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Joyce Carol Oates On Writing About Differences Among People

27 February 2015

From KPBS:

[Joyce Carol] Oates latest novel, “The Sacrifice,” is based on the 1988 Tawana Brawley rape case in New York. Brawley, an African-American teenager at the time, said six white men abducted and raped her. The claims turned out to not be true.

The book received some criticism, including from one New York Times reviewer who described Oates as a white writer trying to ascribe motives and mind-sets to an array of African-American characters as a “creative experiment.”

. . . .

Question: Considering the racial atmosphere now as this book is being published and the outrage over racial bias in law enforcement that has swept the country — isn’t it realistic to assume a book like this would be controversial?

Oates: I suppose so but it is very much about white racism. It’s basically a very sympathetic portrait of a community basically under siege with white police officers who are very difficult. It doesn’t make a lot of sense for writing this novel unless somebody feels that it’s her territory and that white writers should not venture into her territory.

I think the idea is that we should be writing about people different from ourselves. We should be sympathetic about people who don’t have complete advantages that we have. We should bear witness for people who can’t speak their own stories. If we were not allowed to write about people different from ourselves, we would only be writing about such a narrow subset of human life it would not be of much interest.

. . . .

Question: You’re also very disciplined about writing.

Oates: I’m not sure that I even need to be disciplined. It’s like saying that you need to be disciplined to have your dreams at night. Basically, it’s very pleasurable. Writing is a challenge, and I think it exerts a kind of neurological exercise in the brain so one is solving problems of structure and choosing words and rearranging sentences and rewriting. There’s a lot of thinking about it and meditating and calculating. So a writer does a lot more than you know sitting and writing actual words. You spend a lot of time thinking and daydreaming and planning.

Link to the rest at KPBS and thanks to Meryl for the tip.

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10 Comments to “Joyce Carol Oates On Writing About Differences Among People”

  1. “Question: You’re also very disciplined about writing.

    Oates: I’m not sure that I even need to be disciplined. It’s like saying that you need to be disciplined to have your dreams at night. Basically, it’s very pleasurable.”

    I guess she didn’t buy into the “tortured artist” meme. Nice to see.

  2. “. It’s basically a very sympathetic portrait of a community basically under siege with white police officers who are very difficult”

    I’m hoping this is a mistake in transcription. If not, a minority community AND white cops are under siege together and the cops are being difficult.

    Because of this, I’m not sure if the book is about cops abusing minorities, minorities wrongly believing they are being abused by the cops or Steven Segal on a boat full of minorities fighting off difficult white cops.

    Regardless, since the author goes on to say the book has no real connection to the Brawley case, I’m not sure what the point of the opening paragraph of the story was outside of clickbait for KPBS.

  3. I have always believed that human nature is basic and common to all. Therefore it should be possible to imagine how any person may feel regardless of race, religion, or historical time. The differences make our thinking about each other more interesting.

    The big problem is that too many people don’t want to see the other guy’s point of view.

  4. Time to bring out this quote from Gore Vidal: “The three saddest words in the English language: Joyce Carol Oates.”

    I don’t think it’s true, but it’s a fine all-purpose insult.

  5. The book received some criticism, including from one New York Times reviewer who described Oates as a white writer trying to ascribe motives and mind-sets to an array of African-American characters as a “creative experiment.”

    Is James Patterson engaged in a creative experiment by writing Alex Cross novels?

  6. ^^^^^

    Way to cut to the heart of it! 🙂

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