Joyce Carol Oates, The Edge of Impossibility: Tragic Forms in Literature (Fawcett Premier, 1972)
[originally posted 14Nov2001]
It seems sometimes as if the very idea of a book of literary criticism published in mass market paperback by a major publisher is absurd. And in most cases, approaching a major publisher with the idea is likely to get you laughed all the way out of New York. But Oates was just coming off a National Book Award for them., and Fawcett decided to take a chance. I’m not sure, but they probably got the sales figures they were dreading. No one wants to read literary criticism anymore.
Which is too bad, because Oates has some worthwhile things to say. This book seems almost a response to Lionel Abel’s Metatheatre, which Oates calls “odd” and disputes throughout her essays on Shakespeare (Abel called Hamlet the last true tragedy, arguing that tragedy requires an outside influence, e.g. ghosts or the gods; this is the point with which Oates has some problems). While she never mentions Abel again after that, the choices of essays she used in the book, all post-Shakespeare, would seem to be a refutation of Abel by their very presence.
No one who’s ever read critical essays needs me to tell them what critical essays are like, so I shall refrain; Oates performs admirably in these. They make me want to go read the source material I haven’t read, and re-read that which I have, and isn’t that one critical essays should do? Perhaps if more of them had this effect, they might become popular again, assuming they ever were. ****