Often the best art emerges from situations of strife because art, in and of itself, is about trying to make sense of the hazy meanings surrounding events. Award-winning author Joyce Carol Oates analyzes the reasons why we write while pulling examples from greats such as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and James Joyce.
Oates’ most recent book is titled The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age.
Most people I think who write are involved in an attempt to solve a problem of what really happened, what motives are, what the subterranean meanings are in an event. And many people could only do that if they are very introspective and they think about it and maybe write about it over a period of time rather than doing something very haphazard and sort of intuitive. So this is maybe the project of art itself is to understand ourselves and understand the world. And maybe to communicate some meaning because life in itself is a rush and it’s chaotic and in the turmoil, meaning tends to be lost and we feel a malaise and we feel despair if there isn’t evidently meaning in our lives.
So there are times in cultures in crisis where there’s a feeling of an atmosphere of despair like a collective despair. And I think, oddly enough, that art can flourish in those times because art is a way of trying to focus and still the chaos and look for meaning. Writers and artists are all different and everybody has a different way of writing. What seems to be just absolutely natural and brilliant in James Joyce would just not even work and be completely impossible in [Ernest] Hemingway for instance. Hemingway had a very different consciousness. His whole ontological grasp of reality is very, very different from [William] Faulkner’s. You can sort of see their prose is so different. So each person has an apprehension of reality that’s different from other people’s. Some people are very naturally brooding and introspective and they’re going to go inward and look backward. Somebody like Faulkner and [Marcel] Proust. Somebody else like Hemingway is actually also looking backward, but he doesn’t allow you to know that. So he stays in the present tense and Hemingway’s dramas are very, very tense because a lot is being pushed down in a subterranean way. So yet you feel the force of it.
Then there are writers who are more like almost like comic or ironic or satiric writers. And they skitter along the surface and they’re very compelling and very entertaining. And they too can have a depth of sensibility, but they’re not interested in personal psychology. I’ll give an example of Donald Barthelme or George Saunders. There are excellent writers, but you don’t go to them for human psychology. Emily Dickinson’s very, very short, very precise poems that are so powerful in addressing some of the turmoil of a disintegrating mind, for instance. She writes about people who seem to be teetering on the brink of losing sanity because they’ve had so much dealing with death. She was also writing during the time of the Civil War. So she was writing in a time of crisis, but her poetry has a stillness, almost a crystalline beauty of a great mind being brought to bear on an exemplary human experience, which is an experience of feeling that things are disintegrating, and looking for meaning. So I think that’s one of the projects of the novelist.