After reading 10 popular books on creative writing in search of information on the role of research in the creative process, I’ve now shifted my focus to a set of more “academic” books that are specifically about fiction writing. I say “academic” because, of all of the books on a very long list of recommended creative writing books that I found, these are the ones that are a) about fiction writing specifically and b) owned by the libraries at 20 institutions with highly respected creative writing programs at either the undergraduate or graduate level.
Today I’m talking about two books by Joyce Carol Oates: (Woman) Writer and The Faith of a Writer.
Joyce Carol Oates is an author I feel like I’ve always been aware of but have never really engaged with. I know she’s pretty active on social media. She’s also a native of Western New York—much farther west than the Rochester area where I’m from but I remember when I went to college in Brockport, my creative writing and literature professors were prone to claiming her as a “local” writer. She also seems to have some pretty strong connections to the region of New York where I live now. At least, I’ve seen her name come up a lot at events held by the New York State Writer’s Institute, which is directly affiliated with my campus.
Yet I have no memory of ever reading any of her work until now. I mean, I must have. I imagine I encountered at least one of her essays or shorter works in high school or as an undergraduate. She is, after all, considered something of a canonical writer. I just can’t remember anything specific about what I might have read.
(Woman) Writer is definitely going to change that. The Faith of a Writer maybe less so.
I read (Woman) Writer first. It’s a book of 27 essays, some of which are about writing, some of which are about reading, and some are about…other things. It’s definitely more of a “collected works” sort of thing than a “how-to writing book” sort of thing but what it has to say about writing and reading is interesting and, I think, slightly contradictory.
In the title essay, Oates notes that there are many writers who are labeled as “women writers” but “there are not, and never have been ‘men writers.’” Meaning that men get to be just writers while the creative work of women has to be qualified in some way. This echoes sort of an ongoing controversy in the library field where the classification systems we use tend to use labels to distinguish between women writers and writers of color (and does the same for other people of note) while white men just to get be…writers. Oates calls this a “ghettoization” of female writing. “Ghettoization” as a word is a lot more charged now than it was back when this book was published in 1989, but Oates makes an important point about this: “Being so ghettoized seems insulting until the (woman) writer stops to realize that a ghetto, after all, is a place in which to live; raze it, and she may find herself homeless altogether.” So women feel like they have to accept their work being qualified in this way because if they don’t, they might find themselves erased altogether.
What makes this interesting is in how it relates to the argument, upheld by so many of the books I’ve read so far (and there have been about 20 now) that literary fiction is the only path to great writing, that it’s the only valid form of creative expression. Any other form of writing is not considered true art. But whose work is most likely to be considered literary? White men. Women and people of color are more than capable of producing literary fiction but they have to fight for their work to be seen that way and even then they’re often treated as notable exceptions. Joyce Carol Oates herself comes up a lot of as token female writer in other writers’ discussions of literary fiction, along with Virginia Woolf. They’re “exceptions” in a canon where the work of white men is clearly the default. So all of these writing books tout literary fiction while mocking genres like romance novels without acknowledging the ways in which the work of white men is valued over that by women and people of color, even when they participate in the genres that white men consider most aspirational.
All of that said, there’s something Oates does in her more reading-related essays that feels like it might contradict some of her feminist perspective, but then again maybe not. In these essays, she considers both the work of male and female writers but while the likes of Herman Melville and Lewis Carroll get to be just writers, Emily Bronte and Mary Shelley are treated as women writers, as if their work can only be viewed through the fact of their femininity. To be fair, it would be pretty hard to leave gender out of the discussion in these cases but it seems like Oates is maybe falling into some of the same patterns she criticized in the title essay. Not that she’s treating the works of these female writers as less valuable than the works of the male writers she talks about. It’s just that the fact that they’re women always seems to have to be part of the conversation even when the stories they’re writing (like Frankenstein) aren’t traditionally “feminine.”
Then there’s The Faith of a Writer. This book, also a collection of essays, is focused more closely on writing and is considerably more lightweight than (Woman) Writer, both in content and literal weight. It reminded me a lot, actually, of Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury. Like in that book, Oates’s love for what she does shines through, as does her curiosity about the writing process and her own work and talent.
Something else The Faith of the Writer has in common with Zen in the Art of Writing: more often than not, it uses the generic “he” to refer to the writer.
This is a lot less noticeable and probably a lot less consistent than in Bradbury’s book, where the writer is always “he” and the muse is always “she” but it does pop up often enough that it caught my attention as a reader. As with Zen in the Art, these essays are a product of their time (the book was published in 2003, but many of the essays were written earlier), so it makes sense that “he” was the preferred generic term rather than “they,” which is the grammatically incorrect but gender neutral term that gets used a lot more nowadays. But the choice to do this still stands out because of Oates’s otherwise feminist perspective.
If you’re wondering about the research aspect of things, there isn’t really one in either book. In one essay late in in (Woman) Writer, Oates makes a passing reference to a map of her hometown that she used as a model while writing a semi-autobiographical novel but that’s pretty much it. Toward the end of The Faith of the Writer, there’s an interview with Oates about her book Blonde, a fictionalized retelling of Marilyn Monroe’s life. The interviewer asks her about the extensive research she did for the book. Oates responds by acknowledging that she did, in fact, do research, but the rest of her answer, which is pretty long, is about something else. So not really anything there either.
Of the two books, I think (Woman) Writer has a lot more to offer both a writer and someone who wants to read like a writer, but unfortunately it’s hard to find—I had to special order a used copy.(1) The Faith of the Writer is a quicker, less substantial read that’s a lot closer to the other writing books I’ve read so far. Both are worthwhile, but I know I’ll be thinking about the questions in (Woman) Writer for a a lot longer.
(1) My library has a copy in its print collection but I didn’t have access to it at the time I read the book for my project.