst of white folks inherited disproportionate access to quality health care, food, wealth, fair trials, fair sentencing, college admittance, college graduations, promotions and second chances, yet still terrorized and shamed other Americans who lacked adequate access to healthy choices at all. White Americans were wholly responsible for the worst of white folks, though they would do all they could to make sure it never wholly defined them.

In other words, white culture believes that black people should emulate the very mediocrity that now forms its nostalgia-soaked identity. W. Kamau Bell is not permitted to push back at Lindy West without “repercussions,” but he is allowed to emulate her unexceptional intellectual position (“She wasn’t even arguing against rape jokes. She was arguing against what many of you asshats are doing right now to her. Attempting to silence a woman by using threats and intimidation.”) instead of expanding his shrewder and more sophisticated observations on male abuse and the racial dynamics of expression. Robin Thicke is free to rip off Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” and turn it into one of this summer’s greatest hits (“Blurred Lines”) and, because he too represents the worst of white culture, he audaciously files a preemptive lawsuit against Gaye’s family to prevent them from seeking damages against Thicke’s pellucid appropriation, claiming, “Plaintiffs, who have the utmost respect for and admiration of Marvin Gaye, Funkadelic and their musical legacies, reluctantly file this action in the face of multiple adverse claims from alleged successors in interest to those artists.”

In August, white feminist culture was challenged by Mikki Kendall with the Twitter hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, largely in response to the now disgraced Hugo Schwyzer:

It appeared that these feminists were, once again, dismissing women of color (WOC) in favor of a brand of solidarity that centers on the safety and comfort of white women. For it to be at the expense of people who were doing the same work was exceptionally aggravating.

The sole Jezebel blog post on the hashtag is a collection of the best tweets rather than bona-fide intellectual jostling with this very serious grievance. There is also this condescending note at the bottom of the post:

Update: The originator of the hashtag page, Mikki Kendall, has been incredibly influential to this conversation and should have been at the top of this list. See her speak more on the hashtag here. To have not included her in the original post was an oversight. Apologies to Ms. Kendall.

This apology isn’t enough. Because without real commitment to thinking and true acknowledgment of one’s blind spots, there can be neither influence nor meaningful conversation. There can be only white culture, inured from disagreement, that monopolizes the dais and remarks upon black culture with a flip elitist tone that would be offensively facile if it weren’t so damn risible:

White culture doesn’t just want to plunder the best of black folks for callow entertainment. It wants to ensure that black culture is never explicitly identified as black. It wishes to soften any sharp edges. It wishes to promulgate endless articles that, as the podcast The Black Guy Who Tips recently put it, fuck with black people. The disgraceful imbalance of free expression identified by Stokely Carmichael in 1966 is still essentially the same: “the only acts that white people can do is to stop denying black people their freedom; that is, they must stop denying freedom. They never give it to anyone.”

This is far more insidious than white culture’s mere copycat relationship with black culture, observed by Norman Mailer in the Fall 1957 issue of Dissent. White culture has moved beyond the willful scavenging and sanding of black culture’s best bits because it feels that it must hog the spotlight. White culture is terrified of engagement. In a complicated world of turmoil, white culture continues to cleave to a new political privilege, in which there can be no room for hyperbole, extremist rhetoric, and what Jon Stewart has wrongly identified as “insanity.” There is no space within white culture to cultivate independent, original, provocative, and non-ideological inquiry. But there is relentless racial assumption, limitless listicles, time-eating timidity through hate-favoriting and subtweets on Twitter, and dull depositories for white culture fantasies such as NPR, The Awl, Slate, McSweeney’s, and Jezebel.

White culture is never about taking a step back and allowing another culture to express itself. It is driven by an intuitive imperialism, one that it can scarcely recognize, that involves blaring its own cultural standards through a megaphone manufactured in another century. Indeed, white culture’s most prolific literary spokesperson, Joyce Carol Oates, is not immune from such xenophobic disgrace. Earlier this year, when she remarked upon the complicated political situation in Egypt:

Ironically, many of these sentiments led Jezebel‘s Katie J.M. Baker to urge Oates to stop tweeting. Was a 75-year-old writer revealing the worst of white folks? How long would this be tolerated from the Establishment?

Not long, as it turned out. On Sunday, The New York Times published a satirical essay by Teddy Wayne upholding the the same white culture stereotypes that Miley Cyrus had sought to “make history” with:

Explain that twerking is a dance move typically associated with lower-income African-American women that involves the rapid gyration of the hips in a fashion that prominently exhibits the elasticity of the gluteal musculature.

Some of white culture swallowed this up without batting an eye:

But a new and hilarious hashtag, #askteddywayne, started making the rounds on Twitter, fighting back against Wayne’s McSweeney’s-style essay with humorous qualities that had eluded the ostensibly professional writer:

Teddy Wayne sent apologies to some of his detractors in private. But as of Wednesday afternoon, he has not offered a public apology. He has switched his Twitter account from public to private.

