On the Writer’s Elusive Self

【转帖自:The Washington Post

Joyce Carol Oates Interviews Herself

By Joyce Carol Oates, Published: September 13

All right, let’s cut to it — our audience, curiosity whetted by the ubiquitous social media, wants avidly to know: What is the most embarrassing thing that has happened to you lately?

Do you mean as a “writer” — or just more generally?

Don’t be circumspect! Interest in you, at least minimal interest, derives from your being a “writer.”

Well — I was in the grocery store yesterday, in the dairy section, when a woman who’d been staring at me quizzically asked, “Are you some kind of writer?” Vaguely, I shook my head no, as if I might not have heard the question, and eased away without glancing back . . .

And then?

And then someone who knew me breezed by saying in a loud voice, “Hello, Joyce!” — and the woman must have overheard . . .

That is embarrassing! Denying your own writer-self, and even as the cock began to crow, someone comes along and outs you! Is this some kind of absurd modesty?

I could not explain to the woman: “I am not ‘Joyce Carol Oates’ right now, but a shopper in a grocery store. And the dairy section is freezing.”

If police had arrived and demanded your I.D., you’d have had to confess — what?

My driver’s license, passport, social security — are all in the name “Joyce Carol Smith.”

Why not “Oates”? Continue reading


9月24~25日美国国家图书节(National Book Festival)期间,《华盛顿邮报》专访了几位作家。请他们就文学创作的一些问题发表了看法。作家们对写作怎么看?以下是《华盛顿邮报》采访他们的一些摘要


That rarest of occurrences: being able to finance my writing life with the writing itself.  — Russell Banks

The sound of my father’s voice on the telephone when I told him that I had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize. That the book, “Thomas and Beulah,” dealt with my home town and was about my maternal grandparents made the announcement that much sweeter.  — Rita Dove

The dream of becoming a writer as a young boy has been realized. I am so pleased I did not let my young self down.  — Jack Gantos

The writing. Which is an obvious thing to say but not obvious because so much goes into a writing career that’s not writing. And you have control over so little of it.  — Louis Bayard

When readers ask when my next book is coming out, especially my D.C. readers because they love recognizing the places, people and events that relate to the city.  — Kia DuPree

Financial security.   — Sam McBratney

That there are people who are neither friends nor relatives who actually read and appreciate what I have written.  — Jim Lehrer

By accident, I learned how to support myself comfortably enough to warrant the risk of adopting my three children, and life has never been the same since.  — Gregory Maguire


Laughing. I once watched a 6-year-old laugh so hard at my book “Diary of a Worm” that milk shot out of his nose — and I mean projected out like a jet stream. Hilarious.  — Harry Bliss

If an adult reads one of the stories to children, and they say at the end, “Read it again!”  — Joe Hayes


The fact that somehow, after hours and hours, a story will be there. . . . That’s a big leap of faith for me. Even after publishing 10 books. When it happens, though, it’s the closest thing to grace I know.  — Sarah Dessen

Actually, I think it’s quite physical.  — Linda Pastan

For me, anyway, [writing] is what infuses the world with meaning.  — Jennifer Egan

The five hindrances to successful meditation turn out to be identical to the five hindrances to successful writing: attraction, aversion, sloth, restlessness and doubt. In that way, I suppose writing resembles a spiritual activity.  — Sara Paretsky

I was once asked when I felt closest to God, and I surprised myself by saying, “When I’m writing.” I guess it’s because when I am really writing, I feel absorbed in a life that is much bigger than I am.  — Katherine Paterson

I find that it takes a lot of years of living, and many more of reckoning, to come up with one worthwhile paragraph. And when a deadline looms, prayer doesn’t hurt, either.  — Carmen Agra Deedy

For me writing is not a spiritual activity. Fishing is.  — Allen Say


When I was a child, the book I read and re-read was “Hitty, Her First Hundred Years,” by Rachel Field. Later on, I discovered “Kristin Lavransdatter,” by Sigrid Undset. I re-read that book yearly. Eventually Philip Pullman published the three-volume “His Dark Materials.” That was truly a thrilling reading experience.  — Tomie dePaola

“The Color Purple” confirmed that it is all right to tell the truth about your life. This novel gave me the courage to say, “I am a little black girl from North Carolina. My grandmother could not read or write, but I can do it for her.”  — Shelia P. Moses

“The Autobiography of Malcom X” really changed my attitude toward reading for pleasure, something I can’t say I had ever done until I read this book in high school. After finishing it, I was hungry for another joyful reading experience. “Where the Wild Things Are,” by Maurice Sendak has had the greatest influence over my picture book work. It is a visual storytelling masterpiece.  — Kadir Nelson

