When author Joyce Carol Oates steps up to the podium at the Gerald Lynch Theater at John Jay College in New York recently, I am not sure what to expect. My shelves are filled with literary treasures and contain 15 of her books, but I haven’t read any of her work in at least a decade.
Now, here she is, courtesy of The Center for Fiction, appearing on a stage with Richard Ford to read from their respective current novels. Ford has already read the first chapter of Canada. Oates’ latest is called Mudwoman and she begins by telling us that at previous readings she has read the first chapter and then another portion. Neither of those sat well with her, so this day she has decided to read the last chapter of her novel.
Yes, that’s right. Let that wash over you.
Because as I sat there with the newly purchased big fat copy of Mudwoman on my lap, I pondered putting my hands over my ears and muttering “lalalalalalalalala” until she was finished. As stated, this brilliant and oblivious writer proceeded to read what happens to her main character at the end of the book.
While unwittingly drawn in to the final section she was reading, I spent most of that time trying to suppress laughter at the absurdity of her doing it in the first place. I flashed back for a moment to a favorite movie, When Harry Met Sally, and how Harry liked to skip to the end of a book first; I cringed all over again a la Sally. Much like the Meg Ryan character in the film, I am inclined to prefer order, sequence, suspense. I don’t even like when I’m watching someone decorating a room on HGTV and they tease the ‘reveal.’
But at the end, as the audience applauded and I finally let my laughter out, I felt instantly lighter. I knew the ending to the book I just bought. So what. Joyce Carol Oates just broke the rules. So what.
It was a nice little comeuppance for me and it got me thinking about when it’s OK to break the rules. I came up with this – when you’ve earned it. When you’re so darned storied or respected or distinguished or good that you can get away with doing something otherwise unthinkable or seemingly batty. Oates has written over 50 novels and that’s in addition to the non-fiction books, the short stories and the essays. By all means, esteemed scholar/writer, get up and read a scathing scene from Fifty Shades of Grey if you want to.
It’s like what baseball veteran Crash Davis tells newcomer-to-the-minors Ebby Calvin LaLoosh in Bull Durham – “Your shower shoes have fungus on them. You’ll never make it to the bigs with fungus on your shower shoes. Think classy, you’ll be classy. If you win 20 in the show, you can let the fungus grow back and the press’ll think you're colorful. Until you win 20 in the show, however, it means you are a slob.”
Bottom line: If you’re a first-time novelist, don’t get up at a reading and regale the audience with your last chapter unless you’re willing to risk it being your literal last chapter. Earn your way there.
After the readings, listening to Ford and Oates, all relaxed in easy chairs, have a discussion about literature and their own writing was fascinating. I could have easily enjoyed another hour. Oates, Professor in the Humanities with the Program in Creative Writing at Princeton University since 1978, is so steeped in her subject matter, so learned, so passionate, that all else melted away as I absorbed her take on Faulkner, Updike, Joyce, Shakespeare. She was forthcoming about process (not easy to discuss), literary triumphs that have come from failure (i.e., Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury) and even talked about how she is often staving off loneliness when immersing herself in writing a novel. Gorgeously real.
As it turns out, I am 100 pages (of 428) into Mudwoman and nothing could have prepared me for what is happening on those pages. Not the book jacket summary. Not Oates’ discussion with Ford about its themes. Not even her revelatory reading that seemed so jarring and dense in the moment.
Oh my goodness, the mind of this artist. So dark and weird and phenomenal.
An interesting message for my sometimes obsessively ordered self has bubbled up: Go with it. It’s OK. Really.
Nancy Colasurdo is a practicing life coach and freelance writer. Her Web site is www.nancola.com and you can follow her on Twitter @nancola. Please direct all questions/comments to FOXGamePlan@gmail.com.