White culture has been slow to recognize and atone for Teddy Wayne’s essay. The only outlets that have covered this scrape at length are The Root, The Inquisitor, Galleycat, and The Nation. Even more astonishing, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan expressed her enthusiasm that Wayne’s piece was #2 on the New York Times‘s most emailed list, without appearing to comprehend why (other than that it was “funny”):

Perhaps Miley Cyrus, Robin Thicke, Teddy Wayne, some of the people who write for Jezebel, the editor at The New York Times who allowed Wayne’s piece to run, and the people behind the Google Doodles really don’t comprehend how their responses and appropriation of black culture represent Laymon’s “worst of white folks.” They have seen the battles play out. They are familiar with some unspecified pattern, much as those who listen to a radio program in the background without really listening to it are dimly aware that there is something important being communicated. But they cannot engage with black culture. Like Cyrus, they won’t “pay attention to the negative.” Because to do so would be to confess to their own mediocrity. To do so with grace and candor would be to share the stage. To find true humility and humanity. To learn something.

White culture has had a very long run. But the time has come for those who make it and comment on it to understand that there is more to appropriating culture than the great white lie of “respect and admiration.”

The Bat Segundo Show: Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #426. She is most recently the author of The Corn Maiden and the editor of New Jersey Noir.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Contending with needless tempers and false heaters.

Author: Joyce Carol Oates

PROGRAM NOTE: For many years, I had hoped to schedule Joyce Carol Oates on this program. And the opportunity at long last came in November. Wishing to make the most of this, I read eight Joyce Carol Oates books in advance of the conversation. The interview was to take place in Otto Penzler’s basement office at the Mysterious Bookshop.

There was just one problem. Otto Penzler didn’t like me. You see, five years ago, I had written some satirical blog post about Penzler. Something I barely remember. For all I know, I was drunk or stoned at the time. I probably banged it out in about twenty minutes. What I did not know was that Penzler had neither the humor nor the ability to let any perceived sleights roll off his back.

Why is any of this important? Because during this program, I had the misfortune of having one of the audio channels – the channel that was recording Ms. Oates’s voice – blow out on me. Normally, this wouldn’t have been a problem. Because I could have salvaged the sound from the other channel. Unfortunately, because Penzler is not the type who likes to give up a petty grudge, he decided to turn on what he insisted was a “heater” during the course of our conversation. Not only did this “heater,” which spewed out cold air, cause Ms. Oates to shiver, but it also disrupted the conversation. And this “heater” is also the reason why Ms. Oates, despite my best efforts with EQ and noise removing tools, sounds like a robot for about eight minutes of this conversation. It is also the reason why this episode contains the most passive-aggressive moment in the history of The Bat Segundo Show. Thank you for listening.

Subjects Discussed: Prolific writing, nightmares in fiction, psychological realism, Edgar Allan Poe, carving swastikas into foreheads, pesky heaters, feral characters, the history of violence contained within tragic narrative, stories generated by characters who meet, My Sister, My Love, experiments in style, being the child of a well-known infamous figure, JonBenet Ramsey, articulate sociopaths, writing in the satirical mode, Expensive People, humor in Joyce Carol Oates’s work, characters who have a penchant for malapropisms, A Fair Maiden, characters who give into naive situations, pathetic fantasies, editorial relationships with Daniel Halpern and Otto Penzler, not sending novels out for publication until they’re ready, advances and author contracts, needy authors and first drafts, Russell Banks, Richard Ford, when business concerns impede into artistic discovery, keeping a novel in a drawer for a year to avoid emotional connections, on whether JCO requires an immediate response to the world, contending with short story requests for anthologies, Otto Penzler’s rejection of a JCO short story title, words that JCO is fond of (including “glisten”), word choice, Nicholson Baker, James Joyce, “formula” contained within Ulysses, similarities between feeling and image, the allure of vacuum cleaning, memoir vs. fiction, A Widow’s Story, feral cats that wander around dumpsters, the tough clime of New Jersey, Martin Scorsese, organized crime, fictitious communities that are inspired by the classics, appropriating places and giving the place a very different way, places like Princeton, Russell Banks and Miami, Jaimy Gordon’s Shamp of the City-Solo, Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City, revisiting a 1982 keynote address collected in Woman Writer, being a woman writer in 2011, William James and multiple selves, chick lit, Kate Christensen, contemplating The Sportswriter as a “boy novel,” Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds, Ursula K. Le Guin, Dostoevsky as crime writer, epistolary fiction, Twitter, the pleasures of reading letters, finding pleasure during the difficult early stages of writing a novel, TC Boyle, and comparisons between writing and heroin.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: In considering the ideas of nightmares as fiction — because, of course, this is The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares, that’s the title of this book — I think of John Hawkes. I think of Poe. I think of Kafka. I think of Shirley Jackson. The nightmares in The Corn Maiden, I think, differ. Because these tales are careful in the way that they relate psychological realism to the dream state. In the title novella, you juxtapose this troubled mother who is losing her daughter with this sacrificial ritual. There’s the psychological grief in “Helping Hands,” which triggers a nightmare, it could be argued. In “Fossil-Figures,” you describe Eddy Waldman’s work as “covered in dream/nightmare shapes.” So I’m curious how psychological realism gives shape to these nightmares that are in your fiction.

