"While I support freedom of speech, I also believe that writers have choices about what they write and a responsibility for exercising those choices in an ethical manner"
October 15, 2006 12:14 PM   Subscribe

Landfill is a new short story by Joyce Carol Oates. The story has caused controversy due to it being partly based on the real life death of a College of New Jersey student. At first, Oates was bewildered by the outcry, but later she apologized.
posted by Kattullus (28 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Didn't I also see this story on a CSI or a Law and Order or something?

While I support freedom of speech, I also believe that writers have choices about what they write and a responsibility for exercising those choices in an ethical manner.

Ah yes. I believe in freedom of speech, BUT YOU SHOULDN'T HAVE WRITTEN THIS!!!
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:32 PM on October 15, 2006


I'm sorry to see that Oates capitulated. "The squeaky wheel gets the grease" may be the slogan of our age.
posted by Bookhouse at 12:41 PM on October 15, 2006


Always apologize for how others feel about what you have done, rather than what you have done. Winning strategy A-1!
posted by basicchannel at 12:41 PM on October 15, 2006


Tragedy + Distance = cool story
posted by Artw at 12:46 PM on October 15, 2006


Yeah, I read this in the New Yorker a couple weeks ago and kinda wondered about it. It really is a weird little story, and I wondered if it was supposed to be some sort of anti-fraternity message or something.

It was in their "fiction" section, which would be misleading if the story is even partly true.
posted by Afroblanco at 12:49 PM on October 15, 2006


I believe in freedom of speech, BUT YOU SHOULDN'T HAVE WRITTEN THIS!!!

Perfectly compatible. The First Amendment is about "can," not "should."
posted by cribcage at 12:49 PM on October 15, 2006


On post : since it seems that she didn't intend for this to be "based on a true story," so yeah, I guess it does qualify as fiction.
posted by Afroblanco at 12:51 PM on October 15, 2006


Didn't I also see this story on a CSI or a Law and Order or something?

Yeah, it was an episode of Law and Order a few years back.
posted by camcgee at 12:54 PM on October 15, 2006


real life death

I think I just found a name for my band.

Nice post... the story was eerily familiar.
posted by squidfartz at 1:03 PM on October 15, 2006


I hear that next week's Law and Order is about a professor who is killed by the angry parents of a dead college student whose tragic demise was the basis for the professor's new short story. I doubt JCO will mind.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 1:22 PM on October 15, 2006


PeterMcDermott : "I believe in freedom of speech, BUT YOU SHOULDN'T HAVE WRITTEN THIS!!!"

It's "freedom of speech", not "requirement of speech". If an author thinks that writing things in line with ethics is something they should do, I would tend to think of that as "being an adult", not "bowing to the man".
posted by Bugbread at 1:26 PM on October 15, 2006


The thing is nowadays when we all agree to a "shouldn't" it's very similar to a "can't", unless you're independently wealthy.

We can't seem to make laws about things, but it's a lot easier to blackball and ruin people at will.
posted by nervousfritz at 1:36 PM on October 15, 2006



As most people who live in Princeton (btw, Toni Morrison lives close to her) I am guessing Joyce does not tune in every night to watch the local news.
posted by wfc123 at 1:37 PM on October 15, 2006


That and being around a heavy drinking campus I do tend to agree that perhaps that "we're not responsible for it!" should hit a little closer to home.

Thanks for the post anyway.
posted by nervousfritz at 1:37 PM on October 15, 2006


As a writer, I tend to think that whatever is in the public record (and some portion of what is not necessary in the public record) is fair game for literary interpretation. I've been known to offer up disclaimers to the effect of "If you don't want me to use this bit in a story, please tell me now" to friends of mine when they offer up particularly weird or juicy bits of family/ personal history in private conversations.

Pulling a plotline for a story off a news broadcast may not be the most original way to come up with new material, but if that's what you want to write about, then so be it. Plenty of fiction has been written that way. No apologies necessary.
posted by thivaia at 2:01 PM on October 15, 2006


One wonders if this incident will provoke Oates to go back and make a formal apology to Ted Kennedy.
posted by thivaia at 2:05 PM on October 15, 2006


The thing is nowadays when we all agree to a "shouldn't" it's very similar to a "can't", unless you're independently wealthy.

