Joyce Carol Oates is always at her finest

Joyce Carol Oates comes to Lexington this week, and it's hard to say less than this: Grab everybody you know who reads or writes or thinks, and get to the Kentucky Women Writers Conference. You don't get to see genius every day.

Oates is the grand dame of American letters and a woman whose works number in the hundreds, who writes like you breathe, if your every exhalation wound up in hardcover or in The New York Review of Books.

Any discussion about Oates will sooner or later stumble on the P-word: productivity. Oates writes novels, short stories and reviews, she teaches and she has two literary pseudonyms (Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly). She has been published for more than 40 years, and the only major award that she has not received is the Nobel Prize for literature — and many say she's destined for that.

Still, Oates doesn't think she's getting enough done.

"I always feel guilty because I haven't done as much work as I want to in a day," she said by phone in a recent interview.

With dozens of books to her name, the trouble with assessing Oates lies not in quantifying her brilliance, which is real, but in absorbing the sheer mass of her work, which is more than Herculean.

And yet she makes time to travel to events such as the Kentucky Women Writers Conference, which starts Thursday in Lexington.

Why? Someone simply asked her to visit the conference, and she says she thought it "sounds like a very warm, interesting, inviting gathering."

That's part of the dichotomy of Oates. This very mellow woman puts her characters through garishly rough sledding, physically and emotionally. A review of Oates' most recent book, My Sister, My Love by the International Herald Tribune began: "Joyce Carol Oates isn't known for lightheartedness," which is like saying the sun isn't known for freezing. It's a nod to the glaringly obvious, and also a back-door suggestion that what readers really want is a moral landscape they recognize. Oates isn't in that business.

She's literary-fierce.

To sample Oates, start with the cool surfaces of Them, treat yourself to a little Oates-gone-Gothic with Bellefleur, then proceed to the gritty splendor of The Gravedigger's Daughter. My Sister, My Love, is a fictional take on the JonBenet e_SDHpRamsey case centered on the death of a little skater named Bliss Rampike.

Though My Sister, My Love might have been suggested by the Ramsey case, it's not strictly about the incident, any more than Oates' book Blonde was about becoming Marilyn Monroe; Dark Water dissected the mysteries of Chappaquiddick; or the young-adult novel Freaky Green Eyes was a faithful retelling of the O.J. Simpson case. Despite her skill with reimagining true crime, Oates does not write police procedurals — although anyone reading her 1999 New York Review of Books piece reviewing books on the Ramsey case might wonder whether she couldn't dash out a fine true-crime potboiler, so intimately did she absorb the bizarre minutiae surrounding the murder.

Beyond the murder, My Sister, My Love is about living the scarred life of a tabloid target, how a moment's notoriety clings for a lifetime — and about how even the alleged victims can buy into the morbid machine. In the book, Oates wields a topical bazooka, especially when Bliss's mother decides to cash in on her daughter's demise. Yet she's not hostile to her characters, insisting, "Satire doesn't exclude sympathy."

"Betsey is invited to explain to viewers how she's inaugurated Heaven Scent Products in 1998 as a way of 'helping to heal the festering wounds' of her personal tragedy. On display are a number of Heaven Scent products: Heaven Scent Cosmetic Kit — Heaven Scent Perfumes — Heaven Scent Bubble Bath — Heaven Scent Christmas Chocolates — Heaven Scent Accessories (scarves, belts, bracelets et al.) — Heaven Scent Betsey's Special Recipe Christmas Fruitcake. ... Next there's an admiring buzz in the studio as Betsey proudly displays a Heaven Scent Bliss Rampike Doll: a startlingly lifelike replica of Bliss Rampike in miniature, with vivid blue glass eyes that open and shut, a sweet rosebud mouth, ultra-realistic skin and fine blond shoulder-length hair, movable arms and legs, detachable doll-size ice skates for the tiny feet ... offered pre-Christmas for a base price of just $99.99; with a complete wardrobe plus ice skates, for an additional $49.99." — from My Sister, My Love (HarperCollins, $25.95)

As one of the most original literary voices of our time, Oates tends to scare the dickens out of her readers. But she insists that she's far different in person. To put it in a pedestrian way that would never see the light of day in an Oates novel, she is nice.

"I'm actually a pretty easygoing person," Oates says, in part because she logged decades in the university classroom, teaching at the University of Detroit, the University of Windsor, in Canada, and now at Princeton.

When she makes appearances, Oates doesn't judge folks by their questions.

"If they're sincere," she says. "I'm always interested in answering them."

