Yesterday, I conducted a public conversation with Joyce Carol Oates. I opened with some questions of my own, and then she fielded questions from the graduate student audience. One asked what advice JCO gives students in representing violence in fiction. Her answer, a good one, was something to the effect that violence is one among many things that happens in life, not to be conjured, not to be avoided, and so one treats it in fiction the way one treats any event.
I tried to draw her out on this a little, but she took objection, saying that I wouldn’t ask a man such a thing. I said that in fact my interest as sparked by an article on the subject by a man: Amitav Ghosh’s The Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi (referred to, coincidentally, in a recent post on this website), which ruminates on complexity and pitfalls in representing violence in prose narratives. She had answered the question, in any case, so we moved on, but my interest was piqued by her testiness and by her saying that I wouldn’t ask a male writer to justify his treatment or inclusion of violence (which wasn’t in fact what I was asking, but even her misreading of my question seemed interesting).
This morning, I Googled ‘women writers violence” and the 3rd hit in the list was a piece JCO wrote 33 years ago for the NY TIMES, called Why is Your Writing So Violent?, a question, apparently, that she has been asked so many times that even a hint of it makes her want to slap her forehead.
I would like to think things have changed, but don’t know how I would research this and suspect that they haven’t, much. Otherwise, why would she still have this reaction?