Joyce Carol Oates's 'In the Absence of Mentors/Monsters': Narrative Magazine

Narrative Magazine's Friday Feature:

Narrative Magazine: Since her novel "Them" won the National Book Award in 1969, Joyce Carol Oates has been a major force in contemporary American letters, making her mark on every genre, from novels and short stories to drama, poetry, and literary criticism. In her essay "In the Absence of Mentors/Monsters," Oates ponders the influence that her personal relationships with writers such as Donald Barthelme and John Gardner had on her writing. An unrelenting search for the origins of her inspiration leads Oates to the authors she encountered as a child--through their books.

Since her novel Them them won the National Book Award in 1969, Joyce Carol Oates has been a major force in the contemporary American letters, making her mark on every genre, from novels and short stories to drama, poetry, and literary criticism. In her essay "In the Absence of Mentors/Monsters," she Oates ponders the influence that the her personal relationships with writers like such as Donald Barthelme and John Gardner had on her writing. An Uunrelenting search for the origins of her inspiration leads Oates to the authors she had encountered as a child--through their books.

In the Absence of Mentors/Monsters: Notes on Writerly Influences

by Joyce Carol Oates

How solitary I've always felt, in my writing life. Unlike nearly all my writer friends, especially my poet friends, I never really had a "mentor"--never anyone to whom I might show my work in progress in anything approaching an ongoing, still less an intimate or "profound," relationship.

Even during my marriage of many years--which ended in February 2008 with the sudden death of my husband, Raymond Smith--my writing occupied another compartment of my life, apart from my married life. I am very uneasy when people close to me read my writing--my fiction--as if I were intruding on their sense of me, which I would not wish to violate; I think that the life of the artist can be detached from the life of the "art"--no one is comfortable when others perceive, or believe they can perceive, the wellsprings of their "art" amid the unremarkable detritus of life.

Since my husband was an editor and publisher, overwhelmed with reading, assessing, annotating, and editing manuscripts to be published in "The Ontario Review" or by Ontario Review Press, I was reluctant to take up his time with yet more writerly projects of my own. I did ask him to read my nonfiction essays and reviews for such publications as the "New York Review of Books"--which, in any case, as an avid reader of that publication, he would have read when they were printed.

Rarely did he read my fiction. Not in progress or after publication.

Maybe this was a mistake. I am willing to concede that much in my life has been mistaken--and yet: what is the alternative, superior life I might have led? Is there such a Platonic fantasy?

I haven't had significant mentors in my writing life, nor have I had "monsters"--but I have had, and have now, fascinating writer friends. It's altogether likely that these writer friends have influenced me in ways too subtle and diffuse to examine except anecdotally.

The Rival. The day of Vladimir Nabokov's death--July 2, 1977--is firmly fixed in my memory, for on the following day Donald Barthelme said casually to me, with a puckish lift of his upper lip and what in non-Barthelmian prose might be described as a twinkle of the stone-colored eye behind wire-rimmed glasses: "Happy? Nabokov died yesterday, we all move up a notch."

(And how did I respond to this? Probably with a startled or an embarrassed smile, and a murmur of mild disapprobation. Oh Don, you don't mean that--do you? )

Well, no! Don was just kidding.

Well, yes. What is kidding but deadly serious?

We were in an Italian restaurant within a few blocks of Donald's apartment at 113 W. Eleventh Street in New York City. We were having a late lunch after drinks at the apartment with Donald's wife, Marian--Don's second wife, young, blond, attractive, and, it seemed, warily in love with this complex, difficult, elliptical man, who behaved much more naturally--graciously--with my husband than with me, with whom he spoke in a manner that was jocular and subtly needling, edged with irony, sarcasm. As if Don didn't know what to make of me--at least in person. This was the first time we'd met after a friendly/funny correspondence following a literary feud of sorts conducted in public, in the pages of the "New York Times Book Review" (me) and "Newsweek" (Donald)--a disagreement of the kind writers had in the 1970s, or perhaps have had through the centuries, regarding the "moral"/"amoral" nature of literature. (The following year, John Gardner would publish his controversial polemic "On Moral Fiction," praised in some quarters and condemned in others.) For the purposes of writerly combat "Joyce Carol Oates" weighed in on the side of moral seriousness; "Donald Barthelme" on the side of amoral playfulness. In an interview in the "Times" the Dada-inspired Barthelme had stated that "fragments are the only form I trust," which in retrospect sounds reasonable enough but, at the time, at the height of whatever literary issue was raging in whatever literary publications, struck me as dubious, or in any case a vulnerable position that might be questioned, if not attacked and repudiated. Subsequently, Donald "attacked" me in print, as one might have foreseen, and somehow it happened that we began writing to each other, and not long afterward we arranged to meet on one of my infrequent trips to New York, and so Donald Barthelme and I became not friends--for we saw each other too rarely for friendship, and when we did meet, Don was so clearly more at ease with my husband than with me--but "friendly acquaintances."

