She goes nativist, declaring American post-modernists of her generation as being under the foreign yoke. They're un-Americans. How dare they portray America in a less-than-positive light? And look carefully at what she says about Nabokov being "evil.”
Chief among her gallery of rogues was an American writer of “arguable genius.” Though unnamed, she identifies him as one who famously declared, “Fragments are the only form I trust.”
That writer, of course, was Donald Barthelme. (“Fragments are the only form I trust” was a dictate repeated several times in his celebrated short story, “See the Moon?”)
What Oates has against these writers is their intention is to make readers think, which from her perspective places them in the opposite camp from writers whose chief aim might be to make readers feel or in some way ameliorate their pain and suffering and confusion.
It’s a false dichotomy, but look at her rhetoric. She exhorts,
“If you refuse to make choices [between these two camps], someone else will make them for you.”
A tad paranoiac, no? Something out of, say, the Patrick Buchanan or Karl Rove school of literary criticism?
In Oates’s essay, she’d have Barthelme and his ilk “line up… and file through a doorway marked THIS WAY OUT.” One suspects that what she has in mind for them is an execution squad. Why else would she begin the essay meditating in a cemetery about the better days that are to come when real Americans like her can reclaim "vandalized lands."
Really. It's Nixonian. She's but one step removed from calling for a pogrom against degenerate art.
It’s unclear what effect this essay had on Barthelme, who was known to suffer periods of despair. It’s one thing to suffer a bad review, but quite another thing to be singled-out as a national disgrace.
“Donald could put a wry twist on negative criticism of his work better than many writers. I am certain he would not have thought highly of Joyce Carol Oates’ work so it probably irked him less than another writer saying it,” Lynn Nesbit, his longtime agent, told me via email.
Still, Oates’ essay must have stung. He purposely inserted a question into interview conducted by Jerome Klinkowitz to make light of her charges. (That interview is among the most penetrating that Barthelme ever gave and was recently reprinted in the Kim Herzinger-edited Barthelme anthology, Not Knowing)
Last year, Oates wrote a bit more about her encounters with Barthelme. Five years after her New York Times piece appeared, they met for lunch. Graciously, she concedes that Barthelme’s investment in fragmentary forms “in retrospect sounds reasonable enough.” She congratulates him on the good reviews earned by his then current collection, Amateurs. Is it a bestseller, she asks.
Barthelme tells her that none of his books were best-sellers.
Oates is shocked—bestseller-hood apparently being in her eyes a mark of true distinction; by this point in her career, she had been hooded many times herself.
The encounter becomes prickly. She describes Barthelme as being a passive-aggressive “bully”—which is odd because other accounts I’ve read of Barthelme describe him as being amazingly cheerful and generous towards fellow writers. So I guess it’s fair to infer that Oates’s essay still stung, five years after the fact.
[An aside: Oates mentions that Barthelme responded to her essay in Newsweek article. I can’t locate it. It doesn’t pop up in either the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature listings or in the 1977 Klinkowitz/Pieratt/Davis-compiled Barthelme Bibliography. Nor is it apparently referenced in the Daugherty autobiography. Might Oates’s memory be wrong— or am I just missing it? If anyone can offer a citation, I’d be grateful!]