Recently I have been reading, and writing, short stories. One of the short story writers I have revisited is Joyce Carol Oates who, like a friend I haven’t seen for a long time, makes me wish we got together more often.
In addition to her latest short story collection, Dear Husband, and earlier collections, including Faithless, I have been reading her collected essays, reviews, and interviews. It is this encounter, more than her superb short stories (which I have always admired) that has brought me to a new appreciation of Oates.
Here is a writer who is generosity itself in her analysis of literature. In a lifetime of thoughtful reading, she has touched upon every era and every genre: literary, dramatic, poetic, fairy tale, romance, mystery, horror, ancient, historical, modern. She writes with compassion, understanding, and a sort of exquisite insight as she tracks the mindset of her fellow authors. There is a total absence of pettiness that is reassuring to the reader accustomed to the acid remark that often characterizes modern criticism.
Oates moves effortlessly and authoritatively from one topic to another, always with the breadcrumb trail of her vast reading leading up to her conclusions. Here is a writer who has been, first and foremost, a reader. As she says in the preface to Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going:
“My love of reading, and of thinking, brooding, dreaming about what I’ve read, predates my love of writing, and was certainly the stimulus, from early childhood onward, for writing itself.”
Oates is, in addition, a reader who has evolved her own code of ethics regarding her fellow writers. As she says in the preface to Uncensored: Views & (Re)Views:
“My governing principle as a critic is to call attention solely to books and writers that merit such attention, and to avoid whenever possible reviewing books ‘negatively’ except in those instances in which the ‘negative’ is countered by an admiring consideration of earlier books by the same author. . . . As our relations with others are essentially ethical encounters, so our relations with books, and with those individuals who have written them, whom perhaps we will never meet, are ethical encounters.”
This level of generosity springs from a mind that is secure in itself, that has not only read widely and deeply but has accrued the wisdom and absorbed the humility of the best of our thinkers and writers.
It is that rare thing, a beautiful mind.