[Otto Penzler turns on an alleged “heater” in his office, which, unbeknownst to Correspondent and Oates, begins to pump cold air throughout the room in the next few minutes. Said “heater” also creates noticeable interference on the audio, which producer does his best to rid from this program with parametric EQ. Said hiss of “heater” also interferes with collective concentration.]

Correspondent: Do you find that, without such realism, these nightmares can sometimes be too burly to contend with?

Oates: Well, it’s a very good question. I think it’s a matter of what sort of genre one is working in. If you’re working in a horror or fantasy genre, you would have no hesitation about writing about the supernatural. But I tend often to write in a realistic mode. And, of course, in reality, people have dreams. So the psychic experience or the neurological experience of a dream is real, even though it’s invisible. So in writing about dreams and nightmares, I’m not writing about a supernatural world at all. Particularly The Corn Maiden is completely realistic. There’s nothing in it that’s far-fetched or particularly preposterous. Some of the other stories shade into the surreal. Sort of the Edgar Allan Poe zone. And I think Shirley Jackson often moved into that zone where the more supernatural figures.

Correspondent: Violence. I have to bring that up. It’s an ineluctable quality in your work as well. In “Beersheba,” you have a character who is denied his diabetic shot and who experiences this very specific yet savage wound. At the end of A Fair Maiden, another book, you have a character bleeding from a deep cut at his right eye and cuts at his nose and mouth. You have, of course, the trepanning in “A Hole in the Head.” You have Herschel carving the swastika in Jeb Meunzer’s forehead in The Gravedigger’s Daughter. I could go on. But what I’m interested in is how precise your violence is. And this leads me to wonder. Well, what do you do to get that level of precision? Does this come entirely from the imagination? Do you read a lot of police reports? A lot of true crime stuff? What of this?

Oates: I don’t read any police reports or true crime material really. I don’t write about violence. I write about people. And some of the people find themselves in dramatic or tragic situations in which violence is a consequence of some choices that they made or decisions that they made. But I don’t set out to write about violence. It’s more about human beings and their complexity. And they might make a bad decision. When Shakespeare writes his great tragedies of Macbeth and Othello, they are extraordinary people who’ve made a mistake. And they take a wrong turn. King Lear is another great example. And Hamlet. They’re all examples. But Shakespeare is beginning with the character. That’s what interests him. And I begin with characters and with language. A certain tone. Certain cadences. A certain music. That to me is very interesting. And it’s interesting. I’m surprised that you mentioned the swastika cut in the forehead in The Gravedigger’s Daughter. Because that sort of came to me as I was writing that scene. That this particular character has been so mistreated, his family of Jews have been treated so badly, and now it’s his turn to get revenge. And he does something almost spontaneously. Even unconsciously. He carves the swastika in the forehead of his enemy. But I didn’t set out to write that. It’s more like it was a consequence of that character.

Correspondent: Well, that swastika certainly makes itself known in the text. But describe this. How does such violence keep coming up in your work? Is it a matter of a character proving so feral that things up that way? I mean, how does this exploration of the human condition lead to such stark and striking imagery?

Oates: Well, tragic fiction — so tragedy deals with acts of violence that sometimes are ritualistic. In works of tragedy by Aeschylus or Euripides, the acts of violence are offstage or they came before. Before the action of the play. But it’s caught in certain ritualistic, almost ceremonial language. And that’s what I’m more interested in. How people enact their destinies. I’m interested in maybe two people meeting. Or three people. Or a family. Moving through time and encountering events that then translate into their personal destinies.

[Oates is now visibly shivering, with Otto Penzler seemingly oblivious to his malfunctioning “heater.”]

Oates: It’s just a little cold in here.

Correspondent: Oh. (to Otto Penzler) Uh, Joy…

Oates: Otto?

[Otto Penzler pretends not to be paying attention.]

Oates: Hello? Otto?

Otto Penzler: Yeah.

Oates: Hi. It’s just a little cold in here. The vent.

Otto Penzler: (faux incredulous) It’s cold? That’s the heater.

Oates: It’s the heater?

Correspondent: (baffled by this bizarre Dickensian exchange) It seems like cold air.

Oates: It’s actually like an air conditioner.

Otto Penzler: It’s not. It’s a heater.

Oates: Oh.

Otto Penzler: But I’ll turn it off.

Oates: Because it seems like the ai…

Otto Penzler: It’s probably just because you’re right in front of the vent, which is…

Oates: Okay. It seems like the air conditioner.

Correspondent: Yeah. It’s cool air. Or it’s one of those heaters that take the length of this conversation to get started.

Oates: Yeah. But also, it’s a little distracting with the noise.

The Bat Segundo Show #426: Joyce Carol Oates (Download MP3)

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(Image: Shawn Calhoun)