Bad Bet

Narrative magazine’s Web site has an essay by Joyce Carol Oates on her literary mentors—a lengthy piece, considering her argument is that she’s had few such people in her life. (Even her first husband, Raymond Smith, read almost none of her fiction.) She’s had childhood guides, yes, like her grandmother; and she’s had sparring partners like John Gardner, with whom she had extended debates in the 70s about whether writing fiction is or should be moral. But people who guided her writing and career with a mind to support and improve it? Nary a one—and though she doesn’t quite come out and say it, such is the fate of many writers who grow up in hardscrabble communities, where literary support systems are hard to come by. You’re not sui generis because you’re arrogant; you’re that way because there’s nobody around to set a path for you.

To that end Oates gets in an interesting story about her relationship with Donald Barthelme, who appears in this anecdote to eagerly flay himself over sales. The suggestion being that this is what you get when you care too much about what others think:

No sooner had my husband and I been welcomed into the Barthelmes’ brownstone apartment—no sooner had I congratulated Don on what I’d believed to be the very positive reviews and bestseller status of his new book of stories, Amateurs —than he corrected me with a sneering smile, informing me that Amateurs wasn’t a bestseller, and that no book of his had ever been a bestseller; his book sales were “nothing like” mine; if I doubted this, we could make a bet—for $100—and check the facts. Quickly I backed down, I declined the bet—no doubt in my usual embarrassed and conciliatory way, hoping to change the subject.

But Don wasn’t in the mood to change the subject just yet. To everyone’s embarrassment—Ray’s, mine, his wife’s—Don picked up a phone receiver, dialed a number, and handed the receiver to me with the request to speak to his editor—he’d called Roger Straus at Farrar, Straus & Giroux—and ask if in fact Donald Barthelme had ever had a bestseller; and so, trying to fall in with the joke, which seemed to me to have gone a little further than necessary, I asked Roger Straus—whom I didn’t know, had scarcely heard of at this time in my life—if Don had ever had a bestseller, and was told no, he had not.

Plaintively I asked, “He hasn’t? Not ever? I thought . . .”

The individual at the other end of the line, whom I would meet years later, the legendary Roger Straus of one of the most distinguished publishing firms in New York, said coolly, “No. He has not. Put Don on the phone, please, I want to talk to him.”

(h/t Edan Lepucki)

One thought on “Bad Bet

  1. Ive always been a fan of JCO, and though I’ve not read this Narrative piece, I CAN say that I know what growing up in western NY is like. I was born in the same town as Gardner (Batavia) and grew up just south of there. It’s been a long time since I was in Lockport, where Oates grew up, but it’s not a pretty place right now. I’m curious to see what she writes.

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