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How Joyce Carol Oates Became Twitter’s Most Surprising Troll

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Books | November 2, 2017 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Books | November 2, 2017 |

Few authors working today can profess to having written as much as Joyce Carol Oates. A quick browse of her Wikipedia page reveals a bibliography with an astounding 18 novels published since 2000 alone, and that doesn’t even count the 15 short story collections, 6 novellas, 6 YA novels, 2 children’s books, 1 play and 7 non-fiction works. She is not limited in genre or style, and even after retiring from Princeton, where she taught authors such as Jonathan Safran Foer, she seems in no danger of retiring any time soon.

There is nothing incompatible about being a celebrated literary figure with a Twitter account. Indeed, many authors across the spectrum of genres and demographics have found great success on the site, reaching out to fans and engaging in the kind of conversations that previously would have been impossible without a more intimate correspondence. Yet there is something utterly baffling about Joyce Carol Oates the Twitter user, not because it’s an unusual site, but because in the process of being one of the site’s more esoteric users, Oates has become a different breed of troll.

Oates tweets a lot, with over 62.9k tweets to her name in just over five years. Take a trip down her feed and you’ll find a fascinating assortment of ideas, photographs and general diatribes. There’s a retweet of some adorable Akita dogs, lots of anti-Trump ones from a range of journalists and politicos, a rant about the ‘scam’ of Ann Taylor store cards, and moments where she tweets in character as her dog (which is actually pretty cute). She liked Steve Martin’s musical Bright Star, she always censors Trump’s name, and she loathes ‘political correctness’. It’s the Twitter equivalent of that one relative’s Facebook feed, which seems like a never-ending stream of sharing and content to the point where you wonder how they’ve got time to get anything else done. In the time it took me to write that paragraph, she had tweeted another five times.

Most of this isn’t necessarily shocking so much as it is cognitive dissonance. There’s something undeniably odd about knowing whole generations of kids will first discover one of America’s most celebrated modern authors as that lady tweeting a bunch of Islamophobic bullshit on their timeline. Even or us ardent users of Twitter, we can’t help but wonder, isn’t she kind of too good for this cesspool? Yeah, the cat pictures are great and it’s fun to get angry at Mad Men together, but when you were shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize, surely you don’t need to keep doing this? Oates says she was given the account by her publisher and never would have signed up for the site on her own, but it’s clear she uses the platform with an element of zeal and a questionable amount of self-awareness. She knows what memes are, sometimes her dry humour is pitch-perfect for the site, and she gets angry at politics, just like the rest of us. Mostly, her feed is too mundane to discuss, but the very being of it continues to confuse me. It’s so very human, and completely disrupts the image we have of how a literary giant should be. We love it when Stephen King tweets; that’s just expected.

Oates’s feed is the kind of zero-filter experience you expect from a drunken night out or shock jock political commentator who thinks it’s hilarious to call people ‘snowflakes’. When Oates makes Islamophobic comments or goes on another screed about supposed political correctness, it’s a different experience. Surely, she has other outlets for this, you wonder. Perhaps she’s playing with our expectations as to how someone of her stature should sell herself and her work to the public. It really is funny to see her tweet in character as her pets, and her ending a quick drag of Truman Capote with a ‘LOL’ had me in stitches. It’s all fun and games until she starts making odd comments about Islamic State and her cat being worried about privilege. When she cracks a weak illiteracy gag at the expense of an entire state, you wonder what joke she’s in on, or if this sort of bite-sized rhetoric is just her at her most normal.

To call Oates’s Twitter account the work of a troll feels ill-fitting to what’s going on. It’s more like an instant form of letters to the editor, albeit with a twist of knowing which bear to poke. There’s an obvious progressive slant to her tweets and an intention to spread her political views far and wide with the right mixture of retweets, but that insidious strain of Islamophobia that rears its head occasionally in her feed shows how little effort it takes for such views to be exposed. It explains a lot when you hear she’s a big fan of Bill Maher, but she lacks the heady desire to provoke people with her tweets like Maher does with diminishing returns in his life and work. She herself admits that she composes ‘most of my tweets with care, as if they were aphorisms’, so it’s obvious that there is striking intent behind tweets where she draws a connection between rape and harassment reports in Egypt and the nation’s predominant religion. She tweets for an audience who may never read her work, which makes you wonder why they’d follow her in the first place.

Twitter is great for spontaneity. It’s less effective for trying to create a context. Oates likes to claim that tweets of hers that rile up the public were simply taken out of context, but she seldom creates one to back it up, as she jumps so quickly from Islamophobia to dog pics. There’s no context to show that these uninformed chunks of words are even the work of someone who, we assume, should know better. Nothing separates them from the spewed out rants of any random jackass on Twitter. The only thing that reminds us it’s really Joyce Carol Oates doing this is her username, her profile picture and the fact that she does this over and over again.

By the time I finished this piece, she’d tweeted or RT-d 29 times.

No, scratch that, 31 times.

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Kayleigh is a features writer for Pajiba. You can follow her on Twitter or listen to her podcast, The Hollywood Read.