Perhaps Don thought of me as a "friendly rival"--it may have been that he thought of all writers, especially his contemporaries, as "rivals"--in the combative, macho way of Stanley Elkin, John Gardner, Norman Mailer, and numerous (male) others. The notion of our being "competitors" in some sort of public contest made me feel very ill at ease, and so invariably I found myself murmuring something vaguely embarrassed and/or conciliatory, usually some variant of "Oh Don, you don't mean that--do you?" with a hope of changing the subject.

With one so strong-minded as Donald Barthelme, you could not easily change the subject. You would remain on Don's subject for as long as Don wished to examine that subject, he with the air of a bemused vivisectionist. As Don's prose fiction is whimsical-shading-into-nightmare, cartoon-surreal-visionary, so Don's personality on such quasi-social occasions was likely to be that of the playful bully, perversely defining himself as an outsider, a marginal figure, a "loser" in the marketplace, in contrast to others whose books sold more, or so he believed. No sooner had my husband and I been welcomed into the Barthelmes' brownstone apartment--no sooner had I congratulated Don on what I'd believed to be the very positive reviews and bestseller status of his new book of stories, "Amateurs"--than he corrected me with a sneering smile, informing me that "Amateurs" wasn't a bestseller, and that no book of his had ever been a bestseller; his book sales were "nothing like" mine; if I doubted this, we could make a bet--for $100--and check the facts. Quickly I backed down, I declined the bet--no doubt in my usual embarrassed and conciliatory way, hoping to change the subject.

But Don wasn't in the mood to change the subject just yet. To everyone's embarrassment--Ray's, mine, his wife's--Don picked up a phone receiver, dialed a number, and handed the receiver to me with the request to speak to his editor--he'd called Roger Straus at Farrar, Straus & Giroux--and ask if in fact Donald Barthelme had ever had a bestseller; and so, trying to fall in with the joke, which seemed to me to have gone a little further than necessary, I asked Roger Straus--whom I didn't know, had scarcely heard of at this time in my life--if Don had ever had a bestseller, and was told no, he had not.

Plaintively I asked, "He hasn't? Not ever? I thought . . ."

The individual at the other end of the line, whom I would meet years later, the legendary Roger Straus of one of the most distinguished publishing firms in New York, said coolly, "No. He has not. Put Don on the phone, please, I want to talk to him."

Of course, Donald Barthelme was hardly a "mentor" of mine--I had the distinct idea that he'd read very little of my writing, probably not a single book, only just short stories in collections in which we both appeared, such as "Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards," or magazines like "Harper's" and "The Atlantic." (It would be a long time before my fiction began to appear, not very frequently, in "The New Yorker," in which Barthelme's wildly experimental short fiction had become a fixture rivaling the well-crafted traditional short fiction of John Updike. How upset Don would be were he living now, to see how George Saunders has usurped his "New Yorker" space with his deftly orchestrated Barthelme-inspired American-gothic-surreal short fiction. . . .) In my presence, at least, as on that uncomfortably hot July day in 1977 when we had lunch in the Village, it seemed important to Donald to establish himself as both a martyr of sorts--the brilliant iconoclastic/experimental writer whose books sold less than they deserved to sell--and the most strong-willed among us. Social engagements with Donald Barthelme were conducted strictly on Barthelmian terms.