In recent years, it has been Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” As I was writing my book “Black Gotham,” “Beloved” greatly influenced my thoughts about the African American historical past, how much of it has been lost to us, and how family memories can help us to retrieve it.  — Carla L. Peterson

Pablo Neruda’s “Odes to Common Things” convinced me early on to explore, as a writer and a songwriter, the utterly ordinary and tease out the beauty therein. Picked it up used at a bookstore in Louisville when I was 19.  — John McCutcheon

“The Once and Future King,” which begins with “The Sword and the Stone” and continues to the imminent death of King Arthur, perhaps was most influential. It showed me that books for adults could be serious, comic, moral, epic, gripping, all at once, without having to give up the things that made children’s books so wonderful: a sense of play, of magic, of the numinous, of consequence.  — Gregory Maguire

Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls . . .” opened the world of literature to me, although I’d always been a reader. I’d read books with interesting characters and literary figures, but it was in Ntozake’s work that I felt the human experience in literature.  — Rita Williams-Garcia

My mother was a living “book” of poems for me — and I grew up swimming in the ocean of poems she knew by heart: Shakespeare, Milton, Tennyson, Dickinson, Longfellow — along with “A Child’s Garden of Verses.” I remember one day in our backyard in St. Paul, Minn., when I was about 3 — my mother pushing me on our red swing and reciting “The Swing,” by Robert Louis Stevenson, as she flung me up into the air, then back. I felt as if I were swinging inside the poem itself, out on the first line, back on the second — the rhythm of the poem exactly in synch with my pendulum flight! “How do you like to go up in a swing?/ Up in the air so blue?/ Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing/ Ever a child can do!” Swinging within that poem, urged forward by my mother’s hands and voice, made me understand the “shape” of poetry or words — their inspiration and safe return to earth.  — Carol Muske-Dukes


“Dear Harry, enclosed you’ll find your royalty check and statement for the period ending September 2006.” The above sentence is my favorite because it represents my son Alex’s full college tuition.  – Harry Bliss

“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” From “Charlotte’s Web.”  — Mary Brigid Barrett

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.” From “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”  — Tomie dePaola

“But it is the memory of that woman, that boy and that vast field that continues to ride and ride in my mind, not only because it is a warm, safe and proud thing I carry with me like a talisman into cold, dangerous and spirit-numbing places, but because it so perfectly sums up the way she carried us, with such dignity.” From “All Over but the Shoutin’ ” by Rick Bragg.  – Terry McMillan

“I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes.” From Langston Hughes’s poem “I, Too, Sing America”  — Shelia P. Moses

“And now abide faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love.” From 1 Corinthians 13:13. It is the best because it tells me who I am and who I am meant to be.  — Katherine Paterson


Taking gladiator training in Rome at the Gruppo Storico Romano, a school on the Appian Way that trains gladiators for movies and reenactments. I got to wear the helmet, carry the shield and sword, and learn both offensive and defensive fighting techniques.  — Margaret George

Sesame Street! I was U.S. poet laureate at the time, and Big Bird kept introducing me to the TV audience as the poet Laurie Ett. It was a blast; Big Bird is really huge! For many years afterward, I’d meet people who had seen that show when they were kids.  — Rita Dove

My journey 1.5 miles down into a deep gold mine in South Africa. It was very, very hot and wet, and at the same time was the kind of subterranean environment that scientists think could support life on cold and dry planets like Mars. The imagination runs wild.  — Marc Kaufman

Last year in rural north India, I got to visit the descendants of one of the American loyalists I wrote about in “Liberty’s Exiles,” who still live on the land their ancestor settled 200 years ago. They took me to their forebear’s tomb, its red sandstone dome soaring out of a yellow mustard field: a Mughal monument built by a colonial American. It was one of my most powerful encounters with the past, because it was so alive.  — Maya Jasanoff

Landing and catapulting off an aircraft carrier a half-dozen times in high-performance jets for a book I wrote on Navy pilots.  — Douglas Waller


In Praise of the American Short Story


April 5, 2009

In Praise of the American Short Story

To call an American writer a master of the short story can be taken at best as faint praise, or at worst as an insult, akin to singling out an ambitious novelist’s journalism — or, God forbid, criticism — as her most notable accomplishment. The short story often looks like a minor or even vestigial literary form, redolent of M.F.A.-mill make-work and artistic caution. A good story may survive as classroom fodder or be appreciated as an interesting exercise, an étude rather than a sonata or a symphony.

