The XX Factor

Joyce Carol Oates on Mentors, Monsters, and Men

The latest issue of Narrative Magazine includes an excerpt from Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives . The 1/30 th we get is from Joyce Carol Oates, who says she can’t think of any mentors (which is very Lady Gaga of her). She just tells some fabulous stories about Donald Barthelme, John Gardener, and her lonely relationship to Alice and Wonderland . I doubt she intended for the essay to be at all gendered, but she comes off as surrounded by self-mythologizing men:

With one so strong-minded as Donald Barthelme, you could not easily change the subject. You would remain on Don’s subject for as long as Don wished to examine that subject, he with the air of a bemused vivisectionist. As Don’s prose fiction is whimsical-shading-into-nightmare, cartoon-surreal-visionary, so Don’s personality on such quasi-social occasions was likely to be that of the playful bully, perversely defining himself as an outsider, a marginal figure, a “loser” in the marketplace, in contrast to others whose books sold more, or so he believed. No sooner had my husband and I been welcomed into the Barthelmes’ brownstone apartment-no sooner had I congratulated Don on what I’d believed to be the very positive reviews and bestseller status of his new book of stories, Amateurs -than he corrected me with a sneering smile, informing me that Amateurs wasn’t a bestseller, and that no book of his had ever been a bestseller; his book sales were “nothing like” mine; if I doubted this, we could make a bet-for $100-and check the facts. Quickly I backed down, I declined the bet-no doubt in my usual embarrassed and conciliatory way, hoping to change the subject.

But Don wasn’t in the mood to change the subject just yet. To everyone’s embarrassment-Ray’s, mine, his wife’s-Don picked up a phone receiver, dialed a number, and handed the receiver to me with the request to speak to his editor-he’d called Roger Straus at Farrar, Straus & Giroux-and ask if in fact Donald Barthelme had ever had a bestseller; and so, trying to fall in with the joke, which seemed to me to have gone a little further than necessary, I asked Roger Straus-whom I didn’t know, had scarcely heard of at this time in my life-if Don had ever had a bestseller, and was told no, he had not.

This brief and painful encounter with the male ego strikes me as very Joan Didion: the slight swallowed in the moment (his books “nothing like” hers), later to be caustically unveiled on the page.