Writing relentlessly

Joyce Carol Oates has written roughly six-thousand books. I’ve read one. I’m currently working on number two, a slim novel titled “Black Water.” Boy is it boring. Dry and colorless as a sun-baked cow skull. It’s not even trying to pull me in. It’s stingy like that.  

“Wonderland” is the other Oates book I read, some time ago. Unlike “Black Water,” which runs 154 pages, it’s unmistakably Oatesian, meaning it’s fat, multi-chambered and densely populated. It’s also pretty great, an epic family drama spanning generations that quakes with urgent, thrumming incident. It’s known as one of her best books and was a finalist for some big award or another. 

Oates is famously prolific. I call her relentless. Her torrential output, starting in 1963, includes 58 novels, numerous plays and novellas and several volumes of short stories, poetry and nonfiction. The novels are rarely anorexic. They are epics pushing 500, 700, even 900 pages or more. When I see her shelf in bookstores, I quietly scamper past. 

That’s why I picked up the acclaimed “Black Water”: it’s a finger sandwich next to the author’s standard ten-course feasts. A modern retelling of Senator Ted Kennedy’s infamous Chappaquiddick incident, the book toggles through time to trace a young woman’s life and death by drowning in a Toyota that crashed upside-down in a lake.

The novel purports to be a scathing statement about women who are tragically drawn to powerful men, which I suppose it is. But that doesn’t interest me, at least not right now. It doesn’t help that Oates’ breathless, jagged prose feels awkwardly stylized, hardly the case with the lyrical “Wonderland.”

A force of nature, Oates is the epitome of a writing machine, matching the creative incontinence of Stephen King. She poops out literary doorstops with boggling regularity, making her contemporaries look downright slothful. I’m not knocking it. It’s something to envy. To be so productive would be miraculous, if exhausting.

A sliver of Joyce Carol Oates’ output

But such churning industry casts a light on the idea of consistency: how many of those piles of books are really, truly good? Surely a lot, or the author wouldn’t be the celebrated bestseller she is. Yet there’s probably a mountain of misfires there, too, which perhaps dilutes such voluminous achievement. 

In a 2015 essay, King himself confronts the notion “that prolific writing equals bad writing,” citing a truism in literary criticism that goes “the more one writes, the less remarkable one’s work is apt to be.”

He’s rightfully a little defensive, having published some 60 novels since “Carrie” in 1974, including four very thick books in a single year. As a writer, King is admittedly, and unashamedly, possessed. 

He insists it can’t be helped, that once his creative ideas catch fire, there’s no quenching them. “I never had any choice,” he says. “There were days when I literally thought all the clamoring voices in my mind would drive me insane.”

That must be the case with Oates, an artist so overcome with ideas, she has to put them down before they devour her, for good or ill. Her well-publicized work ethic is austere, regimented and, yes, wildly fertile. King writes: “I remember a party where someone joked that Joyce Carol Oates was like the old lady who lived in a shoe, and had so many children she didn’t know what to do.” 

Most good writers work painstakingly — they “bleed,” as Hemingway said — which tends to produce a modest yield. Take Donna Tartt (“The Goldfinch”), who’s written three novels in 25 years. The books were smashes, and she is fabulously rich, but Tartt might represent the other side of the equation: by taking few risks, rarely publishing, can you call yourself a bold and vigorous artist?

Then there’s filmmaker Terrence Malick, who represents both sides. In 25 years, he made only three films, all masterpieces, including “Days of Heaven” and “The Thin Red Line.” Then, starting in 2005 with the sublime “New World,” he went on a tear of productivity, making almost a film a year that returned six back-to-back stinkers that he’s yet to recover from. (Let’s not even start with Woody Allen’s late, lame film-a-year output.)  

There’s a cautionary tale in there somewhere. It seems moderation — not too slow, not too fast — is the way to dole out one’s art. Still, if Oates, as the party wag cracked, “had so many children she didn’t know what to do,” I wouldn’t mind being that old lady who lived in a shoe, writing and creating and making magic by the ton, no matter how imperfect. We should be so lucky.

I’m not eavesdropping, really …

Recently here I chatted up the new local cafe, the exquisitely hip, I’ve-been-to-India, dump-Trump joint with the jaunty name. I decided to pop into the other local cafe, that name-brand one that just reopened after long renovation. I’m there now — I write in cafes often, a living cliché — and I’m people-watching with a touch of eavesdropping. It’s not at all creepy.

I see a poised, pert, put-together brunette chirping quietly with her friend — hale, happy twentysomethings talking about job interviews and uproarious Facebook posts. She looks like she loves dinner parties and charades. She fancies a good daiquiri. Her favorite TV show is “This Is Us.” I’m just surmising, but I know I’m right.

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A hypothetical cafe scene. They look ecstatic.

Elsewhere overheard: “You know, Mary, I’m not comfortable making those calls.” 

Enter: a 60-ish gent in a baggy Bill Cosby sweater, with stubble that looks like powdered sugar sprinkled on his pink pate. “I begin my teaching tomorrow. Seventy students!” he tells his companion, a flute-thin young woman with lank auburn hair who, I’m certain, is a teacher’s assistant. 

The fellow is loud and a roaring bore. He gesticulates like a madman. She sips some coffee and it goes down the wrong pipe. The ensuing coughing fit is something to behold. Napkins fly. We sympathize.

“We’re getting off track here,” an elderly woman laughs. She’s talking to a slightly younger woman at a corner table about scheduling some sort of meeting at her home. “Should we do RSVPs?” the younger woman asks. 

I soon gather they’re organizing a book club. They are perusing a list of titles. The younger woman describes a book that’s “very well-written” that sounds like a kind of real estate thriller. The authors Andre Dubus III and Michael Frayn (“He’s British”) are mentioned. “The person who selects the book is the host of the meeting,” says the younger woman.

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I want to chime in and suggest the novel I just finished, “The Friend,” Sigrid Nunez’s brisk, deceptively simple yet profound meditation on the writer’s life and friendships between people and dogs and people and people. It won the 2018 National Book Award. It’s lovely.

I pick the book. I’ll be the host. I’ll serve baked Alaska.

Someone just said “hypothesize” in mixed company. 

I ask the barista what she’s reading these days — we often yack about books — and she flashes her copy of the novel “The Secret History,” Donna Tartt’s 1991 cult smash. I kind of wrinkle my nose while evincing interest, and tell her I tried and failed to read Tartt’s 2014 Pulitzer-winning epic “The Goldfinch.” I read about half and put it down. The novel is divisive: You love it or loathe it.

She adores it. “What didn’t you like about it?” she asks. I thought it was cutesy, candied, implausible, whimsical and too redolent of Dickens. 

“It is Dickensian,” the barista says, and with that simple word my day is made.

Elephant adoption — it’s a real thing. Two ladies are talking about it. One explains that it costs $50 a year to adopt an African pachyderm and “each month they email you a picture and an update about your elephant.” She has an elephant. “I went to visit the orphanage in Nairobi,” she says. I suddenly want an elephant. 

“It’s my parents’ 43rd anniversary,” a 30-ish guy tells his friend. “That’s a long time to be sniffin’ someone else’s toots.” 

I missed most of the soliloquy, but a youngish man was rhapsodizing about coffee and espresso and the joys of sitting on his porch, and out of his mouth popped this phrase: “the waking beauty of life.”

Spectacular.