Author Joyce Carol Oates Captivates Skidmore Audience Friday
The New York State Writers Institute marked the midpoint of its July summer series at Skidmore College with a reading by Joyce Carol Oates on Friday night.
Oates read from her published works, led a question-and-answer session with the audience, and delivered her words in a light and often humorous tone, which offset the dark intensity of her characters.
“It might legitimately be said that disorientation is the mainspring of her art,” said Skidmore English Department Professor Robert Boyers, who introduced the writer to the audience.
Asked whether she most enjoyed writing novels, short stories, or poetry, Oates said, “It’s sort of like asking a masochist what they like best. The most painful and stressful and most exciting thing you can do is write a novel,” she said.
“The novel is the great challenge because it’s encompassing the complete world. When you’re writing a long novel you don’t really feel that you’ll live to complete it (so) there’s an added little thrill in the morning – when you wake up and think: I’m still alive.”
From her 2008 collection of short stories “Dear Husband,” Oates read ‘Suicide by Fitness Center.’ The setting is an exercise gym inside a “large, windowless slab of cream-colored stucco” in New Jersey which caters to an aging clientele of fitness-seekers. They are given the nicknames Big Gus and Chuffer, Carrot Top and Eggplant Man, by the story’s female protagonist – a cautiously distant woman who is given to fantasies of making a human connection, and aided by a malicious gym cat that only she can see.
“I don’t see why writing should be such a negative experience,” Oates told the audience, comprised of many professional and student writers, after the reading.
“If you can’t write a long complicated novel – if you’re not really going to write ‘War and Peace,’ you can write something very short. You could write on Twitter,” she said, to great laughs.
“Tweets are nice and short, most people can do it. And many tweets are completely unintelligible, like lines of a John Ashbery poem that are just sort of taken out of nowhere and put down: ‘Wow, what’s that?’ Must be profound, because I don’t get it,” she said. “And you collect all your tweets together and call it, ‘Collected Works,’ and then you can say: I too am a poet.”
The New York State Summer Writers Institute summer reading series at Skidmore College runs through July 26.
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