This love has come upon me slowly, quite unsought for and quite unexpected. I see now that it has stealthily wormed into way into my heart, this love of the intricate way you work upon words. The craftsmanship is so honest, so dedicated, so pure, that it was perhaps inevitable that I should succumb, but I did not see it coming, and this is unusual, for one who cannot contemplate life without reading words to find a pattern.
There have been other loves; flashier ones perhaps such as Ayn Rand who lit up my university years with her capitalist philosophy of excellence, more quirky oddball ones such as John Irving who never ever bored me with his equally horrifying and sentimental tales. And there are ones like David Mitchell who, chameleon-like, changes the colour of his coat and transgresses between worlds.
But your books are something like a prayer to me. They require me to persevere and work hard so that I may gain, so that I may perceive the unwitting unconsciousness that underlies life, and pity the characters and honor them as metaphorical representatives of the humanity we share. There is nothing big or over-the-top about your work, but you are the grand mistress of sheer resplendent trueness; not a word wasted, not a single emotion over-dramatised. The truest moments collect in the form of unshed tears and shrieking silences. You show what it is to be alive in someone else’s skin.
When did I recognise my absolute allegiance to your craftsmanship? It was a blinding moment of immaculate admiration that came as a gasp from nowhere; for a moment I shared with you the deep eviscerating joy and simultaneous pain of being human; I found myself engulfed by an emotion so deep I could not speak or breathe or give it a name.
It was in a lesser-known book of yours with the peculiar title of Because it is Bitter, and Because it is My Heart (How odd, my writer’s mind thought, and why the present tense?), and the cover is no better with its slender black silhouette leaning for support against what looks like a corn-stalk. I see her as a frail dreaming shadow. Did you, JCO, oversee that cover design I asked myself? If so, why a corn-stalk?
But still my hand went out to the tattered novel on the second-hand book sale table. Where books are concerned, it has always been as if my hand has jurisdiction over my mind, always a step ahead knowing what it needs and wants. Of course when I reached home I asked myself the inevitable question I’d asked myself before: Why on earth did you buy another Joyce Carol Oates?
The sentence that transformed me into a believer is on page 403 of my dog-eared copy of Because it is Bitter and Because it is My Heart, two pages from the end. You must know which one I mean? You wrote it thus: “On the reverse of the print Jinx had written in that large looping lazy-seeming hand, ‘Honey – think I’ll ‘pass?'”
It will seem like nothing to anybody else, just an innocuous silly sentence, but that could only be because they have haven’t lived through Iris’s story, page by gut-wrenching page, or because they are not human. But I had read your book and lived it and never knew how much I loved it – felt it as Iris did – until that shocking sentence, with its declaration of unsuspected love, hit me in the solar plexus.
So you have crept up on me over the years, and book by book I have read your words and now I have reached the position of faith, which means that I am forever indebted and transformed, and will perhaps have to re-read every book of yours I have already read. But fortunately you are as prolific as you are true to your art; so there is no real danger that I shall ever run out of the pleasure of reading the stories you tell.
~~~ Joyce Carol Oates, 1938 – , Bibliography:
Interesting to see how the UK and USA Editions have different titles. This is the UK edition which I read: