On February sixteenth, at author and professor Joyce Carol Oates’ reading in McCormick Hall, the front rows of the auditorium are filled with a veritable Who’s Who of campus luminaries. Religion professor Elaine Pagels is here, as is English professor and Rockefeller College Master Maria DiBattista. Much of the creative writing faculty is also in attendance, including McSweeney’s Editor-at-Large Gabe Hudson and poet C.K. Williams. Tony Grafton, Humanities Council Chair, and Edmund White, the chair of the Program in Creative Writing, are both present to introduce her to the audience.
At the reading, I sit in one of the back rows between two friends who are both taking a class taught by Gabe Hudson. Hudson requires his students to attend all of the readings in the Althea W. Clark ’21 Weekly Series. Not that this is a punishment – after all, this year, the series has included Booker Prize winner and visiting professor Alan Hollinghurst, Princeton alum and bestselling author Jonathan Safran Foer, and Jhumpa Lahiri, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake. Yet for some reason, the readings are often poorly attended by students. This reading is no exception; maybe twenty or thirty students are here.
As 5 o’clock—when the reading is supposed to start—approaches, the boy on my right turns to me and asks, “I wonder when she’s going to come?”
“She’s already here,” I say. “She’s wearing the red sweater.” I point down to where she stands, mingling with the other faculty members who have come to hear their colleague read from her work. She has a unique look: she is long and slender, with an eerie, near-ghostlike pallor. Her eyes are large and piercing, and she gestures with a casual, detached ease as she speaks.
“Oh,” he says, “I never realized that was her.”
This, perhaps, is a perfect depiction of the kind of celebrity Joyce Carol Oates enjoys on the Princeton campus. She is at once as famous and as inconspicuous as it gets. Her name is bandied about constantly; most students know to rattle it off as part of a well-rehearsed list of famous faculty members. Last April, a New York Times article entitled “Boldface Professors” profiled Oates as one of a handful of professors who make Princeton’s faculty the most star-studded in the U.S. But for all the buzz surrounding Oates, many students would be hard-pressed to recognize her. Oates herself says that on campus she feels “comfortably anonymous.” She attributes this simultaneous renown and anonymity to the nature of writing itself. In contrast with the performing arts and athletics, she describes writing as “a coolly controlled, premeditated medium,” and says that “writers often feel anonymous or invisible in their outer selves since this outer, ‘social’ self’ (in William James’ vocabulary) is infinitely variable and inessential.”
Despite Oates’ feeling of physical near-invisibility on campus, there can be no doubt that her presence is intensely felt in the intellectual landscape of the university. She is both Joyce Carol Oates the writer and Joyce Carol Oates the teacher.
As an author, her accolades are well-publicized. She is the recipient of a National Book Award, a PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In addition, she has also been nominated twice for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
For her reading at Princeton, she reads excerpts from her new novel, The Falls. It is her thirty-seventh novel, not including an impressive body of work including numerous short story collections and poetry volumes, along with various plays and critical works. When longtime colleague Edmund White introduces her to the audience, he speaks half-jokingly and half-longingly of her remarkable productivity. Oates herself claims that she wastes untold hours and days being unproductive, and that the rate at which she publishes novels surprises her as much as it does others.
The Falls, like many of her novels, begins with an intense scene written in a gothic style, and then moves toward realism, depicting family melodrama and, as the dust-jacket describes, a story of “secrets and sins; of lawsuits, murder, and, eventually, redemption.” Oates reads the opening pages, in which a newly married pastor commits suicide by jumping into Niagara Falls. Even as her writing graphically describes the way his body breaks when he hits the water, or the way it looks seven days later when he is finally discovered, her reading voice remains lilting, faraway and calm – so calm, in fact, that it seems difficult to imagine that the slight, composed woman reading is the very author of this scene.
It is this divide between person and author which is perhaps her most powerful asset as a writer. Oates admits to a fascination with the freedom that writing provides, allowing her to detach from the restrictions of identity. Over the years, she has varied the names under which she publishes to allow herself this freedom. In her early years as a novelist, she published under the gender-neutral titles J.C. Oates and J. Oates Smith. She has also written under two pseudonyms. The first, Rosamund Smith, has recently been replaced by the less-dated, slightly hipper (but also disappointingly nondescript), Lauren Kelly. Both names are used for what Oates describes as her “short, cinematic suspense novels.” She says that she uses these pseudonyms because, while “there is no logical reason why we must always ‘identify’ ourselves publicly, there is a very good reason to allow our imaginations to explore voices very different from our own, an impossibility for most people unless they assume a measure of anonymity.”
While she realizes that “author photographs identify us in any case,” Oates confesses that she doesn’t know quite why she started publishing under her real, full name, and that, “often I wish I’d written exclusively under a pseudonym or pseudonyms.” Ultimately, she finds that, “there is something diminishing about personal identity. We want for ourselves the freedom from past identities that criminal defendants are granted, when prior records are not allowed into evidence during a trial.”
But Oates’ writing is only part of what contributes to her on-campus renown. Since 1978, Oates has served in the Creative Writing Program as the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities. As a professor, the same ability to separate personal identity from expression that is so evident in her writing also contributes to the occasionally quirky atmosphere of her creative writing workshops. In these workshops, Oates combines her characteristically gentle manner with decidedly blunt criticism. The result is criticism that is so smoothly and nonchalantly delivered that students say it often feels like something else—observations, maybe, or casual thoughts.
This teaching method can be explained by Oates’ own experience as a writing student and her goals as a teacher. As a student at Syracuse University, which she attended on scholarship, Oates experienced “irony and sarcasm. . .employed by professors in a way totally unknown today, and so the atmosphere in these workshops was often tense and stressful.” In response to memories of these “stimulating” but stressful courses, Oates strives to create an atmosphere of “civility, courtesy, supportive and constructive criticism” in her workshops. To this end, she says that she tries to be “only mildly critical,” relying “[on] encouragement, not discouragement.”
According to Oates, one of the primary objectives of the criticism she does give is to steer students toward subjects that she feels will bring their creative abilities into full bloom. Her goal as a professor is to cultivate this promise, knowing that these students will produce “better writing in the future.” She says she envisions herself as “a kind of trainer, not of athletes but of young people who will come into their prime only after some time has passed.”
During her twenty-seven years at Princeton, countless students have passed through her classes, observing their celebrity professor and trying to gain some insight into her character. But at the same time, Oates has been observing her students in turn. She remarks that over her time here, she has noticed that there is “a perennial personality—the ‘born writer’—who is essentially ahistoric.” She says she can recognize such a student after reading only “a paragraph or two” of his or her prose. “It’s like hearing a musician play only a few bars of music,” she explains. “You don’t have to hear anything lengthy to recognize that someone is talented.”