A young writer who turns up at the office of an editor or literary agent with a volume of stories is all but guaranteed a chilly, pitying welcome. That kind of thing is just not commercial. Contrary examples like Raymond Carver, who wrote almost no piece of fiction longer than a dozen pages, tend to confirm the rule. Carver, who died too young in 1988, was praised for his reticence and verbal thrift. He was a great miniaturist whose work grew in an anxious, straitened era, whose virtues lay in going small and staying home. But the conventional wisdom in American letters has always been that size matters, that the big-game hunters and heavyweight fighters — take your pick of Hemingway-Mailer macho sports metaphors — go after the Great American Novel.

But this maximalist ideology may be completely wrong, or at least in serious need of revision. The great American writers of the 19th century, whose novels are now staples of the syllabus, all excelled in the short form. Herman Melville’s “Piazza Tales” are as lively and strange as “Moby-Dick”; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tales and sketches are pithier than “The Scarlet Letter”; Henry James’s stories, supernatural and otherwise, show a gift for concision along with the master’s expected psychological acuity. And the first great American fiction writer, Edgar Allan Poe, secured his immortality by packing more sensation into a few pages than most of his contemporaries could manage in a volume.

The near-simultaneous appearance of three new literary biographies offers a powerful and concentrated challenge to the habit of undervaluing the short story. The subjects of these lives — Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever and Donald Barthelme — all produced longer work as well, but their reputations rest on shorter work. And this work, far from being minor, is among the most powerfully original American fiction produced in the second half of the 20th century.

Much of it, indeed, makes the novel look superfluous. The literary landscape of the 1950s and early ’60s was thick with Southern writers, Roman Catholic writers, writers who dabbled in the gothic and the absurd, but none came close to the blend of grotesque comedy, moral seriousness and steel-trap intellectual rigor that courses through O’Connor’s tales of wayward Southerners. And no sprawling, anguished epic of marital unhappiness or suburban malaise can match the insight and elegance of, say, “The Swimmer,” Cheever’s perfect parable of affluent anomie.

As for Barthelme, he not only brought the energies of the indigenous avant-garde to the pages of The New Yorker, but also somehow married high-powered experimentalism with middlebrow entertainment without betraying either. If the big, anti-realist novels of John Barth and Thomas Pynchon are giant machines — more than a little imposing, perhaps a little dangerous — Barthelme’s sketches are ingenious gadgets that rest comfortably in your hand, throwing out sparks and shocks.

Reading through their collected stories, you wonder if novels are even necessary. The imperial ambitions of a certain kind of swaggering, self-important American novel — to comprehend the totality of modern life, to limn the social, existential, sexual and political strivings of its citizens — start to seem misguided and buffoonish. More of life is glimpsed, and glimpsed more clearly, through Barthelme’s fragments, Cheever’s finely ground lenses or the pinhole camera of O’Connor’s crystalline prose.

Barthelme, Cheever and O’Connor were not exact contemporaries. (Cheever was born before World War I, O’Connor in 1925 and Barthelme in 1931, a year before John Updike and two years before Philip Roth.) They came up in very different social milieus and show no marked affinities of style or influence. Their biographers — Blake Bailey for Cheever, Brad Gooch for O’Connor and Tracy Daugherty in the case of Barthelme — dabble in psychological portraiture while attending to the vagaries of three distinct literary careers.

What their three subjects shared was the good fortune of writing at midcentury, when the institutions of print supported the flourishing of the short story as never before or since. There were mass-circulation magazines and more-exclusive journals that would pay writers for stories that readers would spend money to read. In addition to The New Yorker, there was Esquire and (a bit later) Playboy and a host of publications with “Review” in the title: Saturday, Partisan, Kenyon, American, Evergreen, some of which still publish. All of them fed a boom in short fiction that may not have been sufficiently appreciated at the time.

It is easy, perhaps irresistible, to wax nostalgic for those days. But if the golden age of American magazines is long gone, the short story itself has shown remarkable durability, and may even be poised for a resurgence. Wells Tower’s “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” provides the most vivid recent example of the way a good story, or a solid collection of them, can do more than a novel to illuminate the textures of ordinary life and the possibilities of language. And the short story may provide a timely antidote to the cultural bloat of the past decade, when it often seemed that every novel needed to be 500 pages long and every movie had to last three hours — or four years, if it took the form of a cable series.

The new, post-print literary media are certainly amenable to brevity. The blog post and the tweet may be ephemeral rather than lapidary, but the culture in which they thrive is fed by a craving for more narrative and a demand for pith. And just as the iPod has killed the album, so the Kindle might, in time, spur a revival of the short story. If you can buy a single song for a dollar, why wouldn’t you spend that much on a handy, compact package of character, incident and linguistic invention? Why wouldn’t you collect dozens, or hundreds, into a personal anthology, a playlist of humor, pathos, mystery and surprise?

The death of the novel is yesterday’s news. The death of print may be tomorrow’s headline. But the great American short story is still being written, and awaits its readers.