"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Tag: joyce carol oates

Since You’ve Gone

Joyce Carol Oates salutes Norman Mailer:

I became acquainted with Norman Mailer in the last 10 or 15 years of his life, at a time when he was, shall we say, mellower than he’d been. By this time he’d been married six times and was at this point married to Norris Church—as you all know Norris was one of the most beautiful women … And her physical beauty was matched by an inner, spiritual beauty—she was really quite extraordinary.

I knew them, if not well, as a couple. The first time I’d met Norman was at an event at Lincoln Center—I think it was a fundraiser for a literacy organization. Norman was the MC. And I was one of a number of writers who were giving readings. When I came out on stage, Norman was gracious and shook my hand and introduced me by saying, “Joyce Carol Oates has written this remarkable book On Boxing.” He let that sink in to the audience, then added, “It’s so good I’d almost thought that I had written it myself.” And there were waves of good-natured laughter from the audience and Norman seemed just slightly puzzled, like—Why is that funny?

Norman had meant his remark as the highest praise. In speaking of Norman Mailer we’re speaking of the male ego raised to the very highest, without which we wouldn’t have civilization, I’m sure.

Mr. Popularity

Over at the New York Review of Books, here’s Joyce Carol Oates on the mystery of Charles Dickens:

Biography is a literary craft that, in the hands of gifted practitioners, rises to the level of art. Yet even its most exemplary practitioners are frequently left behind, like hunters on the trail of elusive prey, in the tracking of genius. Claire Tomalin’s biography is likely to be one of the definitive Dickens biographies in its seamless application of “the life” to “the art”—and what a perilous balancing act it is, in which, just barely, Dickens’s art isn’t lost amid a smothering welter of facts. “This may be more detail than one normally wants about anyone’s life,” Tomalin acknowledges. And indeed there is an inordinate amount of detail in this biography, particularly in regard to Dickens’s frantically busy social life, his scattered interests, and his grinding public career. (How many reading tours Dickens embarked upon before, finally, his “last farewell to the London reading public” in 1870! The reader begins to be as fatigued as Dickens.)

The problem with such assiduously recorded lives of great artists is that one is drawn to an interest in the artist’s life because of his or her accomplishments, primarily; the “life” in itself is of interest as it illuminates the work, but if the often banal details of the life detract from the work, the worth to the biography is questionable. Even an ordinary life, cataloged in every detail, will bloat to Brobdingnagian girth, distorting the human countenance. Only a very few encyclopedic biographers—Richard Ellman most illustriously, in his long yet never dull biographies of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde in particular—transcend the weight of their material, and make of it an intellectual entertainment commensurate with its subject.

[Photo Credit: Cecilia Majzoub via Film is God]

feed Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email
"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver