Letters from Home

Joyce Carol Oates 1, Professor Buttercup 0

Joyce Carol Oates by Juliet va OtterenAt the Quick Center in Fairfield yesterday (where I was invited generously by my new buddy Carol), a simple author event became a righteous example of what happens when you are a man-professor of a certain ilk, with certain ideas about the world, and you set your puffed-rice expectations against a heady, hidden genius.

I am not sure this “man-professor” from Fairfield University would appreciate being identified, so let’s just call him Signor Buttercup. Here’s the scenario.

Joyce Carol Oates was to give a 30-minute reading, followed by a question-and-answer led by two “learned” university sorts from Fairfield University.

She was introduced by The Righteous Professor Dr. Hair-Part Buttercup, who managed to lick the rear hinds of at least a dozen F.U. patrons, make a lame comment about the cold weather, AND ensure that we lowly, mostly-female-and-confused-probably-lost-male audience types all knew what we were REALLY giving up by coming out to the event that day: the AFC Championship playoffs between New England Patriots and the San Diego Chargers.

She’s Like the Wind

Fortunately, once Dr. Oates took the podium, Professor Buttercup was forgotten.

Because Oates, a three-time Pulitzer winner and author of over 40 novels, was spellbinding. Charming and ethereal as she meandered through personal stories, she turned stark and exacting– mesmerizing– as she read her short story “Small Avalanches,” a young woman’s dangerous and erotic encounter with a stranger.

Encountering Oates in that way, listening to her read, was unwillingly personal, as if she were plugged into my head via earbuds and she spoke directly into my cortex. She was both evocatively familiar to me, and distant: a mingling of my three minor obsessions, Lyle Lovett, Michelle Boisseau and Margaret Atwood.

Me Bang Chest Now

The reading ended and it was time for questions. Professor Buttercup stalked back on stage in all his schooled finery, stomach swathed in a felted vest, and his face swathed, too, with the a first-year’s academic growth. He matched, as if crossing the stage to accept his A+ in “Methods in Garanimals”.

I should say, I feel a compulsion to describe Buttercup’s physicality, in return for the awkward favor men always deliver female artists — in this case, Ms. Oates no exception. Before she came to the stage, some generic white man who introduced her felt it necessary to appropriate her body, using her slightness of frame as a means of comparison, to the expanse and size of her body of work. “They can’t help themselves,” I caught myself thinking. “How can they help themselves?


Buttercup was intimidated and impressed, as we all seemed, of the writer. He held back, deferred to the Women’s Studies Robot in the chair between them, like a good gentleman, before rushing in with his well-prepped query. He waited with his question held inside his half-empty mouth, and didn’t listen to the way she answered everything, as if the world were delicate lace, newly knitted, just washed and still wet, held safe and drying in the pinch of a wooden peg.

He didn’t listen. So when he asked her if, in her teaching, did she see how the degenerate youth of today were bound to bring on the ruination of art, finally, for all of history to see, he wasn’t ready for the answer.

She hardly took breath before she swatted the fat fly down with the back of her hand.

As far as I can tell, the world has always been going to pieces.

This Joyce Carol Oates said, then her hand fluttered, and landed.

But the words hung in the air, and when she finished, the audience applauded, hard, her unpickled reply. They applauded his rebuff.

Like a gentleman who cannot be slapped without acknowledgment, poor Dr. Buttercup stretched his smile thin and claimed he’d been “clapperclawed.” She brushed it all away, like old news on the wind, and carried on.

When Life Hands You Sour Grapes…

The Q&A dove into the audience, away from the sticks on stage, thank god, and yet the intimidation was palpable and lovely. The audience sat on their hands and let Ms. Oates carry them where she would. Even when the answers didn’t match the questions, they had character.

At the end of the event, with the impatience of a bored housewife, Dr. Buttercup cut the questioning short. The room was getting warmer, it was clear, and that wouldn’t do at all.

“Time to wrap it up,” he said. Thank yous, all around. “Oh and just a side note: the score from Foxborough at last check, 7-6, Patriots.”

Like phlegm hocked up and tossed against the wall, his final remark hung there. People trickled on out, hardly saying goodbye.

Oh, I don’t know.” Giggle, giggle.

The simple refrain of the “Small Avalanches” protagonist caught up to me, as I thought about Professor Hair-Part Buttercup, the eminent nobody.

If only he were so lucky.

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