Oates, Joyce Carol: Primary Sources

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SOURCE: Oates, Joyce Carol. "Where Is an Author?" In Where I've Been, and Where I'm Going, pp. 3-8. New York: Plume, 1999.

In the following essay, Oates debates the question of how much information a reader should know about the author of a work and finds the label of "woman writer" to be restrictive and frustrating.

The artist's life is his work, and this is the place to observe him.

—Henry James

It all came together between the hand and the page.

Samuel Beckett (on the composition of Waiting for Godot)

Why do we write? Why do we read? Why is "art" crucial to human beings?

The engine that gives its mysterious inner life to a work of art must be the subterranean expression of a wish, working its way to the surface of narrative. In fairy tales and legends, the "wish" is often explicit: for a rendering of justice rare in life, for romance in the face of improbability, for a happy ending. In a more sophisticated art, the "wish" may be so buried as to be unacknowledged by the artist, or even repudiated. "Never trust the artist," D. H. Lawrence warned in his iconoclastic Studies in Classic American Literature (1923). "Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it." Often, writers don't know what they're writing until they've completed it. For some of us, the composition of any sustained, structured work would not be possible if there wasn't a secret code or connection between the story (or what we call for lack of a more precise term "story") and an interior, hidden pattern. A sense, in a way visual, of the story's trajectory: where it begins, where it ends, its dominant images and tone. Though the act of writing can be emotionally volcanic, a white-hot frenzy in the initial process of creation, in its later stages, those of revision, recasting and restructuring, it is the most icy-cold of activities. "So cold, so icy, that one burns one's fingers on him! Every hand that touches him receives a shock. That is why some think he is burning hot." This aphorism of Friedrich Nietzsche's suggests the formalist's self-conception: the self as viewed from within. To present emotionally dynamic material is to confess that one has felt, and perhaps extremely, but is not now feeling, emotion.

Is the artist, by temperament, a perpetual antagonist to the crowd? the state? the prevailing ethos? This collision of the ethical/tribal/familial world and the world of the individual; the world of the individual soul and the universe of sheer numbers—"laws" of nature: This is the drama that arrests me, and haunts me, in life as in writing; in reverie, most keenly during insomniac fugues when "I" seems to dissolve, and an impersonal kernel of being, primarily one of inquiry, emerges. (For me, these fugues began in early adolescence.) In asking, like Lewis Carroll's child-heroine Alice, WhoamI? am I really asking Who, or what, is this "I" that asks this question, asked repeatedly, with such hope, yet perhaps futilely, through human history? Is this "I" unique—or is it in essence identical with the multitude of other "I"s?—as we are presumably composed of identical matter, turn and turn about, mineral deposits from the stars of how many trillions of years ago, in varying compositions, except never varying in our temporality: "Oh Life, begun in fluent Blood, / And consummated dull!" (Emily Dickinson, 1130, c. 1868)

Or is this, too, a fiction?—an artfully constructed and sculpted wish? In the collision of the personal and the impersonal, in the arena where language and silence touch, the possibility of art arises like flame.

In 1969, the influential if much-misunder-stood Michel Foucault published a speculative essay, "What Is an Author?" A kind of thought-experiment, generated perhaps more by political bias than disinterested aesthetic inquiry, this famous essay considered the ontological status of the writer; one might say, undermined it. (Yet only in theory, for since Foucault's time no writers, including theorists of the Foucault school, have surrendered their names on the spines of their books, nor their advances and royalties. As in hothouse plantings, bibliographies of even obscure writers flourish; but the plantings are discreetly fenced off from one another, and named.) Still the debate over what is called "authorial presence" continues, and has not been resolved, for, in such debates, it is language, or a critical vocabulary, that is at stake, and not a quantifiable reality. Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida have argued, though not this succinctly, for the "death of the author"—the theoretical claim that "there is nothing outside the text"—"there is no center or integrated core from which we can say a piece of literature issues." (There is no Mozart from whom the music issues; there is the Mozartian text, which shares with other Mozartian texts certain characteristics, like voiceprints, or fingerprints, but no essential identity.)1

One might stand the theory on its head, as in a phantasmagoric scenario in which any and all things written by a "historic individual" (with name, fingerprints, DNA, etc.) are part of the oeuvre of the writer; not merely the revised, polished hardcover books he/she has nurtured into being with such determination. Certainly, collectors of manuscripts act upon this assumption, appalling to the writer: They are willing to pay high sums of money for minor work, juvenilia, letters tossed off in unguarded moments, mere jottings—for, one might argue, these are the truer testaments of the elusive self, because unmediated. If you are a writer of reputation you may argue eloquently, like T. S. Eliot, that art is in fact the "extinction of personality"; nonetheless, any original manuscript of yours, in your own inimitable hand, any embarrassing love letters, diary entries, in Eliot's case anti-Semitic and misogynist pornographic fantasies, will be worth far more than any chastely printed book with your name stamped on the spine. For human beings seem to honor instinctively the individual sui generis, despite philosophical theories arguing the nonexistence of individuals. To escape the prison house of identity, writers have often fled to pseudonyms in the hope that the text will be, simply, a text, with an anonymous-sounding name attached to which no prior assumptions accrue. To begin again!—to be born again!—not as an author, but purely as a text!

Yet it's symptomatic of our profoundly secularized era that, French theory and the "New" Historicism to the contrary, any and all biographical data can be applied to the writer as a "historic" individual; nothing too obscure, too mundane, too trivial, too demeaning is ruled out as an instrument of illumination into the writer's motive. (A well-regarded academic-literary journal recently printed an essay on Sylvia Plath's last poems interpreted in the light of premenstrual tension, for instance.) Massive contemporary biographies, bloated with unedited taped interviews, bury their ostensible subjects beneath a vertiginous mass of data, and the writer's forlorn plea The artist's life is his work, and this is the place to observe him is ignored. Yet, most writers will acknowledge that they do not inhabit their books—the more clinical term is "texts"—once they have completed them; they—we—are expelled from them like any other reader, for the act of composition is time-bound, and time is an hourglass that runs in one direction only. To consider the text as an art work is to acknowledge that there can be nothing outside the text. Authorial intentions have long been dismissed from serious critical consideration, though outside the lecture hall there may be intense, gossipy interest in such old riddles as the nature of Henry James's wound, did an individual named "Shakespeare" write the body of work attributed to "Shakespeare" or is someone else "Shakespeare," is the "I" of the next poem you read the poet or an invented persona? As Michel Foucault reasonably asks, "What difference does it matter who is speaking?"

What difference does it make to know that Marcel Proust was a homosexual? Does this biographical information alter the text of Proust's great novel?—does it expand the text?—detract from the text?—qualify, or enhance, its greatness? Can it be argued that Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, written by a homosexual, is a more subtle, codified work of fiction than the identical novel would have been had Wilde been heterosexual? No matter the plea embodied in the question "What difference does it make?" it seems, in fact, to make a difference to most readers.

For the feminist critic, it makes a considerable difference to know that the text has been authored by a woman: For a woman's discourse will presumably differ from a man's, even if the texts are identical. If the author is a woman, her text has very likely been generated by "female rage"; her art work may be intimately related to her body. To protest against such narrow corseting of motive is to deny one's gender-identity. Far from erasing identity, this popular strategy of criticism has reenforced identity by means of gender. Does a woman, in fact, possess a special language, distinct from male language? Or is it purely Woman, and no individual, who possesses such a language? And what of the "androgynous" artist? As a writer, and a woman, or a woman, and a writer, I have never found that I was in possession of a special female language springing somehow from the female body, though I can sympathize with the poetic-mystic yearning that might underlie such a theory. To be marginalized through history, to be told repeatedly that we lack souls, that we aren't fully human, that we're "unclean," therefore can't write, can't paint, can't compose music, can't do philosophy, math, science, politics, power in its myriad guises—the least of our compensations should be that we're in possession of some special gift brewed in the womb and in mother's milk. For the practicing woman writer, feminist/gender criticism can be wonderfully nurturing, for obvious reasons: Texts by women are read attentively and sympathetically; "lost" writers are continually rediscovered, and wrongly dismissed writers (Kate Chopin, for instance) are given the respectful scrutiny they deserve. On the most practical level, as the feminist critic Elaine Showalter has said, "The best thing the feminist can do for women's writing is to buy women's books."

Yet this criticism, for all its good intentions, can be restrictive as well, at least for the writer who is primarily a formalist, and for whom gender is not a pressing issue in every work. (As a writer who happens to be a woman, I choose to write about women, and I choose to write from the perspective of women; but I also choose to write about men, and I choose to write from the perspective of men; with the confidence that, dissolving myself into the self of a fictitious other, I have entered a dimension of consciousness that is not my own in either case, and yet legitimate.) Surely it is an error to reduce to a genitally defined essence any individual, whether a woman or a man; for the (woman) writer, it is frustrating to be designated as a "woman writer"—a category in relationship to which there is no corresponding "man writer."

To return to the question "Where is an author?"—we might say, with Henry James, that the artist's life is his work, yet this is not quite the same thing as saying that the artist's work is his life, for of course it can be only part of that life, and possibly, for some artists, even the gifted, not the most valued part of that life. We might argue that there must be an ontological distinction between the writer-as-creator-of-texts and the living person, the medium of the art. The work is thus the artist. The artist is a component of an aesthetic object, a product, printed or processed or in some way made into an artifice—"artificial." The individual is born of nature, but the artist is born of that individual, yearning to transcend the merely "natural" and to make complete that which, existentially, is forever incomplete, unrealized. We might argue that all books, fiction, poetry, nonfiction, have been created by pseudonymous selves in the process of that creation, and if the name on the dust jacket is identical with the historic name, that is not the same thing as saying that the name on the dust jacket is the historic individual.

Where is the author?—in the work, of course.

Which is not to say that the author of the author (i.e., the historic self) doesn't exist too; at least provisionally.


1. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is our paragon of genius. This letter suggests the genius as oddly passive, a vessel to be filled from the unconscious.

When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer … it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly. Whence and how they come, I know not; nor can I force them.…

When I proceed to write, the committing to paper is done quickly enough, for everything is … already finished.…But why my productions take from my hand that particular form and style that makes them Mozartish, and different from the works of other composers, is probably owing to the same cause which renders my nose so large or so aquiline, or, in short, makes it Mozart's, and different from those of other people. For I really do not study or aim at originality.

(trans. Edward Holmes)

Yet Mozart's most dazzling compositions are readily identified as of his musical era; for even a genius is a child of his time.

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