To the Editor:
I was interested that Elizabeth Dalton should consider so closely my work, especially my most recent novel, them, in your June issue [“Joyce Carol Oates: Violence in the Head”], and that she should point out certain patterns of recurring violence that I had not been aware of. Writers do not choose their subject matters and can neither explain nor defend them—we would all like to write about happy people with happy problems, I suppose.
I don’t understand, though, the objection to the use of violence and death. When I began writing, violence in America was not so publicized as it is now, but it certainly existed, as it must always exist, for it is the last and most desperate resource for the energies of life, whether we like it or not. As for death: it is one of the few things we have in common, and an interest in it is not morbid, or unhealthy, but, in my opinion, entirely natural. Death is more common than love, surely? Not only death, but the means by which men attain death—including suicide—seem to me natural, inevitable. Beneath the pleasant surfaces of our ethical and cultural beings there is a primitive substance that might alarm me as a woman but which engages my deepest interests as a writer.
Miss Dalton objects that, in them, “there is no identification with [the hero], no deeply felt experience, no real pity or terror.” This is surely a matter of opinion, for Jules is a truly living human being, far closer to me than many people I see constantly. His main concerns in the novel, as in his curious life, are for his family and for a woman—bonds of love he cannot escape. Violence and death may be important materials in my writing, but love is my subject.
Though them was fantastically imagined, a mock-naturalistic work, I am amazed at the number of letters I am still receiving from people to whom the characters, the setting (Detroit), and the bizarre events are painfully real. Such matters are not “in the head” but out on the street, and whether they seem real or not must depend, ultimately, on one’s own experience. I suppose Miss Dalton’s experience has simply not been with this kind of thing. But she should understand that violence in the head or out of it, violence that takes physical expression or is simply a critic’s verbal spite, is a reminder to us that reality is a difficult and perhaps terrible thing, but it is, after all, all we have.
Joyce Carol Oates
To the Editor:
I would like to take exception to Elizabeth Dalton’s . . . careless and, in fact, unintelligible comments on Expensive People. . . . The story is based on the fact that the people who inhabit “affluent suburbia” are evil because they murder their children by ignoring their need for love, by sending them to schools which destroy their creativity, and by dragging them from one pretentious house to another. In the novel, madness passes for sanity and sanity for madness. The names to which Miss Dalton attaches importance contribute little to the thematic definition of the novel itself. The novel reveals a great deal of sophistication on the part of Joyce Carol Oates. If Miss Oates’s picture of the vapid, lifeless people who value only money and what it can buy can be characterized as an attempt at, in Miss Dalton’s words, “black humor and biting satire,” then The Great Gatsby and This Side of Paradise must also be characterized as attempts at “black humor and biting satire” which also fail. . . .
Port Arthur, Texas
Miss Dalton writes:
I don’t object to the appearance of violence and death in literature. Nor do I feel that I suffer from a deficiency of violence in my personal experience that would prevent me from commenting on the subject. I do think that some of Miss Oates’s work seems to make a claim for an extreme response from the reader simply because the subject is extreme—violent or grotesque. Thus the reader is given the impression that he is being made to feel a great deal because he is reading about violence and death, when in fact he is not really feeling very much at all. But I certainly understand that Miss Oates and many of her readers should disagree with me.
In answer to Miss Fleckman—I also have no objection to “black humor” or “biting satire”: they are not terms of opprobrium. I just don’t think Expensive People does very well what it apparently sets out to do.