Tell that to the KKK.
posted by cribcage at 2:47 PM on October 15, 2006


Ah yes. I believe in freedom of speech, BUT YOU SHOULDN'T HAVE WRITTEN THIS!!!

wtf? how are people confused by this? isn't saying "you shouldn't have written this" exercising your own freedom of speech? I don't think anyone is saying she should be taken to prison or legally restrained from writing this; they're saying it's in poor taste and they don't like that she wrote it. People have the right to say "god hates fags" or to declare their love of hitler, but it doesn't mean you have to agree with them!

I heard her say something in response to this on the radio the other day and it didn't sit well with me, though now I can't find a quote in these articles that specifically makes it seem negative. But basically I think it comes down to how close something is to you - if she'd written a piece about the remains of a loser businessman after the WTC it probably would've seemed crass to more people. There are fewer directly affected folks to be offended here, and from afar it's always easier to say, oh, get over it, relax, yadda yadda. But in the heart of a tragic situation, that indifference comes across as inept and pretentious.
posted by mdn at 2:50 PM on October 15, 2006


It was in their "fiction" section, which would be misleading if the story is even partly true.

What???? Maybe I'm misunderstanding something, but doesn't that mean that we need to take "War and Peace," out of the fiction section?
posted by grumblebee at 3:00 PM on October 15, 2006


I've always thought Oates was sensationalist. Nearly all her stories seem condescending to their characters. There was one where she tried to get into the head of a child murderer that just made me cringe. There are others where she seems to be "slumming" with poverty clich├ęs. I seem to be one of the few people who really dislikes her work (to the point that I now skip it in magazines and collections).
posted by hyperizer at 3:07 PM on October 15, 2006


I read the story and at the time found it, yes, condescending as well as disturbingly shallow. I think her tone as much as anything was responsible for the outcry--it was boorish, and the story implied that the lives of the people she was writing about were not worth anything at all--least of all worth writing a story about. I finished it and wondered why I had bothered to read it.
posted by Peach at 4:33 PM on October 15, 2006


grumblebee - I see what you're saying. I think there's a fine line. It seems that a lot of the details of her story were uncomfortably similar to the real-life events. When things are so similar, it makes sense to at least acknolwedge the real-life goings on.
posted by Afroblanco at 5:32 PM on October 15, 2006


The guy died an embarassing death. It's not Oates' fault. The family and friends would prefer to forget the details of the student's death. But their protest to the story is only bringing more attention to it. If the story was about the death of student who died in a more common fashion, it wouldn't be interesting, and it wouldn't be in the New Yorker.
posted by Titania at 6:43 PM on October 15, 2006


It's not the details of the death, it's her description of his thinking processes and the thinking of his parents which is offensive.
posted by Peach at 7:25 PM on October 15, 2006


...the fictional characters thinking processes and the fiction parents?
posted by Artw at 7:35 PM on October 15, 2006


Yes. When you base your fictional character and the fictional things that happen to him on a real person and the real things to happen to him, it shouldn't be too surprising if the real parents think their real thinking processes are being depicted in your fictional parents and fictional thinking processes.
posted by Bugbread at 7:42 PM on October 15, 2006


The guy died an embarassing death. It's not Oates' fault. The family and friends would prefer to forget the details of the student's death

y'know, this is what I mean about being close to a situation or not. I really don't think human beings who lost a son are sitting there thinking, "if only he hadn't died in such an uncouth way; it really makes me feel less sophisticated..." To them, it's an actual directly experienced tragedy, not the abstract semi-funny/odd tale that someone removed from the situation might see.

and really, why is dying in a garbage dump inherently more embarrassing than a drunk driving accident that ended on the side of the road or a kid OD'ing in his bathroom or something? It seems like a weird kind of elitism.
posted by mdn at 8:57 PM on October 15, 2006


RIPPED (off) FROM TODAY'S HEADLINES!
posted by spock at 9:46 PM on October 15, 2006


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