Tall Lady Short but Sound

It’s unfair to say one feels let down by a free pro­gram. It’s more unrea­son­able to feel let down by a non-performer’s per­for­mance. Alas, sev­eral of us did; I asked around afterward.

Writer Joyce Carol Oates, 75, still teach­ing at Prince­ton and other cam­puses, was fas­ci­nat­ing for her 45 min­utes onstage at the Fayet­teville Town Cen­ter on Mon­day, April 21. Sud­denly, it was all over but the book-signing.

Joyce Carol Oates.

Joyce Carol Oates.
Photo from Uni­ver­sity of Arkansas

She was the 2014 Dis­tin­guished Reader of the Pro­grams in Cre­ative Writ­ing & Trans­la­tion of the Eng­lish depart­ment of the Uni­ver­sity of Arkansas. Ear­lier in the day, Oates met with Mas­ter of Fine Arts students.

After two intro­duc­tions, Oates went onstage about 7:15, and the sev­eral hun­dred seats were over three-fourths occu­pied. She ended at 8, not­ing there would be no Q-and-A.

In between, the noted author was delight­ful. She read one story, an older one, “Small Avalanches,” the title piece from a col­lec­tion. Oates to a mod­est but effec­tive extent acted the parts of the nar­ra­tor, a naive 13-year-old girl, and other char­ac­ters, even ges­tur­ing at points with hand move­ments and shoul­der shrugs.

The sec­ond half of her pre­sen­ta­tion was a read­ing from a draft of a mem­oir she is call­ing The Lost Land­scape: A Writer’s Mem­oir. The sec­tion con­cerned her par­ents and some grand­par­ents. She read this quickly with no drama.

Before read­ing the fic­tion, Oates empha­sized how she rarely writes in her own voice. It helps her, she said, to move through the cadences and inflec­tions of the voice of the main character.

Her sto­ries, she said, are mixed from three sources: made up (inven­tion), acquired (obser­va­tion) and self (mem­ory). After “Small Avalanches,” where the young nar­ra­tor is walk­ing home fol­lowed by a man with appar­ent bad intent, she noted which parts came from which.

It was slight but suf­fi­cient for my lit­er­ary evening, to learn Joyce Carol Oates’ view of “made up, acquired and self.” After all, she’s pub­lished more than 50 nov­els, dozens of short story, essay and poetry col­lec­tions, and books for chil­dren and young adults.

She gave us a big clue.

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