What do we do with JCO?

Joyce Carol Oates is one of the more prolific writers in the world but despite her academic credentials and prestigious placement at Princeton, is she really an author that will withstand the rigors of time and changes in public (let alone academic) opinion?

Is it possible that the amount of quality writing is somehow a finite commodity and no matter how hard they might try, authors generally cannot exceed their threshold? Let’s look at a few prolific authors and test that hypothesis. Here is my list, although you might want to consider other writers too:

  • Georges Simenon
  • Honoré de Balzac
  • Alexander Dumas
  • Stephen King
  • Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • Joyce Carol Oates.

Right off the top I see we can eliminate two authors, not because they disprove the conjecture, but because consideration of their works doesn’t require great thought or effort. First, Edgar Rice Burroughs and his ilk probably never approached the threshold of greatness, but rather should be measured on a different scale, one involving fun. Stephen King, however, is possibly a candidate for consideration but it is immediately obvious that he has never dipped a sentence in the pool of good writing so we can hardly expect to find anything worth saving, let alone reading, in his works.

Alexander Dumas is a different story and I’m thinking Joyce Carol Oates falls into this same category. Both authors are talented story tellers and their popular works may glide across time without requiring any true literary greatness. I suppose that as long as there are kids and kids at heart, authors such as Dumas will still the imagination and be passed down to future generations (we might add Jules Verne to this hypothesis). JCO has a less obvious appeal but it does seem like much of her work is hovering just under the threshold of greatness (although there are some real stinkers) and may survive the critics that delegate her works to the less esteemed but highly profitable rank of popular fiction. I also think that Oates is expressing some of the darker, less commendable facets of the human animal in an effective manner without using the bludgeon tactics of an Anne Rice or a Stephen King.

The last two authors are perhaps the best examples to illuminate the hypothesis: Georges Simenon and Honoré de Balzac. Although Balzac might be thought of as the better example, I’m not sure. Because of Simenon’s extensive Maigret series, many people dismiss him as a popular mystery or police procedural writer; but this ignores all the deeper, usually more disturbing, non-Maigret novels which are normally called the author’s psychological novels. Books such as Dirty Snow are arguably as important in the world of literature as anything by any of the authors on my list. I would consider several Simenon novels as being above the threshold.

Balzac, however, can admit to the greatest number of novels which probably will be considered great literature and hang around bookstores and libraries for years to come. But for every Père Goriot or Eugénie Grandet there are dozens of weak sisters which might show some insight into the human condition but as literature are weak and forgetful. Is Balzac then the ideal candidate to support the hypothesis:  a few works above the threshold and most everything else demonstrably poor?

From the view of being prolific, Balzac might be one of the few good examples but for less prolific authors, there is a similar observation that can be made. If F. Scott Fitzgerald had not written The Great Gatsby, would he even be remembered? There are many authors in this same situation, some like Harper Lee have only one novel to offer, others like Henry James or William Gaddis have several novels that might be considered great. The examples are flooding my mind.

Perhaps the answer is that few books reach greatness, no matter who writes them.

2 thoughts on “What do we do with JCO?

  1. There is one aspect of writers today that belies JCO’s observation suggesting it doesn’t matter whether it’s a first book, etc. I have too often found that the first book is a text developed, revised, and critiqued in the modern schools of creative writing. When it comes time for the second book, it shows.


  2. Oates’s own view on this:

    “Productivity is a relative matter. And it’s really insignificant: What is ultimately important is a writer’s strongest books. It may be the case that we all must write many books in order to achieve a few lasting ones—just as a young writer or poet might have to write hundreds of poems before writing his first significant one. Each book as it is written, however, is a completely absorbing experience, and feels always as if it were the work I was born to write. Afterward, of course, as the years pass, it’s possible to become more detached, more critical.

    I really don’t know what to say. I note and can to some extent sympathize with the objurgatory tone of certain critics, who feel that I write too much because, quite wrongly, they believe they ought to have read most of my books before attempting to criticize a recently published one. (At least I think that’s why they react a bit irritably.) Yet each book is a world unto itself and must stand alone, and it should not matter whether a book is a writer’s first, or tenth, or fiftieth.”


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