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Who’s Afraid of Joyce Carol Oates?

The 83-year-old novelist is a reliable source of Twitter drama — for which we should be grateful

While Twitter is anathema to a contingent of novelists — Jonathan Franzen has called it “the ultimate irresponsible medium,” and folks, he ain’t wrong — it’s also a given that other wordsmiths are drawn to the platform. Some are there for self-promotion; some like to rub elbows with peers and fans. There are authors sharing their personal lives, and authors with a fiercely political sensibility. And then there is the kind of writer who logs on to think aloud.

It is to this last category that Joyce Carol Oates belongs.

Over the past several years, the wildly prolific fiction writer and professor, now 83, has become a unique fixture of social media: Consistently derided for her opinions, yet uncancelable by virtue of those same bad takes, because they are so fantastically strange. Who else would think to chide Halloween revelers for decorating with plastic skeletons? The same week she lodged her objection to icons of death in a season of all things spooky, she caused an even greater stir by speculating on the use of the gender-neutral pronouns “they” and “them.” While most opponents of such nonbinary language argue from an essentialist view — i.e., you can only be either a man or a woman, therefore “he” and “she” are sufficient — Oates forged her own path, claiming that confusion between the singular and plural “they” would prevent the former from taking root. 

It’s funny because, as many pointed out, what she says won’t happen already has. Funnier still, nobody else thinks this way. (The cherry on top is that one of Oates’ enduring novels is titled Them.) The author’s apology for the tweet clarified that she supports trans people and thinks everyone has the right to choose their preferred pronouns, making it clear that these considerations had no influence on what she had posted. She really believed she was simply predicting the likeliest course of linguistic evolution, without judgment as to its moral harm. 

Elsewhere, Oates achieves this grating combination of objectivist tone and supposedly unwitting provocation with the rhetorical maneuver of “just asking questions,” as in 2013, when she floated a connection between Islamic faith and sexual assault. The following year, when she was taken to task for a comment about Chinese people eating cats, she followed it up with a vague source and innocent-sounding requests for someone, anyone, to correct her if need be.  

As we saw in the pronouns controversy, Oates is willing to listen and learn why these statements may be insensitive; she’s distinct from the average jerk in that she doesn’t double down but asks, “Hey, why is everyone mad at me?” It never feels that she is trying to enrage the masses, but neither does she delete her problematic statements or apply the lesson of any incident to her posting style and choice of subjects going forward. It also rarely occurs to her, despite having 215,000 followers, that her words have substantial reach or impact — by her own account, she sees herself not as a “powerful voice” but an elderly woman who lives alone with cats. The result is savant-like talent for casually disrupting the ordinary flow of content with non-sequiturs and bizarre extrapolations. A relatively normal day online can tilt into chaos whenever Oates has an idea that travels unfiltered from her mind palace to her feed.

The digital reputation Oates has built for herself complicates any effort to understand when she’s joking (see: the dinosaur-hunting tweet above, which was widely read as sincere) and when she’s potentially fucking with us (like the time she shared a disgusting photo of her foot apparently ravaged by poison oak or similar; click if you dare). It’s true that some of her more offensive implications mean she’s lost the benefit of the doubt, but is Oates so irredeemable that she should, as one critic long ago advised, delete her account

I think not. Her being out of step with how the site works, and somewhat ignorant of how certain remarks will be interpreted or contextualized, is kind of delightful. It humanizes a vaunted intellectual, it keeps the discourse interesting and it leads to some iconic replies: “you’re terrible but thank you for inventing oatmeal.” And she isn’t thin-skinned, nor does she play the victim. She’s immune to the Ratio

A literary figure who is not called upon for public analysis like this but helpfully botches it anyway is, I would argue, more valuable to the culture than Stephen King tweets scolding everyone in red states, toxic drama around YA fiction, the recent handwringing over authors pulling material from real life or yet another week spent on the tedious meme that identifies certain books as “red flags.” Oates stands apart from the irritating noise. She isn’t seeking clout or attempting to “own” her perceived enemies. She’s doing this for herself, contemplating the world as only she can, often finding new and exciting ways to be wrong. There’s nobility in that.

Dismiss Oates as a crank if you want — you’d be entirely justified. But as someone she once quote-tweeted to claim that Tolstoy would’ve been #MeToo’d, I can’t help being fascinated, and I know I’d miss her if she logged off. Button-pushing trolls are a dime a dozen. Oates is an artist, and it’s a pleasure to witness her bold, unpredictable craft. She’s right where she belongs.

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