If he were still alive--he died in 1989, of cancer--Don would be seventy-six years old at the time of this writing, December 2008. Very likely the Barthelmian edginess would have subsided by now. Very likely even Nabokov wouldn't have been considered a rival but something like a colleague, a brother, or a friend.

The Friend
. Though I was on friendlier, more relaxed and affectionate terms with my fellow western-New Yorker John Gardner, who'd published an early short story of mine titled "The Death of Mrs. Sheer" in his literary magazine "MSS"--and who regarded me, somewhat embarrassingly, as a "major American writer"--like himself--it can't be said that John Gardner was a mentor of mine either. John was my sole writer friend who read my writing with enormous seriousness, which was both flattering and unsettling; it sometimes seemed that John took my books almost as seriously as he took his own. His model would seem to have been the elder, didactic, somewhat tiresome Tolstoy: Art must be moral. Another model might have been the zealous reformer Martin Luther. For this reason, John took it as his duty to chide, criticize, scold--in particular he scolded me about my "pessimism"--my "tragic view of life"; it was John's hope to enlist me in the quixotic enterprise of writing what he called "moral fiction"--see the preacherly "On Moral Fiction" (1978). My next novel should be, for instance, a novel that John's young daughter could read and be left with the feeling that "life was worthwhile"--so John argued, with grim persistence, pushing aside his near-untouched plate of food (thick sirloin steak leaking blood), and drinking glass after glass of Scotch.

How I replied to this, as to other admonitions of John Gardner's, I have no idea.

Though John professed to admire my novels "A Garden of Earthly Delights," "Expensive People," "Them," "Wonderland"--though he gave my postmodernist gothic "Bellefleur" a long, thoughtfully written, and generous review on the front page of the "New York Times Book Review," and always spoke highly of me in public in venues in which he mischievously and maliciously denounced many of our cohorts--he always seemed disappointed in me. I might have been an acolyte who'd managed to elude the gravitational pull of a powerful planetary force--an American Tolstoy-visionary in the mortal form of John Gardner.

With my longtime predilection for the playful experimentation of James Joyce, no less than for the intransigent tragic humanism of D. H. Lawrence and the absurdist surrealism of Franz Kafka, I was not likely to be influenced by my fellow western New Yorker from Batavia. I was not likely to be told what to do, still less why I must do it. Nor did I understand the passion with which John attacked his slightly older postmodernist contemporaries, of whom a number were his friends, or had been--John Barth, Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin. I never understood the bitterness of some of these rivalries, which hurt John more than they hurt others and made enemies of individuals who should have been friends and supporters at a time when John badly needed support.

But then, I don't really understand the messianic personality--the hectoring Tolstoy, the righteous Martin Luther. I never understood why so exceptional a personality as John Gardner wanted so much to influence others. During our often noisy evenings together, when John lectured in one of his lengthy, lurching, eloquently drunken monologues or argued with someone who dared to challenge him, the calm, still, sane words of Henry David Thoreau came to me: I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. Why this compulsion to enjoin others to think as you believe they should? It seemed futile to me, foolish.

Years of proselytizing, preaching, and sniping at other writers provoked a considerable backlash against John in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as he might have anticipated. I have no doubt that some of the negative publicity John drew helped to account for his moods of depression, which in turn provoked drinking, and driving while drinking--recklessly, on the motorcycle that would eventually kill him, in an accident on a graveled country road near his home in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, in 1982.

At the time of his death, John had been divorced from two wives, and about to marry another, a much younger woman writer, a former student of his at SUNY-Binghamton.

I remember first hearing of John's death. I'd been invited to give a reading at the Princeton Public Library, and my librarian-hostess told me the shocking news: "John Gardner is dead." Not for a moment did I think that this John Gardner might be the other Gardner, a writer of popular mysteries; I'd known immediately that this Gardner was my western-New York friend. And I'd known, or seemed to know, that John's death (at the age of forty-nine) would turn out to be both accidental and--perhaps, to a degree--self-willed.

