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Joyce Carol Oates, “the Foremost Person of American Letters,’’ Kicks Off This Summer’s Canaan’s Meetinghouse Reading Series

Tuesday, July 16, 2013
When Phil Pochoda, the new director of the Canaan Meetinghouse Readings, introduced Joyce Carol Oates to the audience last Thursday evening, he might as well have been describing a monument or a mountain range. She has written, he said, “40 novels under her own name, two lines of genre novels under pseudonyms, 19 collections of short stories, 17 books of essays and memoirs, seven books of poetry, nine books of plays” and many other books for young readers.

Pochoda concluded by saying that John Updike had missed the mark in calling Oates the foremost woman of American letters. “Instead,” Pochoda said, “I am proud to introduce to you the foremost person of American letters, Joyce Carol Oates.”

Welcome to the 26th year of the Canaan reading series, and the first year under Pochoda’s stewardship. He started on a high note, with a big crowd on hand to listen to Oates and Post Mills poet Cleopatra Mathis read.

Mathis, who founded the creative writing program at Dartmouth College, read from Book of Dog, her seventh collection of poems. She has read at the Meetinghouse several times, including in the series’ first summer. She called the audiences “incredibly attentive,” a group of listeners who want to hear good writing read well.

On Thursday night, they hung on Mathis’ words, but judging by the number of people who brought treasured volumes from home for Oates to sign, Oates was the big draw.

“This is probably the most we’ve had in a couple of years,” Denise Reitsma, a member of the Canaan Town Library’s Trustees, said of the audience. Attendees filled the long benches on the main floor, and filled many of the recently restored box seats in the balcony.

Carrying a modest armload of books up to Oates before she read was Procter Smith, who teaches English at the private Salisbury School in Salisbury, Conn. Smith used to teach a summer course at Cardigan Mountain School that used the Meetinghouse Readings as part of the curriculum.

“She’s terrific on adolescence,” Smith said of Oates. “She handles alienation as perceptively as any contemporary writer I know.”

Oates’ stop in the Upper Valley was a brief one. When she earlier explained that she was staying in Woodstock, Pochoda estimated that she and husband Charles Gross would need less than an hour to get to an informal dinner party before Thursday’s reading, at Pochoda’s house in Lyme. Turned out she was in Woodstock, N.Y., more than a bit farther afield.

Even so, Oates and Gross, who both teach at Princeton University, she in writing, he in neuroscience, arrived in plenty of time to chat with their fellow guests over plates of their host’s homemade paella.

Seated in the living room, Oates was utterly still and composed, as if she’s been written as a character herself. She’s so thin, so self-sufficient as to seem irreducible, a person pared down to her essence.

“This is a special occasion, because of Phil,” Oates said. She and Pochoda have common friends in Princeton. “I don’t accept most invitations, but this one is special.”

Oates’ body of work is so large and varied that it seems pointless to ask about it in a short interview. Indeed, Pochoda noted later that Oates views wonderment at her output as something of a sexist put-down. No one would ask a man why he’s so prolific, Pochoda said, summarizing Oates’ own statement.

Recent literary news has been as much about not writing as about writing: First Philip Roth, then Alice Munro have announced that they are done writing. Oates seemed puzzled by that.

“I’m not sure why they make that announcement,” she said. “It seems a little self-conscious.” Oates, who at 75 is younger than Roth, 80, and Munro, 81, said she has no intention of quitting, so long as her health holds out. “I like writing. I don’t see any reason to stop.”

Oates’ time at the Meetinghouse’s lectern was less a reading than a demonstration of her intelligence and wit.

“It’s just thrilling to be called ‘a person,’ ” she said after Pochoda called her “the foremost person of American letters.”

Oates read from her most recent novel, The Accursed, which began life 30 years ago as the planned fourth volume in a series of gothic novels. The first three were published as Bellefleur, A Bloodsmoor Romance and The Mysteries of Winterthur. But the fourth, she said, then called The Crosswicks Horrors, was consigned to a drawer in 1984, where it remained, literally moldering, Oates said. Occasionally, she would take it out and look it over, usually with excitement, but it never blossomed.

“About two years ago, I went back to it and I thought, ‘I’m still alive?’ ” she said. But she found that this time she had the key. Virginia Woolf said that “all you need is the correct voice,” Oates said, and however maddening such vague instruction might seem, it held true for the writing of The Accursed.

The book is set in 1905 and ’06 in Princeton, N.J., where a particular Curse (always with a capital C) plagues a wide cast of characters. And by wide, consider a book that comprises not only Oates’ fictional creations, but appearances by Teddy Roosevelt, Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson (a favorite son at Princeton whom Oates described in less-than-favorable terms), and the novelists Upton Sinclair and Jack London. She didn’t exaggerate the oddities of these characters in the slightest, she said.

“These people did their own satire,” Oates said.

She read briefly from a chapter in which a “snake frenzy” freaks out the young, impressionable inhabitants of the Rocky Hill Seminary for Girls.

“What a wonderful night,” Pochoda said after Oates finished reading and the ovation died down. “Only I’m afraid we set the bar too high.”

William Craig, who hosted the reading series for 25 years after getting it off the ground back when he was a trustee of the Canaan Town Library, couldn’t help but set up a few chairs for the overflow crowd.

“I’m thrilled,” he said of the first night of the reading series’ new era. “It was kind of like watching your kid go off to its first day of school.”

He also offered perhaps the most perceptive observation of Joyce Carol Oates: “There’s a point in the lives of certain artists when they become their art,” he said. Oates has long since reached that status. “She is literature.”

The writer can be reached at

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