Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Introduction - Joyce Carol Oates




It is with pause that I begin writing about the introduction of the 1979 volume of BASS. Joyce Carol Oates causes me to settle back and really consider the words I want to use to begin describing my reading of this book. Because JCO ranks so high as an author for me, the level of intimidation I feel is pretty high.

I don’t think I need to go into much of an introduction on Oates as an author. Her reputation is well known, and there are plenty of resources out there for people to discover who she really is.

I do think that it would be interesting to know a little about Oates during the year that she was selected. Oates mentions her teaching at Princeton and her work on her latest novel “Bellefleur”. She also mentions several books she is reading, poems she is working on, dinners and bike rides. Here are a few mentions of her work on BASS from her Journal.

February 6, 1979 – Reading in the evenings, for The Best American Short Stories 1979...the finest story thus far is Bellow’s “A silver Dish”, a masterpiece, so powerful it left me somewhat upset for awhile afterward. (Thinking of death. Specific deaths, that is. Inevitable, terrible. That was the way he was, Bellow says, doubtless talking about his own father.)

February 10, 1979 ...Finished my selections for The Best American Short Stories 1979. Now to let the stories settle in my mind, and write the introduction in a week or two. A most challenging and pleasant and rewarding project. The Bellow story continues to stand out, and several others. Lovely, the “short story.” As divine a form as any other.

March 13, 1979...And to offset a possible attack of melancholy I began at once to work on the introduction to the Best American Short Stories 1979.(Of which I am halfway proud. And the stories-! The stories seem to me wonderful.)

I will now pull out several passages from the introduction that really hit me. I have found it interesting that in reading the introductions to the various volumes of BASS, most authors discuss the “state of the short story”. Oates addresses this as it was fashionable at the time, and is also prophetic because several of her fellow editors choose to do the same in later editions (See Stephen King BASS 2007).

Oates writes:

“And there is the matter, too, of subjectivity in selection – Shannon Ravenel’s and my own – for which we cannot apologize but about which, a little further on I will explain.”

I like that she addresses the subjectivity of selection.

“Some are quite clearly and forthrightly modest, excellent “minor” fiction- two or three (there could not be more, probably, in a given year) strike me as small masterpieces.”

Agreed. Only 2 or 3 are stories that will burn themselves into your mind.

“An anthology of the best fiction published in North America in any given year must be a kaleidoscopic affair...”

This is in line with my philosophy of how to view the world. As through a kaleidoscope! Makes things much more interesting.

“...an anthology that sets out to reprint representative work must be as various, as democratic, even as motley as possible – within the limits set, of course, by the standard of excellence claimed by the title.”

So the “Best American” title sets a pretty high standards bar. I can agree with that. I like that she sees the need to include “motley” stories in the collection.

“So much has been said in recent years about the function of art, particularly of fiction- that it should stand apart from society as a moral force, or that it should stand apart from society as an end in itself, with no moral function whatsoever – that I would like in this preface to make a statement, necessarily abbreviated, about the writer’s freedom; and I would like to present the stories I have selected as illustrations of the essential health and sound judgment that characterize the writer’s freedom.”

Bravo! The writer’s freedom. The writer can write what they wish, and it is up to the reader to read it or not. Absolutely wonderful. The moral lessons one learns or chooses to ignore that may or may not exist in fiction are up to the individual doing the reading. I think that the short story is a wonderful medium in a form of art that can be open to various interpretations. You don’t need the depth of a novel to struggle through. You have a dense packed knowledge cake. Let you mind eat it and see what energy is produced from its consumption.

“...-it seems to me self-evident that we are living in an era of particularly well crafted creative work, whether fiction or poetry. More good work is being done by more gifted writers than ever before.”

Yes, and I think that this is the same today.

“I now it is fashionable to lament the passing of a literate order...the malefic effect of the media and “eroding standards” in public schools...”

I think the “fashion” has worn off, and the reality is that there have been eroding standards in our society...our reality.

“Yet it has always seemed to me that such observations fail to take into consideration that the audience for serious literature at any given time has been fairly limited, and the audience for difficult literature has always been extremely limited.”

Today, (2009) the audience for difficult literature must be minuscule.

“Short fiction, in my opinion, can aspire to any condition whatsoever: as an editor of this volume, and as a chronic reader, I have no prejudices except that a story, as a construct of words, make some claim for uniqueness.”

I think that’s all we all want.

“When asked to speak in public about the short story, or about fiction in general, I often hear myself saying- if I have been unable to avoid the vaporous topic- that fiction, the story, all of art itself cannot be determined.”

“ Art is an expression of imaginative freedom, Not all artists, of course, enjoy freedom – not all artist are worthy of their art, in fact.”

“The short story, as it is one of the many manifestations of the human spirit, simply cannot be defined. Art is: it springs forth from the soul, usually in mysterious ways; and it addresses itself to an audience, sometimes in humility, very often in arrogance. Anyone who attempts to define art reveals himself first of all as lamentably conservative, and secondly as a critic or commentator rather than as an artist.”

My father would love the above statement. I have this thought that he has even said it before.

“Though I have set forth with apparent confidence and, I hope, with reasonable clarity, my standards in choosing these stories, I want to say too that I found the task challenging; it was no at all an easy one.”

“Ours is, doomsayers to the contrary, not only a highly literate age: it is also a highly literary age. More people are writing, and writing well, than ever before in our history, and there are simply not enough channels of publication open to them. When critics say smugly that the state of contemporary prose or poetry is poor, one really should challenge them to list the books and periodicals they have recently read.”

I must remember to do this – to think it – when I hear it.

“It is hoped that the reader, approaching this anthology, will honor the important differences between the writers by not reading the stories one after another as if the book were a novel. Run hurriedly together, the voices of Bellow and O’Connor and Virgo and Hurlbut and the rest will lose their distinctiveness, and consequently their art; and the reader will be cheated of the revelation each story offers. Properly executed, the act of reading is not only a creative act; it aspires to the condition of what might be called a mystic communion.”

What a wonderful instruction to give the reader. I’m so happy to see it written so early into my reading of the series. I wish that it could be printed in the introduction of each volume – to stress the importance of the differences.

Finally, the best quote from JCO that I have run across to address some of her writing. It is a quote that I will memorize for future use in defending her as well as defending some of my reading and writing. I will though ALWAYS credit her for the statement.

"When people say there is too much violence in Oates," she says, "what they are saying is there is too much reality in life."

From an Interview in 1980 published in the New York Times.


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