Bunches of Oats

Some 24 years before Joyce Carol Oates, the acclaimed author, read to a full auditorium at University of Chicago’s International House on May 18, John Updike wrote that her talents were wasted on the modern American public. This woman, he insisted, “needs a lustier audience, a race of Victorian word-eaters, to be worthy of her astounding productivity, her tireless gift of self-enthrallment.” Since then this soft-spoken writer’s body of work has relentlessly grown. The count, as of this printing, is 60 novels, 30 collections of short stories, and eight volumes of poetry. Addressing the sheer bulk of material the invitee has produced, professor Maud Ellman quipped, “Ms. Oates writes books faster than most of us read them.”

After a series of lengthy introductions, the tall, 73-year-old woman walked daintily up to the podium.  She thanked the speakers for their fulsome praise before adding, modestly, that the oft-recited list “makes me feel just a tiny, wee bit posthumous.” Oates continued, “I spend so much time in solitary confinement with my own thoughts, it’s nice every once in a while to go out and remember that there is another world out there.”

She began by reading a story from her collection, “Sourland,” which chronicles a widow’s encounter with a male interloper. At first Oates’s storytelling seemed perfunctory. But as the tale progressed, the thrill of the plot and the strength of her prose seemed to mesmerize even the fabulist. Her hands quavered with her heroine’s, her body shrank with fright before bristling with rage, and she performed the antagonist’s Slavic accent with gusto.

Oates dropped humor into the conversation, alternating between pearls of wisdom and witticisms as effortlessly as Tina Fey. In response to loaded questions about grief, Oates would occasionally answer with self-deprecating schtick. She reenacted a series of hysterical scenes from her recent memoir, mimicking the antics of well-meaning friends as flawlessly as the condescension of her cats.

After the reading was over, attendees frantically picked up tomes they had stashed under chairs. A sizable group huddled around a card table that sagged under the weight of about a tenth of Ms. Oates’ oeuvre.  Oates was generous with her time, but no one in the queue stayed long. They were careful not to linger, as if afraid that the hours Joyce Carol Oates spent in Hyde Park had just cost posterity ten glorious pages. (Christopher Riehle)