Joyce Carol Oates’ Diaries

It’s a bad time for diary keepers. Time was that a diary was something you could be pretty sure would never be read by anybody else. At least until you died, and even then they probably wouldn’t pore over every page. Certainly they wouldn’t critique it! But now you not only have to be careful what you say in a diary but how you say it. Especially if you’re a writer.

John Cheever was so certain that people would want to read his daily journals that he specifically gave instructions for them to be published. So did John Fowles. Sylvia Plath’s heirs expunged things they didn’t want the world to read, but allowed the rest of Sylvia’s diaries to be published. Joyce Carol Oates isn’t even dead, but her early diaries are being published. Not only published, but published and held up for literary criticism. Good grief, isn’t there any place writers can unload all the petty, trivial, mundane thoughts rattling around in their heads without future critics sifting through them and finding fault?

Okay, John Cheever’s diaries were fair game since he deliberately planned them to be published. And while I can’t imagine why Joyce Carol Oates would agree to have her diaries published, she did, so I suppose she’s fair game too. But still. A reviewer in the New York Times Book Review found it suspect that she never said anything snarky about anybody. She found most everybody she met interesting or charming or attractive, and the reviewer was sure she had simply chosen not to say all the bad things she must have really thought. He was equally cynical about all the instances in which she spoke with gratitude about her happiness. She was happy with her husband, happy with her home, happy with nature, her jobs, her friends, her parents, happy with her writing.

In reading the review, I wondered why it’s so difficult for people to believe in other people’s happiness. Why it’s so difficult to believe that it’s possible for any human being to consistently turn a positive face to the world. Do we all, like Oates’ reviewer, find the diary of “a tortured soul like Cheever,” for whom “a glimpse of happiness appears like a flash of gold in the gutter,” more admirable than Oates’ serene happiness?

No doubt about it, angst sells. There seems to be something in the collective consciousness that loves to wallow in somebody else’s misery, and to be wary of a person’s happiness. But regardless of how well misery sells, real life offers a choice between happiness and suffering. While reviewers may find more interesting fodder in the diaries of people who live to suffer, Oates’ diaries present a model of how to live to enjoy. And maybe, just maybe, if writers refused to waste precious energy in anger or jealousy or fear or regret, we would all be as prolific as Joyce Carol Oates.


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