I dressed down for the Joyce Carol Oates reading at Barnes & Noble tonight. Who am I kidding? The only distinction I make these days is ‘clothes I sleep in’ and ‘the rest’. I avoid mirrors, I am the last to know if there is egg or jam or even blood on my face, and I have entered that ambiguous section of the female timeline where men rarely look, and other women, if you are unbuttoned or wearing your lunch, will avoid confrontation. My hair? I plead the 5th.
Despite the fact that my highbrow literati friends think Joyce Carol Oates novels are as prolific and valuable as late-night infomercials, I have a soft spot for her in my Goth girl-heart. Besides, we might have the same stylist: i.e., God. Okay…so I am late and of course any free event in New York City is jam-packed SRO, and that guy with the gray frizzy hair-plug-do who is at every single gallery and gratis museum opening is blocking the view from the back row, so I slink over to a niche on the side and sit on the floor from which vantage point I have a great view of Ms. Oates as she reads deadpan the title story of the new Dear Husband collection.
Q&A. Some numb-brain asks her whether her monotonous delivery was meant as a dramatic device to express the lack of emotion of the main character. I don’t really know how Joyce managed to keep her cool, and I doubt he’s been to any other readings, but she’s not exactly a bellower. Then a few writers asked the obvious questions about productivity, and whether the story was inspired by the actual killings in Texas which even a cursory reading of the jacket blurb could have answered. But these adult children cannot resist the act of publicly ‘engaging’ with a celebrity mentor.
The inevitable signing ritual.. with all the bookdealers hoarding their proofs and cloth bagfuls of novels. I thought of bringing one or 2 vintage books, then thought better. They want you to buy the new one…that’s the point, but all the new covers are so pathetically cheap-novel looking, I’d prefer borrowing from the library.
Actually I brought along a manuscript. Since she teaches at my alma mater, I’d been encouraged to show her one of my small dark poetry epics…. She seemed so accessible…so--- well, badly dressed and anti-celebrity. I asked the Barnes & Noble emcee if she’d give her an envelope and she nodded toward her publicist who was sitting in one of the folding chairs, consulting his Blackberry. He gave me such a lip-curled gay-snot look of slight horror as though I’d vomited and splattered him… I backed off. I know well how much he earns and what he does, the little Filene’s Armani rodent. So I split. Okay, I’ll mail it to her at Princeton. Not. I’d like to have given him a piece of my mind about the packaging of her sinister books in these happy house-wife-friendly pink and dusky rose jackets.
The thing is, I like her. She’s unpretentious and outs her literary money before her mouth, this is for sure. She admitted her deep sympathy for the child-killer, for all imprisoned housewives and claustrophobic warped mothers. And that sexy Elvis poem she wrote early on... she must have been a sort of anorexic Winehouse-esque hottie at some point in the late 50’s. All that damn writing. She even put out poor-quality stuff under different names. Pretty amazing. Well, she doesn’t have kids… they certainly suck out what creative juices they can, especially if you’re poor and starving and get no relief from husbands or babysitters. Jesus, the weather and the economy are getting to me.
Back I go on the train, tossing the pathetic current New Yorker issue which Joyce managed to innocently dis as she mentioned their habit of selectively editing the balls out of her fiction. Guess I can safely sourgrape the rejections of my poetry. Inspired to read some Oates, I suddenly remembered I’d loaned The Falls to my son’s now-ex-girlfriend. She'd asked me for a book on murder. She probably left it at the beach and bought a kindle version of Twilight. She’s an honor student at NYU. Never heard of Proust, Doris Lessing or Joyce. The meek-minded but well-dressed inherit.
Passing another B & N on the way home, I notice they’ve had a Tuesday reading as well: Charles Grodin. Is this an author? According to the roster of upcoming events, most of the readings are actors who write, or chefs, or actors who cook who write, or models who diet who write, desperate housewives who get a reality show who write. Desperate book publishers. After all, it's Barnes & Noble, not 'Nobel'.
Video/Facebook killed the writer. Except Joyce. She was still doing it… still with the old cardigan sweater and the top button closed. On the way out, the music department was playing an old Cult album. Getting warmer. Amy Winehouse wasn’t conceived when they recorded this. And somehow I believe, when all the Twilight novels are forgotten, all the Gossip Boys and Girls have done rerunning and JK Rowling is scratching her head, Joyce might be on a plane to Stockholm. Okay… she’s no Saramago, but among those B&N wallpaper caricatures, she’s got the Oscar Wilde/Virginia Woolf facial credibility; at the least she’s a bad hairday antidote to Candace Bushnell. A Roy Orbison of writers.
So to the publicist: F--- you. But do something about that pathetic packaging. Forget the fashion portrait. Award-winning writers have better looking book-jackets. 50 novels later, she deserves it.