Joyce Carol Oates has at least a few loyal fans among the maximum security prison population.
Though Oates doubts that they are reading her work, the letters the prisoners have written left a lasting impression on the author. Monday night, years after she received one particular letter, she read it to her audience at Jesse Hall at MU, still mock-apprehensive about whether this particular criminal had been released yet, the one who wrote cryptically at the end of the letter, “PS — The U.S. started World War II.”
At the time she read it, Oates thought writing back was somehow altruistic. Since then, she has stopped replying to the letters she receives — the ones marked with a long numeral in the return address, the ones with the slightly different postage on the envelope.
Oates visited MU as the second annual John William Proctor Distinguished Author. She is known for her prolific body of writing, includ-ing an estimated 50 novels, as well as several short stories, chapbooks, collections of poetry, books of plays and collections of nonfiction. Her work has earned numerous awards, including the National Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction and the Rosenthal Award from the Ameri-can Academy of Arts and Letters.
The list has followed her like a self-described brontosaurus when she is introduced at functions, leading her to use her first pseudonym, Rosalind Smith, and later, a second, Lauren Kelly, a name she describes as more cutting edge.
Oates suggested that the experience of writing under pseudonym is one that everyone should employ when he or she has something to write about that might be too honest to ascribe their own name to. It’s an experience she suggests to her own students at Princeton University’s creative writing program.
As Oates related tidbits about her writing and teaching, the front row of the audience leaned forward expectantly, many with slight smiles on their faces. But Oates was just as happy to have a willing audience as this audience was to have such a willing storyteller — at points Oates even holding up the papers she would read from to demonstrate how short the pieces really were, that she would take no more time than was necessary.
During the reading, Oates offered part of her most recent novel, “My Faith as a Writer.”
“I believe that art is the highest expression of the human spirit. I believe that we yearn to transcend the merely finite and ephemeral; to participate in something mysterious and communal called ‘culture’ — and that this yearning is as strong in our species as the yearning to reproduce the species,” Oates read.
“Through the local or regional, through our individual voices, we work to create art that will speak to others who know nothing of us. In our very obliqueness to one another, an unexpected intimacy is born. The individual voice is the communal voice. The regional voice is the universal voice.”
As the eager audience filed out, Oates remained at a small table, signing new copies of her novels purchased outside the auditorium, as well as stacks of old classics people had brought from their bookshelves at home.