Last night I fell asleep too late, perusing, for the sixth or seventh time, The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates: 1973-1982. I don’t remember when this book first enwrapped me in its toils. I think it was because of the appearance of the hardcover edition, a fat red brick with yellow lettering on the spine. Not to pick it up when I saw it would have taken a stronger man.
So I got The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates from the library that first time and read it because I liked how it looked, not because I was particularly enamored of Joyce Carol Oates. My forays into her work had been unsatisfying. I still haven’t found a novel by her I like unreservedly—though I’ve discovered she’s written many excellent short stories, and I look forward to reading every last one, eventually—but there are plenty of novels, and I mean plenty (48, by my last count), left for me to consider. That’s the fact most people know about Oates: she’s prolific. In addition to the 48 novels, there are at least 11 novellas, 42 collections of short stories, 9 plays, 19 essay collections and memoirs, 11 poetry collections… I’m probably leaving stuff out. She writes a lot, is what I’m trying to say, and I like some of it well enough that I’ll keep tunneling into the mountain, but I like none of it well enough that you’d expect me to spasm with lust at the thought of a book called The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates.
And yet, if rereading is the measure, Oates’s journal is my favorite. Off the top of my head, I’ve read the journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Denton Welch, Samuel Delany, Anne Frank, Susan Sontag, Franz Kafka, John Cheever, Anais Nin, Witold Gombrowicz, Che Guevara, Sylvia Plath, Murasaki Shikibu, W. Somerset Maugham, George Sand, Christopher Isherwood, Simone de Beauvoir, Rainer Maria Rilke, Goethe, Samuel Pepys, Edmond de Goncourt, James Boswell, Victor Klemperer, May Sarton, Thomas Mann, Thomas Merton, Sei Shonagan, Andre Gide, Evelyn Waugh, Robert Musil, Stendhal…
I’ve read none of them more than once. But The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates keeps reeling me back in.
Why, I wonder?
I think it’s the combination of literary fecundity viewed from within—Oates is the kind of machine for transforming reading, daily life, and dreams into stories that I wish I was, that I am trying to make myself into—and a certain genuine messiness and wildness that marks it as a really private book.
This quality—of real privateness—is surprisingly rare in modern diaries. I think writers tend to have the inkling of publication even in their locked down and most personal writing. What brought me to Oates’s journal this time was another journal: Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair Diaries, which I was reading at the end of last week. Brown’s diaries are a rush, a satiric tumble, in which she features like a heroine. I enjoyed them and found them illuminating about a time and a place, but I could read in every focused line that their author knew, somehow, that they’d be published. Oates’s journals have the digressive quality of private musing, and they show a kind of consciousness I recognize as similar to my own (though keyed to a higher pitch, more precise and powerful) darting between philosophical reflection and ideas for stories, analysis of process and bemused consideration of the outward stream of life. Moreover, Oates has an intuition of personal non-identity which I share, a hunch that she is, has been, and will be many people, which releases her from the need to curate her diary-self:
What a folie-à-deux, our engagement with ourselves, and our wish to believe that this engagement is worth the lifelong effort it requires, as if, assigned at birth to a specific “self,” we must gamely maintain, through the years, an abiding faith in it: like venders pushing carts, heaped with the spoils of “ego,” each obliged to promote his/her goods in a bazaar teeming with mostly indifferent strangers, a few potential customers, and too many rival venders!
But the chief pleasure of this journal is to witness life turned into literature firsthand. Joyce Carol Oates seems to metabolize experience by writing, and not just direct, firsthand experience. I’m not saying her work is one of those tedious human-centipede-style conveyor belts of auto-fiction. Instead, her work is where she takes her inklings of different ways of life, inklings found in her own life, in what she reads, in the people she meets, and turns those inklings into a voice, a character, a story, a world. She daydreams about other people on the page, even when those other people are actually possible selves. You watch her begin to wonder: what would it be like, how could I explore, a person like that? And then a novel emerges. Sometimes she dreams a scene or image or situation, and then the next day turns it into a short story, fleshing out around the doneé of the dream. She’ll express a sudden fascination with something—mystical experience, what it’s like to really hate someone, how a certain environment would shape a personality—and the journal will go silent for a sudden month, and the next entry will announce that she’s accumulated 300 pages of notes for a novel mining that vein of speculation. It’s extraordinary, a vision of literary work as engagement with life that I find irresistible.