Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Joyce Carol Oates is not a hack.

I have to admit that for quite a while, I was under the impression that Joyce Carol Oates is a hack. I came to this conclusion without having actually read any of her work, but from observing her sheer rate of Stephen King-esque output - a new novel each and every year, on top of numerous essays, short fiction, and the occasional play. Surely a writer that prodigious, my thinking went, must be hack. It defies reason for someone to write that quickly, and write well. That Oates regularly rakes in the literary prizes and has her work reprinted in a variety of end-of-year collections, in both "literary" and "genre" anthologies, was insufficient to persuade me - indeed, I am ashamed to say that when I saw her name prominently headlining fantasy and horror anthologies, I was further convinced that Oates must be a hack. Pshaw, genre work! Hack, hack, hack!

This summer, I actually found time between sneering at the voluminous "Oates section" at bookstores - as I liked to think of them - to actually pick up one of her books. I read "The Falls," Oates' 2004 novel (no, I am not exaggerating about the one novel a year thing. Check her wikipedia page if you don't believe me.) "The Falls" won the French Prix Femina prize in the "foreign category," but in that it's hardly unique among Oates' work, as it seems each of her novels garners some kind of recognition or another. And I expected to hate it, but I realized that it was an incredible book. In fact, it's kind of genius. "The Falls" has a ambitiously sprawling plot, vivid depictions of decidedly unpredictable characters, a meticulously captured historical setting, and academically hip intertextuality - including an inspired nod to James Joyce's "Yes she said yes" passage from Ulysses that may even surpass the original. It manages to be formally innovative while doing all this, employing both a conventional third-person narrator and a sort of tributaries-of-consciousness style that briefly follows individual characters.

So, Joyce Carol Oates is not a hack. She's just some kind of literary savant capable of superhuman achievement in writing. That, or she knows how to compress time.

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