On a chilly Monday evening, Cubberley Auditorium was packed, students and the public alike jammed into cushy seats, elbow-to-elbow, waiting for the event to start. Author Joyce Carol Oates stood beneath the heavy blue curtains in an airy white top, looking much tinier than her reputation would suggest.
After participating in the annual Three Books event the day before, the prolific author gave a reading and book-signing session sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and Stanford Continuing Studies. Oates, famed for writing volume after volume, has written over 50 books since 1963.
Monday night, Oates decided to read a piece, “I.D.,” recently published in the March 2010 edition of The New Yorker. “I.D.,” a story about an adolescent forced to identify a dead body, brought together themes of fear, denial and loneliness that many can relate to on some level.
Her characters, particularly the young Lisette, were developed in a compelling fashion. Her language, too, was powerful, evoking empathy and at the very end, a gut-punch so characteristically Oates that even the author herself was moved, wiping away tears almost apologetically as she concluded the reading.
But while the content of the story was moving, her delivery was less so.
Approximately 10 minutes into the reading, it was somewhat difficult to follow the story’s trajectory. The story followed the narrator’s stream of consciousness, and without a clear destination, it was easy to get lost.
This was partly due to Oates’ reading style, marked by little inflection aside from her distinctive accent. She stood behind the podium and read plainly, as if carrying on a calm conversation. Less auditory audience members seemed to let their minds wander as Oates evenly delivered her story.
The crowd, however, perked up for the question-and-answer session that followed. Having Oates inject the atmosphere with her personality and humor was an engaging experience.
Playing to her setting, the author made jokes about her time living in Phi Mu, a sorority at Syracuse University, where the girls lived in “hovels” among “garbage,” only to emerge at night to impress the young men that visited.
Comparing writing to practicing music, she also gave insight into the evolution of her writing process: both the constant revisions and her emphasis on images and scenes rather than sentences.
Oates’ casual insight into the process of writing humanized the literary icon she has become. More than being able to hear her short story come alive, attendees could enjoy her stage presence.
The connection Oates developed with the audience served as a strong reminder that as prolific and intimidating as she might sound on paper, genius does not mean distance from the lowly masses.