From New Philistine #38 (1997)
FORTY MINUTES OF JOYCE CAROL OATES (Part I)
Joyce Carol Oates spoke in Detroit at a local university last October. I rode my 10-speed bike to see it. I couldn't stay for the entire presentation; I work nights. The affair was revealing. I was privileged to glimpse the literati and their audience in their element, among themselves. A tall stick figure in a fright wig stood on stage, with a little round head, round eyeglasses, and a nasally voice with a trace of a New York accent.
In my zine I insult people. The acclaimed Oates was no less insulting in her talk, only her targets were politically correct, safe, and obvious. Among them were Donald Trump, and men; the Woodrow Wilson School of Diplomats or Something at Princeton, and men; Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, and more men; American Southerners during the time of the Civil War!, and once again, the vanity of men. Oates herself has no vanity, I guess.
The crowd enjoyed it. They chuckled on cue at the appropriate moments. Present throughout her smug superiority was an unstated message conveyed with a wink and a nod: "WE know. WE are above all that." THEY, the crowd, and she, are not touched by the sins of the world, by arrogance, ambition, envy, racism, sexism, greed, or hate. The "crowd" in this case was made up of the top 20% I've referred to in previous issues, or really, the top 1 or 2%. I sat outside the hall on my bike watching them arrive.
Before the lecture I had sat in my room located in a run-down tenement, gazing out a second-floor window, hearing the howl of stray dogs and the hungry screams of crack addicts, watching cloudy night fall over the moody, noirish streets. Then I set out, wearing beneath my tattered leather jacket a denim poncho with hood. The rain turned the sooted city images around me dark and indefinite, imbuing them with a spectral haze that made them appear even more dangerous than they were. I pedaled my 10-speed bike. Rain pummeled my shoulders and head. Red color from a seedy saloon's neon sign flowed into the avenue like blood. Ahead waited the secure urban campus.
The brick lecture hall sat as a refuge from the elements. The people scattering into it from a close-by parking garage were well dressed, as if going to an opera, of obvious affluence. A typical couple: A silver-haired man of sixty-five, well fed, wearing an expensive overcoat, the wife fifteen or twenty years younger, blondish and thin, once a knockout, still attractive.
"General Lectures?" they asked as I sat on my bike in the rain. I pointed. "Who's speaking?" I asked.
"Joyce Carol Oates. The novelist?" the perfumed and painted woman told me. her stolid companion appeared anxious to get into the hall. Rain brushed the edges of his well-made coat. "She won two Nobel Prizes," the woman continued, eager that I be impressed. "Or she was nominated for them anyway."
The lady's companion dragged her inside. Now I knew why they had driven into dark Detroit this evening from a far distant suburb. It was an opportunity to be in the presence of true cultural celebrity and weight of the highest (class and taste) form. Literature today represents nothing so much as exclusiveness, as breeding and manners.
The night sky was black. My clothes were soaked. I chained my wet bike to a pole and followed the couple in.
(To be continued.)