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Joyce Carol Oates: New Media Is Creating a Nightmare America

Joyce Carol Oates has written more than 70 books, including the national bestsellers We Were the Mulvaneys and Blonde. Her latest book, The Doll Master and Other Tales of Terror, includes the short story “Soldier,” about a man who becomes a local celebrity after gunning down a black teenager, supposedly in self-defense. The story was inspired by real-life cases, as well as by the kind of news stories Oates sees in her Twitter feed.

“On Twitter I follow Anon Cop Watch,” Oates says in Episode 202 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “Every day you will get some postings of what the police are doing all over the country, and also in Canada. And basically they’re victimizing powerless people.”

Oates is extremely active on Twitter, and has attracted almost 150,000 followers, a surprisingly high number for a serious literary writer in her seventies. She says that one of the great strengths of Twitter is that it can draw attention to individual victims in ways that wouldn’t be possible with traditional media.

The New York Times, for instance, would not be able to write about all these cases,” she says. “The whole newspaper would be filled with it. So I think that online—and particularly Twitter—is good at revealing these things to people who didn’t know anything about it.”

But Oates increasingly sees a downside to social media. She thinks the Internet is partly to blame for the extreme polarization of American politics and the growing rift between supporters of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

“It’s like they’re living in the same country but they’re in different dimensions,” she says. “They immerse themselves in media cocoons. They only go to certain websites, they have their Twitter feed or whatever. They only read certain things.”

That’s a theme she explores in her upcoming novel A Book of American Martyrs, which presents characters on both sides of the abortion debate. “My novel is sort of about America as this nightmare place where people are living close together but they’re in different zones of consciousness, which I see as something tragic,” she says.

Listen to our complete interview with Joyce Carol Oates in Episode 202 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Joyce Carol Oates on her story “Equatorial”:

“When you’re in a place like that, on a ship where you’re outside the jurisdiction of the United States, you’re in this sort of never-never land. American laws don’t apply when you’re on the high seas. You’re in some other zone. Many people don’t know that when they go on cruises. Once you get out on these waters, women have been raped, people have been robbed, things have happened to people, and they have no recourse. You can’t go to a police officer—there aren’t any—you can’t go to a magistrate. I mean, you can’t go anywhere. You’re on board a ship. So anyway, it’s complicated, and I found that fascinating to think about and write about.”

Joyce Carol Oates on editing Prison Noir:

“The stories in Prison Noir—most of them—are autobiographical, and they’re all quite good. … The women’s stories are so heartrending. … In one case in particular [a woman] from Michigan, she killed an insanely abusive husband, so abusive to her and so threatening to her and her children. … She’s somebody who should have been a teacher, she’s very intelligent and writes very well, but she married the wrong man. And he was not a crude person, he was actually a lawyer. He tried to strangle her, he threatened the children, and she shot him, she killed him, really, in self-defense. So that’s the kind of story that could definitely influence another writer.”

Joyce Carol Oates on her Poe-inspired story “The Fabled Lighthouse at Vina del Mar”:

“Poe himself was in this 19th-century romantic gothic tradition where nobody has any bodies. He talks about women who are very pale, with beautiful long hair and so forth, but never any actual bodies, and men don’t have any bodies. … Nobody eats anything in Poe. Nobody ever has a sandwich, let’s say, or drinks some milk or something. All these things that we take for granted in our daily lives don’t exist in gothic literature. … So the horror for a gothic personality would be to have to be in that real world, where to survive you have to eat, you have to eat some horrible-looking turtle, or something with one eye in the middle of its forehead.”

Joyce Carol Oates on science fiction:

“I think the topics of genre that we’ve talked about a little bit are very interesting, and why there is an unreasonable dislike of some genres, and the fact that, I think, in the present time the boundaries between the genres are sort of dissolving, and there’s more interest in speculative fiction, science fiction. … George Saunders is a strange hybrid. … He’s writing about a kind of America that you’re seeing through the prism of his sensibility. In other words, it is America, and it is somehow real, but the lens of his sensibility is distorted, and maybe it’s not really distorted, but expressed in the way that is real. Maybe the surface of things is the distortion, and fiction brings out the reality.”

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