The 14th annual Columbia College’s Story Weeks’ mission is clear: bend the genres, break the rules and tell the best story you can the best way it can be told. No one epitomizes this mission better than pseudonym-toting, genre-denying Joyce Carol Oates who opened up Story Week, an event fondly known as the Literary Lollapalooza, tonight at the Harold Washington Library.
Oates started the night with a reading of her short story “The Knife,” a tale she told slowly, steadily and calmly juxtaposing the anxious, heart tightening climatic mood of a story of the robbery and rape of a middle class mother. In true Oates’ fashion the story defied traditional labels such as mystery or crime, and brought to light the complexities of the American gender dichotomy. The story compares the woman to the robbers, the weak to the strong, the rationale to the crazy, the small-boned to the big; with every line mixing up what is man or boy, woman or girl.
Harriet, the mother, tries to keep her voice level and calm, telling herself “the men would be impressed by a woman acting so rationale.” And yet even with all the tools of men, even when the 8 inch knife is put into Harriet’s hand, she can not hold onto it and she is raped. Oates manages to take a crime story and turn it into a literary art and a reflection of gender relations today.
After her revealing reading, Oates explained that she writes about her own emotional experience; she writes what she sees and feels in the world. She often writes about “women in peril” because the vulnerability of women in society is intriguing. Oates explained that the vulnerability is different with each generation but it is there. From her generation’s tendency to ignore domestic abuse to the current over-sexualization of teenage girls, Oates understands the struggles facing women and manages to tell their stories in entertaining and enlightening ways.
Although Oates seems to talk in circles around her topic bouncing from her admiration of her grandmother to over use of Ritalin in children today, the small-boned woman always speaks with a steady voice and ends her speech with clear marked understanding of humanity. Oates is an author that flouts fiction genres and asks all of society to do the same.
To check out more FREE literary events this week including at Metro and Small Bar check out: colum.edu/storyweek.
To learn more about Oates, look her up on Wikipedia as all smart young women do or check out this great, quick Q&A in the NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/12/magazine/12wwln-q4-t.html.