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Examiner defends Joyce Carol Oates’ latest novel ‘Carthage’ against hypercritics

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(Current fiction & past quality fiction)

According to The New York Times’ review by Liesl Schillinger, “Carthage” (Ecco/HarperCollins) by Joyce Carol Oates draws on the archetypes employed in St. Augustine’s “Confessions” and capitalized on by T.S. Eliot in “The Waste Land” to lend context and gravitas to the tragedies of our own time, plumbing their mythic force.

“Oates sends her characters on separate, painful journeys toward self-knowledge, slowly cycling them back to Carthage,” writes Schillinger, noting that “The title of this novel resonates with classically tragic overtones, which the author clearly intends.”

As astute readers know, many of Oates’ 40-plus novels involve similarly serious themes which set her up for attacks from a certain genre of hypercritical critic. Boiled down, the attacks amount to “why is that woman writing about the same thing all the time?”

Examiner answers: For the same reason we tell young writers to write about what they know; for the same reason Ernest Hemingway repeated certain themes throughout his novels, for the same reason William Faulkner repeated earlier published thematic in the novels “Absalom, Absalom!” and “The Hamlet.”

“Carthage” ranks as a darn fine novel and Examiner highly recommends it. Now, about those critics; they play a sort of verbal ping pong with each other. Schillinger published “Wordbirds: An Irreverent Lexicon for the 21st Century.” According to critic George F. Simons, “Schillinger, in ‘Wordbirds’ neologizes experiences most of us have and can describe, but for which we have no socially constructed verbal identity.” Who the heck is Simons, using a noun as a verb? Simons is a rather pompous internationally known professional in the use of personal writing and journals.

Examiner has often wondered about critics and their tastes. Take Dwight Garner of The New York Times who also looked at Carthage and wrote: “There are many references in ‘Carthage’ to magical spells and fairy tales and children’s storybooks. It made me want to flee back into the adult world, pry open a window and gulp the open air.” Reading Garner’s review, Examiner was tempted to suggest that Garner might well have topped his asinine review by jumping out that open window. His background includes founding books editor of which may help explain him. Recent articles: Mia Farrow's sex abuse silence; The uneasy ambiguity of the Woody Allen case; 10 ways porn perpetuates myths about men and sex; Stop telling single women they're fabulous; and, among others, Are you afraid of happiness? Take the quiz. Garner is purportedly married to a cookbook writer.

Washington Post critic Dan Chaon had the decency to quote some of Oates’ quality writing: “As the figures passed through the metamorphoses from left to right their ‘whiteness’ shaded into ‘darkness’ — like negatives; then, as negatives, as they passed through reverse stages of metamorphoses, they became ‘white’ again.”

Examiner can easily quote from any page in “Carthage” without fear of finding words wrongly etched. Take page 326: “For it was hopeless to speak . . . Like stammering in a foreign language in which you know only a few words but not how to connect them.”

Her publisher’s short writing biography: Joyce Carol Oates is a recipient of the National Book Award and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction. She has written some of the most enduring fiction of our time, including the national bestsellers “We Were the Mulvaneys” and “Blonde” (a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize), and The New York Times bestsellers “The Falls” (winner of the 2005 Prix Femina Etranger) and “The Gravedigger’s Daughter.” She is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978. In 2003 she received the Common Wealth Award for Distinguished Service in Literature and The Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement, and in 2006 she received the Chicago Tribune Lifetime Achievement Award.

Back to that business about repeating themes: Leo Tolstoy: “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.”

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