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Joyce Carol Oates

Fourth Estate

REVIEW BY: Karin Schimke

Being inducted to the worlds of Oates’ stories is always a visceral experience of losing oneself.

Meredith Neukirchen, president of an Ivy League university, finds her ethics and energy begin to turn against her very body as she descends into a trance of illness, quite likely brought on by her endless work hours and her unfailing fairness and reasonableness.

Her unravelling is captured in terms so uncertain yet so concrete that the reader is compelled by curiosity to know what is and is not real for this protagonist who embodies all that is admirable and good in human beings.

Meredith’s uncertain past wells up out of her unconscious until it floods her life in a series of events that are terrible to live through with her. Mudwoman does not let up the tension – and Meredith’s anxieties and uncertainties are ours.

Oates is a formidable writer.

COLUMN: That’s it!


Roland Barthes

Before analytical cogs shift into gear, before thought and response, feelings arise in the reader of a novel or a poem. If I do not know what I am about to read – bring no expectation except a wish for a basic pleasure – I will be engaged before I am committed.

Unless the text repels me.

Roland Barthes, the French literary theorist and philosopher, said “…the text…can wring from me only this judgment… : that’s it!”

It seems an over-simplification, but it feels true for me.Text – writing – has several sneaky ways of repelling the reader and few of them have to do with subject matter. The off-putting things in a book are myriad and could be minor and are sometimes hard to pin precisely: a lack of authenticity; repetition; cliché; staccato sentences or their opposite – the long-winded, single-sentence paragraph; inconsistencies in punctuation; incorrect grammar; a lack of musicality in language; one-dimensional characters; plot holes; incredible turns of event – it’s a long list.

Sometimes small, almost invisible doses of a combination of these things undermine the reader’s ability to lose him or herself in the story. The story or poem lacks the magic required to hold its audience.

Books are meant to be a conversation: the author “speaks” expecting to be “heard”. The retorts will be private and the author will seldom come to know how an individual reader has responded. But a good, caring author will always know that they are not engaged in a sole enterprise. They will keep their reader in mind, care to communicate something as well as they possibly can.

Real writers, writers who care about communicating, write as a first step, knowing that their text is not sacred, that for it to be ready for a reader it will have to pass through many hands. Hands that will tinker and temper, slash and hack, pull and push, until the writing, the information, the poem, the story is in its best possible form.

Real writers respect and love – fight with, resent, get irritated by, but essentially love – editors. Editors are what stand between writers being taken seriously or falling by the wayside on that long and unforgiving road of publishing.

I say this because I have come into contact, in various ways, with the sticky issue of self-publishing in the past few weeks. I am not against self-publishing per se, but I am hard-pressed to say why not since no self-published book has ever made me say “that’s it!” They are too riddled with mistakes and ego, too self-aggrandising in length and pompous in tone to stimulate anything other than a desire to move on to the next book on my pile.

I will not speak of those. Let me tell you what did make me say “that’s it!” this month, a list topped by an Afrikaans book which, if it is never translated will be a sore loss to world literature.

Sirkusboere by Sonja Loots – with its striking cover design, a yellow poster advertising a circus show which features real Boer War heroes – is an many-legged triumph of caring publishing. The story (I won’t give it away – but it is based on astounding fact) is told with humour, with a tail-swishing elegance of language deployed to entertain and engage, with pace and with brio.

I also read the new Joyce Carol Oates novel Mudwoman which lured me away from any task that seemed pointless in comparison to knowing what happens.

I have been slowly working my way through the newest poems by Kelwyn Sole in Absent Tongues, truly one of South Africa’s foremost poets, whose poems are filled with anger and poignancy over his homeland – with uncomfortable feelings gently worded for those of us who are stumm with sadness.

These books cared deeply about being read. They are well written. More critically: they are well edited.

This column can also be read here: Books SA