Joyce Carol Oates Is (Still) Too Nice to Insult Me

Joyce Carol Oates @ Mysterious Bookshop

Joyce Carol Oates reading

Heart-shaped knocks

Dawn. I detested dawn. The grass always looked like it’d been out all night. I woke early with an all-percussion symphony playing in my head led by the empty bottle of scotch underneath my bed. Outside, the police sirens joined in with the garbage trucks to form a backup chorus that wouldn’t quit. Only a special dame could rouse these tired clichés from my cold, stiff fingers, and that dame was Joyce Carol Oates.

This wasn’t to be my first rodeo with Mrs. Oates. Almost two years ago, about the time I began this blog, Mrs. Oates was to sign books (no reading) in a back room of The Mysterious Bookshop. Because I couldn’t ask her myself, I approached the ridiculously accommodating Mysterious Bookshop employees about asking Mrs. Oates to insult me. After a quick explanation, they agreed. I was (and still am) incredibly grateful for their willingness to help a fellow book-nut in his pursuits.

I returned later that week, hopes high — they’d already helped me land an insult from a big fish like David Mitchell. And if David Mitchell liked the idea, I figured this insult idea must’ve been the best thing since mixed metaphors. Alack, it was not to be. While she laughed at the request, they later reported, insulting a stranger was something she couldn’t do.

Shocking! An author with novels like Rape: a Love Story was almost demure in real life. Rather than an insult, she drew a nice heart for my inscription, the most cheerful rejection I’d received.

Flashing forward to 2011, I prepared for a second chance to ask Mrs. Oates for an insult. Since they were so nice the first time, I went through the Mysterious Bookshop people to ask Mrs. Oates for an insult, in my stead. My thinking was, if the inscription request came from a trusted employee, and if she remembered the hearts she drew for me, maybe she’d admire my pluck and drive enough to drop an insult.

Joyce Carol Oates 1st edition

Conspicuous consumption for book collectors

Inside the Bookshop, I caught a whiff of weariness regarding my request. Maybe the first time, the idea of asking a star with the gravitas of Joyce Carol Oates for an insult sounded amusing in its conceit, cute. But a second time? After she’d already turned me down? Probably I was pushing my luck, and probably I sensed this when I asked. Despite it all, they promised to do their best.

No surprise, then, when I returned later that day and was handed back a pair of insult-less books. The shrug said, “You’re lucky we let you in here tonight.”

As it turned out, this wasn’t a typical reading, but a full-blown release party for a new mystery anthology. I’d asked for this special request just that afternoon, probably minutes before they were going to begin setting up. Add to the stress the logistical headache of finding space enough for the umpteen authors who’d agreed to show up for the party, as well as organizing an area for everyone to get their anthologies signed by each contributor, and you could say it was poor timing on my part.

Joyce Carol Oates insult

Unfortunately, some people are just too nice to insult strangers

Rather than leave and call it a mild success, I hung around for the awkward speeches and eventual signing. I fell victim to the excitement of finally meeting Mrs. Oates, to get the chance to somehow thank her for even considering my insult request, for drawing my hearts, and then also apologize for the audacity of asking for an insult a second time. Looking back, it was unlikely I could pull this off, given the most quiet of settings.

The room hummed with liquor-amplified chatter, climbing towards a din as conversations fought for limited auditory resources. Signature-seekers jostled in the space between authors and tables. Finding where Mrs. Oates’s signing line began and ended was a challenge in and of itself.

When you’re pumping out two novels, memoirs, or books of short stories every year, it’s understandable, denying inscription requests. Even if your face happened to be featured in a certain imaginary Mount Rushmore, and that same devoted fan who chiseled your likeness into an imaginary granite cliff was the same fan who just dropped $200 he (really) shouldn’t have spent on a 1st edition of your first novel in the hopes that, upon discovering that this reader asked you to dedicate the book “To Bill” rather than the vastly more valuable-in-the-resell-market signature sans dedication, you’d break down and agree just this once to unleash your fearsome wordsmithing power on an insult. With each step forward, however, just how unlikely this hope-against-hope was became increasingly clear.

Sitting at the end of a long folding table across from what looked like a silent movie-era snake-oil salesman chattering at full-blast, Oates looked exhausted. From what I heard, Mrs. Oates had been talked into editing this first volume of what the publisher hoped would be a long series of anthologies set in various American states. This, the first, was titled New Jersey Noir, set in the Garden State.

If crafting a single insult for a fan took away a minute or two from her own stories, what would it cost to be the star editor of an entire anthology? Her moist eyes and thin smile made me regret anew having bugged her; I understood the employees’ reluctance to drop iota-of-bullshit-number-one on her plate. Joyce Carol Oates looked as if she’d had more than her fill that day.

But the line pushed forward as lines do, and there I was. No book for her to sign, no script to recite in hope of an insult. I was face to face with another favorite author with nothing to offer but a thank you.

I bent over, tried to explain who I was and what she’d done for me. I apologized for asking her for an insult, hoped she knew it was in good fun. Either the room was too loud my bookstore buddy wisely decided to skip asking her for an insult; Mrs. Oates didn’t seem to know who or what I was on about. I tried again, thanked her for the hearts she drew on all of my books. She smiled at me. “Of course,” she said.

Joyce Carol Oates 1st edition

She gave me *a* heart...

As I straightened up, saying one last thank you, a suited man across from Mrs. Oates said, loud enough to be understood in the din, “Don’t you just LOVE these events?”

Hmm. Snarky dig on me? Apology to Mrs. Oates for what, to him, must have been the nonsensical ramblings of an idiot fan who, by virtue of purchasing a book, the bookstore couldn’t prevent from annoying the talent? Possibly I misunderstood an honest if oddly modulated pronunciation of his love for boisterous readings and loud parties. I couldn’t be sure. Nor could I know truly if Mrs. Oates was really as fed up with the day as it seemed.

Anyway, my humiliation alarms rang klaxon panic down as my brain furiously pounded on the “Flight” button. I beat a path to the crisp apple outside, skipping the chance to meet a bevy of new authors.

Thus, the hunt for one of the world’s most gritty, substantial, and honored insulters must sadly end. While I’ll never give up hope that Mrs. Oates might somehow stumble over this blog and, of her own accord, offer up a scathing blast to make real the first head of my Mount Rushmore of insults, active solicitations must come to an end.

Tonight, however, a heart-shaped insult hangs proudly in the hall of insults, placeholder for what would undoubtedly be amongst the most thrilling and precise derision a man can receive. Wherever you are, Mrs. Oates, your words are an inspiration, your prodigious output is a rebuke to we, the lazy and cynical. Someday I’ll make it big enough to the point that I could explain why your hating me, if only for a sentence or two, might make this whole thing worthwhile.

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