Friday, February 03, 2006

Joyce Carol Oates must be stopped

Joyce Carol Oates is taking the San Francisco literary magazine world by storm. She's had two stories published by Zoetrope: All-Story in the last year and three published by McSweeney's in the last two and a half, two of those being in the last year.

[Ex. 1: the offenders]

Literary magazines are where a lot of lit-fiction writers (*ahem*, like me) get their start. Those of us who haven't been published (but are seriously on the prowl) at least casually browse through the lit mags to see who's getting published and where. See enough names enough times in any variety of the lit mags, and suddenly you're not so surprised when you see that name on a glossy hardcover a year or so down the road. Pick up a copy of a new writer's first book of short stories and flip to the copyright page: there you will see a litany of references to when and where their stories were first published.

According to whatever paltry research I was able to do online just now, it appears that Joyce Carol Oates had her first book, a collection of short stories, published in 1963. Since then (brace yourself) she's published 39 novels and novellas, 27 story collections, 11 nonfiction works, 8 poetry collections, 8 dramatic collections, 6 young adult and children's books, and a partridge in a pear tree. This doesn't include the 10 or so fiction works published under at least two pen names. She also has edited quite a few anthologies of all kinds, one of which I happen to own. It's been 43 years since this woman burst onto the literary scene; some simple math reveals that she publishes at least 2.3 books a year. This is just the conservative estimate.

Out of her extensive body of work she has gained a National Book Award (out of six nominations!), three finalist slots for the Pulitzer Prize, one finalist slot for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and even a notch on the publish-and-be-independently-wealthy-Valhalla of the Oprah's Book Club bedpost (wait.... maybe this isn't exactly praise?).

Meanwhile, us struggling writers are trying to break out and have just one story be published for the very first time. Across the country, humble slush piles of submissions runneth over. So why exactly, after we submit to Zoetrope or McSweeney’s, say, are we in competition with Joyce Carol Oates to get published? Actually, we’re really not in competition at all; her name is SO well-known that she leap-frogs to the head of the line and gets her story in print with a slamdunk. In 2005 Oates has had four stories published in two literary magazines, but there could have been easily a few others in magazines I haven’t checked. She also had a novel published in 2005, and in 2004, two in 2003, two in 2002, and backward. Remember people, 2.3 a year.

I was lucky enough to read Oates' first foray into sweet-talking the editors at Zoetrope about a year and a half ago, before it was in print. I read it sitting in my Nob Hill laundromat while my clothes were tumbling for all to see in the glass-doored dryer. I was totally unimpressed with what I read. I remember it had the ingredients of what makes something literary (please don’t ask me what makes something literary) but fell absolutely short. It lacked any spark. It was too long. It was kind of boring, (thereby perfect for the New Yorker?). Oates has not gotten this far with shitty writing, but her submission to Zoetrope was lazy. It read like it had flown off her typewriter without a second thought. Had this been in the slush pile by an unknown writer, it more likely would have flown straight into the recycle bin. They published it anyway.

Last weekend a friend of mine made a very funny (if barbed) observation: Oates is fast approaching becoming a genre herself. Her prolific publishing record could very well be soon unfurling into its own section in a bookstore or library. They'd have to ordain her very own Dewey Decimal. I’m not saying prolific publishing is bad by any means, and I certainly wouldn’t mind pumping out books and having a very deep and loving fan base, (Oates, after all, has succeeded in that elusive career of writing). I am saying, though, that maybe prolific publishing creates a lesser quality body of work. Oates, in my opinion, has reached a point where she shits out novels and stories and gets them published in a snap because of her name alone.

There are less writers than you can count on your fingers that have been afforded such carte blanche in the world of fiction publishing. Most writers are lucky if they can even eke two or three books out of their whole career, and I’d like to think that most writers strive to publish their best work. Oates just publishes any work, because no one questions it. Not all of her books are miracle masterworks, but I’m afraid because of that name of hers people are inclined to believe that they are in some way. If anything, the fact that she hasn’t died of some kind of carpal tunnel related illness is the true miracle.

I guess she's earned her stripes (I am by no means an avid reader of hers.... could you tell?), and with that comes the privilege to publish. She’s beloved by many people and is rightly hailed as one of the greater writers of contemporary literature. The woman is a writing machine, her work spewing fractal-like into bookstores, an exploding Mandelbrot set of fiction. But this privilege of hers...? Now she’s abusing it.

Here’s my point: with Joyce Carol Oates taking a slot in an issue of Zoetrope or McSweeney’s (five slots, actually), another very talented (but most likely lesser known) writer who almost made the cut was turned away. Is this fair? Obviously this woman can publish anything at anytime, so if she's itching to write short stories, why not go to her publisher and pump out another story collection for the world? There is no necessity for her to publish in the lit mags, no audience that she is reaching that isn’t already aware of her. It’s because of crappy shenanigans like this that good writers aren’t getting published.


shecanfilmit said...

Hmmm... I totally agree. JCO, from now known as "JaCkO" amongst friends, is a GREEDY bitch.

Anonymous said...

this is Meredith, just so you know.
I saw the McSweeney's stories and wanted to vomit. Why, why, WHY??

J.J. Gittes said...

Tom Wolfe has the carte blanche too. I Am Charlotte Simmons, while occasionally amusing, was a vanity project. You can see an author cross over when the book's cover features his/her name in bigger bolder font than the title (Sue Grafton, John Grisham, etc.).

Laurenhoffman said...

Remember when I went to that Joyce Carol Oates reading drunk as all get out on my 21st birthday? Then I sobered up enough to ask an insightful question. Then I lapsed back into drunk and decided we should rename her "Joyce Carol Needstoeatabowlofoatmeal." Seriously, lady, put down your pen and pick up a sandwich.

Paul Clayton said...

I was moved (to anger, angst, hope, self-loathing, etc.) by your piece. It is almost impossible for lesser lights to see their stories in mags such as the aforementioned. I believe my stories have reached a level where they are contenders. But all I ever get back are slips of refusal or appeals to subscribe. I think the bigger problem with these lit mags are the volunteer interns who weed out the weeds, and a lot of good stuff too, for reasons I won't get into. I'm a Bay Area writer too.

A little bit of bragging here, my last novel was one of twelve finalists at the 2001 Frankfurt ebook awards along with works by David McCullough and, you guessed it, Joyce Carol Oates. I was awed to have been chosen, but I didn't win. Actually, Oates got second prize in fiction, Amitov Ghosh got first.

But, we must have hope and carry on. If you want to enjoy a coffee in The City and talk books and writing, drop me a line at my web site,

Paul Clayton