So Joyce Carol Oates based her fictional story Landfill, published in the October 9th issue of the New Yorker, on the real-life death of a student attending The College of New Jersey (TCNJ). So what? Professors at TCNJ have flamebroiled her with charges that she felt no pain in reawakening the trauma of the family. Regina Kene wrote in an email to Oates: “You so flimsily disguised the true College of New Jersey story upon which your fictionalized account is based, and used your imagination so cruelly, that it can only add to the overwhelming pain the [Fiocco] family has already suffered.” She added in a later interview: “It could not do anything but bring back horrible memories.” So Regina, do you read much fiction? I’m guessing not, because you teach for the department of sociology and anthropology and publish articles with titles like: “The Colored, Eco-Genetic Relationship Map (CEGRM): A Conceptual Approach and Tool for Genetic Counseling Research.” Which leads me to believe you’re sincerely concerned about the condition of this poor family in your community, but perhaps you’ve maybe missed all the recent fiction books about 9/11 (check out six novels about 9/11 here). You’d think books like that could bring “bring back some horrible memories.” But maybe you’d like to condemn all those too.
Of course, JCO doesn’t escape all blame. The problem is not that she used her imagination cruelly, just that she didn’t use it enough. Her defense of herself is likewise pitiful: “Most of my short fiction appears in literary magazines like Virginia Quarterly Review, Yale Review, Conjunctions, etc., which are read by a small and exclusively literary audience,” she said. “If the story had appeared in one of these, it would have passed unnoticed.” Oh, so it’s just if someone finds out and gets angry? Great ethical reasoning; your attempt to preserve public image will surely win you the Nobel. The worst response from JCO came from an email she sent to the Associated Press just after the affair broke, in which she compared the school’s criticism to the Muslim fundamentalists who issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his “The Satanic Verses.” Sorry Oates, but there might be a few small differences here. You hardly have to hide in safehouses for the next decade. You don’t have the federal government demanding an apology to release international tension. You aren’t fearful for your LIFE.
Although, on the whole Oates is right about this. She should be able to take a real-life event and fictionalize it, even if a few people who see the connections get miffed.
Labels: Joyce Carol Oates