What would John Gardner's life be now, if he hadn't drunk so heavily? So compulsively, like a fated character out of Dostoyevsky or Eugene O'Neill? If he hadn't succumbed to an alcoholic's wildly inflated vision of himself--in which he saw his destiny loom large in the writing of the "great American novel" that would "alter the consciousness" of his time? My most vivid memories are of John hugging me, hard. This was John's customary greeting, as it was John's customary farewell. I remember John kissing my cheek, smelling of whiskey--his silvery hair falling disheveled to his broad, slightly rounded shoulders, his gesturing hands edged with grime, like fingerless gloves. I remember the glisten of his eyes, and the sharp smell of his smoldering pipe: "Joyce, you know that we're as good as--maybe better than--Lawrence, don't you? Lawrence, Joyce--Faulkner--we are their equals, or will be. You know that, don't you? Come on!"

Early Influences
. Often it's said that the only influences that matter greatly to us come early in our lives, and I think that this must be so. Of the thousands--tens of thousands?--of books I've probably read, in part or entirely, many of which have surely exerted some very real influence on my writing life, only a few shimmer with a sort of supernatural significance, like the brightest stars in the firmament: Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking-Glass," Frances Hodgson Burnett's "The Secret Garden," and "The Gold Bug and Other Tales" by Edgar Allan Poe--the great books of my childhood.

Add to which, in early adolescence, at a time when I borrowed books from the Lockport Public Library each Saturday when my mother drove into town to shop for groceries, such thrilling titles as Henry David Thoreau's "Walden," Emily Brontë's "Wuthering Heights," Ernest Hemingway's "In Our Time," William Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury"--the great books of a more self-consciously literary era in my life.

Of course as a student I had influential teachers--a succession of wonderfully encouraging, inspiring, and insightful teachers both at Williamsville High School, in Williamsville, New York, and at Syracuse University, from which I graduated in 1960. As a child, I attended a one-room schoolhouse in rural Niagara County, New York, north of Buffalo, of which I've written elsewhere--a hardscrabble "education experience" that has provided useful memories of the kind we all retrieve and hone for nostalgic purposes but not an education of which one might reasonably boast, still less present as ideal or "influential" in any significant way. (My memory of our Amazonian teacher Mrs. Dietz, confronted with the rebelliousness and general obtrusiveness of six-foot-tall farm boys with no love of book learning or even of sitting still for more than a few minutes at a time, approaches the succinctness of Faulkner's terse encomium for the black housekeeper, Dilsey: They endured.)

If I had a single mentor who guided me into my writing life--or at any rate encouraged me--it wasn't any of my teachers, wonderful though they were, or any of my university colleagues in the years to come, but my grandmother Blanche Woodside, my father's mother. ("Oates" was the name of my grandmother's first husband.) In our not-very-prosperous farmhouse in Millersport, New York, at the northern edge of Erie County near the Erie Barge Canal, there were no books at all--not even a Bible. (How curious this was wouldn't occur to me until I was much older. Though eventually my parents converted to Catholicism after the sudden, premature death of my mother's father, when I was in junior high school, the household of my early, formative years was utterly without religion of any kind--the prevailing tone of secular skepticism was set both by my mother's father, a Hungarian immigrant who worked in a steel foundry in Tonawanda and as a village blacksmith at home in Millersport, and by my father, Fred Oates, who'd had to drop out of grade school to help support his mother after his father, Carleton Oates, abandoned them in or about 1917.) Along with articles of clothing she'd sewed or knitted for me, my grandmother gave me books for Christmas and my birthday, year after year; when I was fourteen, inspired by my predilection for filling tablet after tablet with my schoolgirl handwriting and drawings, in the way of a budding serial novelist, my grandmother stunned my parents and me by giving me a Remington portable typewriter for my birthday!--an astonishing gift, considering that my grandmother had very little money and that typewriters were virtually unheard-of in rural households like ours.

Most of the children's storybooks and young-adult novels my grandmother gave me have faded from my memory, like the festive holiday occasions themselves. The great single--singular--book of my childhood, if not of my entire life, is "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking-Glass," which my grandmother gave me when I was eight years old, and which, with full-page illustrations by John Tenniel, in a slightly oversized edition with a transparent plastic cover, exerted a powerful influence on my susceptible child's imagination, a kind of hypnotic spell that lasted for years.

Here is my springboard into the imagination! Here is my model of what a storybook can be.

