This week marks the publication of Joyce Carol Oates’ new novel The Accursed. This is something like her fortieth novel (it depends on whether you count novels written under pseudonyms), the latest entry in an ever-expanding corpus including short story collections, young adult novels, essays, memoirs, books of poetry, and, I kid you not, a children’s book entitled Come Meet Muffin!
Oates is an institution, a woman whose literary fecundity and mid-cult consistency have made her a lynchpin of American letters for half a century. She’s the kind of author that gets Pulitzer nominations but not prizes, that gets taught in high school English classes and translated into Spanish and French, that gets written up in Entertainment Weekly and granted honorary degrees by respectable state universities. She also maintains, with her usual feverish productivity, the single worst Twitter account I have ever seen.
In many ways, Oates should transfer perfectly to the 140-character prose poem form known as the Tweet. She is popular, often funny, politically engaged, and culturally literate. Her influences may be high-brow, but her references are always of the honorable middle. Her prose is also marked by an economy and flair that the Tweet thrives on.
Oates’ Twitter is the most striking example I have yet seen of why none of that is enough anymore. Oates’ ability to write in essentially every form is workmanlike; she simply pounds her standard retinue of images and references into a new meter for poetry, she truncates her narrative impulses for short stories, she applies her trenchant eye for the macabre to criticism, changing only the subject matter.
Twitter is different. Twitter is a form that completely dominates content. Oates seems to assume her readers are following exclusively her, waiting with bated breath for her verdict on the relative merits of Silver Linings Playbook v. Beasts of the Southern Wild. She doesn’t realize that between the two different tweets she posted announcing her decision fifteen or twenty other tweets had appeared in my feed. Accustomed to the paradigm of complete audience subservience offered by the printed word, Oates has been unable to act as merely one voice among many.
Increasingly this has been an issue of tone. Twitter is great for small, ostensibly revealing but always humorous insights into the lifestyles of our favorite taste makers and culture creators. It works best as a publicity tool when it complements our previous assumptions about our artistic heroes.
Take John Darnielle. Darnielle’s modest fame rests on his work as songwriter for the band The Mountain Goats. For at least the last ten years or so, the output of this band has been dark but richly detailed, as if Wallace Stevens had spent his childhood listening to Megadeath and watching Dario Argento films. Based on his music, some might assume Darnielle is a bit of a downer. His Twitter proves he is not. Through this medium, we meet a Darnielle who is an omnivorous consumer of obscure corners of the pop cultural landscape, a dedicated family man, and a truly funny dude. This recent tweet brings all these Darnielles together:
“I hope my son will someday forgive me for reading so many of his books in a voice that resembles Faxed Head's ‘The Blackened Coffin.’”
Darnielle knows most of his followers won’t understand that reference (I confess that I don’t) but it works anyway: you assume something called “The Blackened Coffin” is humorously inappropriate in the context of a bedtime story. The message seems to be “Hey guys! I’m not just the broody guy from my songs! Yes, I am pretty broody, but I’m also a nice guy! A funny guy! The kind of guy you could hang out with!”
By contrast, Joyce Carol Oates comes across as a parody of the implied author of her stories. She comes across as either a psychopath or a depressive, and, sandwiched between tweets by H. Jon Benajmin and Jesse Thorn, her tweets sound like desperate cries for help.
The following is an honest to God real Joyce Carol Oates tweet:
“Tomorrow will be interviewed by the inimitable / wonderful Michael Krasny, "Forum," KQED-FM, 10 AM-11 AM. Hope Michael will not make me cry.”
This woman needs to be stopped.
So many things are wrong with this. The assumption that an international social media outlet should be used to advertise local radio appearances. The shameless self-promotion. The lack of a link. And especially that last sentence, which I guess is aiming for profundity but reads like a weird joke.
Here are others:
“Original purpose of religion — (unconscious) wish to live forever. Invent God, but then a priest-caste sees an opportunity & takes over. No?”
“Stand-up comics work to distract us from the precipice ahead as frantically they work to distract themselves. (Pascal Paraphrased)”
“A widow knows that the cruelest thing is hope but still, she hopes to be deceived.”
And this one, that I just love:
“Ayelet Waldman is the Oprah of Twitter.”
No, Joyce Carol Oates, Berkeley-based feminist scholar and writer Ayelet Waldman, possessor of a paltry 9,644 followers is not the Oprah of Twitter. Oprah is. Just ask her 17 Million followers.
The real downfall of Joyce Carol Oates’ Twitter is that she takes it so damn seriously. She aims for profundity several times a day in 140 character bursts, and fails every single time. She fails because Twitter is not about profundity. It’s about jokes. It’s about links. It’s about deflating your own image as you reify your status as a pop cultural figure to be reckoned with. It’s about everything Joyce Carol Oates, bless her heart, just doesn’t understand.