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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Eleanor Bergstein on Joyce Carol Oates’s ability to tap the “chaotic and wild places inside us all”

Eleanor Bergstein introduces Joyce Carol Oates
at the New York Writers Hall of Fame gala
Ryan Brenizer Photography
Reader’s Almanac continues its presentation of remarks offered at the New York State Writers Hall of Fame induction ceremony with Eleanor Bergstein’s tribute to her friend Joyce Carol Oates. Bergstein is a novelist, screenwriter, and director best known for the movie Dirty Dancing, which she wrote and co-produced.
I honor the work of Joyce Carol Oates for its wildness, its risk, its integrity of emotional detail—for all the things we long for in our own work, and in our lives. Occasionally people flail around in the authenticity of feeling they find in her—assuming it must be drawn from biographical details of living people. Rather instead, her work holds out to us the elegant possibility of owning the chaotic and wild places inside us all, places that accumulate and out of which we try to make a self. She creates characters who are often invisible to themselves at the same time they are harrowingly present to us, people with yearning hearts and chaotic souls desperate to order their lives in the face of the disarray of the outside world.

Years ago, after first reading Wonderland, I flattered myself that I understood the world better. Many years later, I continue to turn to Joyce’s work, hoping to understand myself better. I came upon her first published stories in literary reviews when I was starting out as a writer—and I remember saying to myself, “Oh so there’s that in the world.”

We celebrate the work of Joyce Carol Oates for what she has done—and what she is about to do. Sometimes the work terrifies, sometimes comforts, sometimes breaks our hearts. Hers is not a reassuring world—it shows us landscapes of the soul and of the street that startle us and frighten us.

We try to tame Joyce by making her an exotic. Doesn’t she write rather more than the usual number of books, we say? Might not we call her Gothic? Isn’t there a lot of violence, rape, murder, so much of everything. I think of Blonde, A Widow’s Story, them, Mudwoman, stories that burn off the page, mothers, sisters, Mike Tyson, a scrap of paper on a windshield, that sly humor if one looks for it, the locations of her childhood to which she returns again and again—exotic Lockport? Relentless. One might say check the newspaper if you think Oates is extreme, but this is beside the point. I believe the reason we are alarmed by the bleak and strange world she portrays is because it is located so clearly in our hearts.

I have seen Joyce dance with grace and be wickedly funny and I never try to guess what she will do next. The world she imagines is both ours and only and completely and forever hers. I am honored to present her and her work.
Joyce Carol Oates edited volume #204 of the Library of America series, Shirley Jackson: Novels & Stories.

At its June 5 ceremony in midtown Manhattan, The Empire State Center for the Book formally inducted 14 writers into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame, which it established in 2010 to recognize New York-based poets, novelists, journalists, and historians who have made an indelible mark on our culture. The class of 2012 included E. L. Doctorow, Pete Hamill, Toni Morrison, and Joyce Carol Oates, all of whom attended. Also honored were John Cheever, Hart Crane, Edna Ferber, Washington Irving, Henry James, Mary McCarthy, Marianne Moore, Barbara W. Tuchman, Kurt Vonnegut, and Richard Wright.

Previous posts from the Hall of Fame ceremony:
Elizabeth Bradley on Washington Irving
Alice Quinn on Marianne Moore
Jessica Tuchman Mathews on Barbara W. Tuchman
Langdon Hammer on Hart Crane

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