She tells prospective writers to read voluminously and omnivorously and write fearlessly. Oates doesn't often read reviews — a snarky critique of My Sister, My Love recently in The New York Times was news to her — because, she says, if you listen too hard to the crowd of critics, you find yourself paralyzed as a writer.

Oates didn't used to be much of a TV watcher but admits immersing herself in tabloid-news TV to research My Sister, My Love: Bill O'Reilly, Geraldo Rivera and Nancy Grace ("I think sometimes she has a moral agenda that is laudable," Oates says of Grace. "Sometimes she just seems to be on attack.").

If there's a definitive Oates novel, which would it be? The hard sheen of early Oates in Them? The Gothic curlicues and conflagration of Bellefleur? We Were the Mulvaneys, which proved Oates could rip the tear ducts right out of your eyes?

Oates herself thinks that what she's mainly noted for is the short story Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? (later made into a movie, Smooth Talk, with Laura Dern, Treat Williams and a different ending).

The story is disturbing and hypnotic, a sort of trademark Oates effort in which a teenager does an intricate and lethal verbal dance with a sociopath. He threatens to kill her whole family if she doesn't play along, but then, in this story, that's a seductive quality. His reality is ugly but persuasive.

"'My sweet little blue-eyed girl,' he said in a half-sung sigh that had nothing to do with her brown eyes but was taken up just the same by the vast sunlit reaches of the land behind him and on all sides of him — so much land that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know that she was going to it." — from Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?, included in Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?: Selected Early Stories (Ontario Review Press, $14.95)

A fevered productivity is the wonder of Oates, and the trouble with assessing her reputation. When the 2007 Nobel Prize was awarded to Doris Lessing, we could say, well, there's The Golden Notebook, Africa, women. There's a finite body of work there, a style, a recognizable framework on which to hang the laurels.

But figuring out Oates' style is like trying to carve your Christmas tree out of Jell-O. Pull together a random group of 30 readers, and each might reference a different Oates book.

Despite all that, the author still finds time to do her own house cleaning. She says she enjoys it.

Oates' biggest commercial success of late has been the 1996 novel We Were the Mulvaneys, endorsed by Oprah Winfrey in 2001. Two of its characters, Marianne and Patrick, are, Oates wrote on Winfrey's Web site, among her favorites and she described the novel as the one "closest to my heart." It shows. Mulvaneys transcends literary artifice to celebrate two constant Oates themes: homesickness and memory.

"After Sunday supper (Sunday nights were always 'super-casserole' occasions, meaning Mom and Marianne would concoct delicious refrigerator-leftovers unique and not-repeatable), and the dogs and cats gobbling away at plate scrapings in their separate corners, anxious too, with that twitchy animal anxiety that shows as rapacious appetite, muzzles lowered to the bowl. And by this time Feathers would have woken from his early-evening drowse to scold, chatter, chirp in sounds sharp as the twining of a fork on a glass. Patrick took no notice of such upset as he himself caused but leaned farther forward, his bony vertebrae showing through his shirt, and he'd shove his prissy John Lennon glasses against the bridge of his nose, and beetle his brow so he'd be staring at Mom like she was some kind of specimen." — from We Were the Mulvaneys (Penguin Group, $16)

Oates might be revered as a Gothic literary heroine, but it's the Mulvaneys moments in her work — bathed in loss and a yearning for a fine time that you never knew was so fine until it was gone — that etch their way into the reader's brain. You might lose many threads of the novel, might remember only that the family is first golden and then tragic, that the book concludes with the benediction "We were the Mulvaneys." But moments like her description of the Sunday dinner mark the difference between a writer just making scratches on pages and one whose work draws you into its own whirlwind.

That's not what makes Oates great, it's what makes Oates Oates.

Although Oates, who turned 70 this summer, continues to write, she doesn't like to think about whether she will do so until she dies. She doesn't know how anyone can see what that day will be like.

So she works and teaches and reads. She likes The New York Times online. She canceled the family subscription to the print edition after her husband of 45 years, Raymond Smith, died earlier this year. She calls online news "a publishing phenomenon that's very rich, whereas the newspaper itself was very finite."

Her Internet bookmarks include an arts and letters Web site and a page that shows an astronomy photograph of the day. Like Oates' work, those photos are full of gorgeous loops and the detritus of artistically rendered explosions, lives light years away from us yet still visible.

Does Oates see herself with that Nobel Prize? No. Her husband is dead now, and so are her parents ("It's one's parents who care," she says). Who's going to celebrate with her, be proud of her now? Winning the Nobel would be, she says, just a little sad.

"No, I must say, it doesn't mean much to me."

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