I was too young for such exalted thoughts, of course. Far too young even to grasp that the name stamped on the spine of the book--Lewis Carroll--was the author's name, still less that it was the author's pen name. (Many years would pass before I became aware that the author of the "Alice" books was an Oxford mathematician named Charles Dodgson, an eccentric bachelor with a predilection for telling fantastical stories to the young daughters of his Oxford colleagues and photographing them in suggestive and seductive poses evocative of Humbert Humbert's nymphets of a later, less innocent era.) My enchantment with this gift began with the book itself as a physical and aesthetic object, quite unlike anything else in our household: both Alice books were published in a single volume under the imprint Illustrated Junior Library, Grosset & Dunlap (1946). Immediately, the striking illustrations by John Tenniel entered my imagination, ranged across the field of the book's cover--back and front--in a dreamlike assemblage of phantasmagoric figures as in a somewhat less malevolent landscape by Hieronymus Bosch. (I still have this book. It is one of the precious possessions in my library. What a surprise to discover that the book that loomed so large in my childhood imagination is only slightly larger than an ordinary book.)

The appeal of "Alice" and her bizarre adventures to an eight-year-old girl in a farming community in upstate New York is obvious. Initially, the little-girl reader is likely to be struck by the fact that the story's heroine is a girl of her own approximate age who confronts extraordinary adventures with admirable equanimity, common sense, and courage. (We know that Alice isn't much more than eight years old because Humpty Dumpty says slyly to her that she might have "left off" at seven--meaning, Alice might have died at seven.) Like most children, Alice talks to herself--but not in the silly prattling way of most children: " 'Come, there's no use in crying like that!' said Alice to herself rather sharply; 'I advise you to leave off this minute!' " (Obviously, Alice is echoing adult admonitions--she has interiorized the stoicism of her elders.) Instead of being alarmed or terrified, as a normal child would be, Alice marvels, "Curiouser and curiouser!"--as if the world so fraught with shape-changing and threats of dissolution and even, frequently, cannibalism were nothing more than a puzzle to be solved or a game to be played like croquet, cards, or chess. (Alice discovers that the Looking-Glass world is a continual game of chess in which, by pressing forward, and not backing down in her confrontations with Looking-Glass inhabitants, she will become Queen Alice--though it isn't a very comfortable state pinioned between two elderly snoring queens.) The "Alice" books are gold mines of aphoristic instruction: "Who cares for you? . . . You're nothing but a pack of cards!" Alice cries fearlessly, nullifying the authority of malevolent adults as, at the harrowing conclusion of "Looking-Glass," she confronts the taboo-fact of "cannibalism" at the heart of civilization:

[The Pudding] was so large that [Alice] couldn't help feeling a little shy with it, as she had been with the mutton; however, she conquered her shyness by a great effort, and cut a slice and handed it to the Red Queen.

"What impertinence!" said the Pudding. "I wonder how you'd like it, if I were to cut a slice out of you, you creature!"

It spoke in a thick, suety sort of voice, and Alice hadn't a word to say in reply; she could only sit and look at it and gasp.

The banquet dissolves into nightmare as the White Queen seizes Alice's hair in both hands and screams "Take care of yourself! . . . Something's going to happen!"

There was not a moment to be lost. Already several of the guests were lying down in the dishes, and the soup ladle was walking up the table toward Alice's chair . . . "I can't stand this any longer!" [Alice] cried, as she jumped up and seized the tablecloth with both hands; one good pull, and plates, dishes, guests, and candles came crashing down together in a heap on the floor.

Both "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking-Glass" are brilliantly imagined fantasies that shade by degrees into nightmare--only to be routed by Alice's impetuousness and quick thinking. The child reader is meant to take solace in the possibility that, like Alice, she can exorcise adult vanity and cruelty; she may be very young, and very small, but she can assert herself if she knows how. Both Alice nightmares end with Alice simply waking up--returned to a comfortable domestic world of kittens and tea things--and no adults in sight.

In essence, I think I am, still, this child-self so like an American cousin of Lewis Carroll's Alice: my deepest, most yearning and most (naively) hopeful self. I think that I am still waiting to be "influenced"--by a loving mentor, or even a monster. By someone.


"In the Absence of Mentors/Monsters" is included in "Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives" (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, November 2009).

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