Who doesn’t sometimes sit around and wish that they could be half as prolific as Joyce Carol Oates? The 75-year-old author falls just after Philip Roth on the list of America’s most decorated writers (both are equally Nobel Prize-less), but unlike the now-retired 80-year-old Roth, Oates hasn’t shown any signs of stopping anytime in the near future. She even shares whatever thoughts pop into her head on her popular Twitter account. Earlier this year, Andy Boyd at PolicyMic extolled the “sublime joys” of following Oates, saying her tweets were like a “parody of the implied author of her stories,” and most of the time it is a total treat for all of us to see an iconic writer writing for us in real time; we get to know what Oates is thinking at that very moment, and we should all be thankful for that.
But with all due respect to Oates, sometimes she doesn’t seem to realize how her tweets might come off to her nearly 60,000 followers, whether she actually means exactly what she’s saying or not. The above tweet is one example: Does Joyce Carol Oates really discount the men who say they were raped in prison when trying to make a point about how female victims of sexual assault are treated? I don’t think she does, but you can see how the tweet could be interpreted that way. Here’s how fiction writer and essayist Roxane Gay responded:
The thing is, I have to believe that Oates understands that rape is rape no matter who the victim or the perpetrator is, and that was just the sort of thought that could have used more than 140 characters. But, while the intent behind the prison comment is open to interpretation, the tweet that preceded it was unquestionably troubling:
Islam is the predominant religion in Egypt, and Oates must know that. Her leading question seems flippant and incredibly disrespectful to what the many, many, many Muslims who abhor sexual assault believe. But the tweet went out into the world, and we, the people who pay attention to Oates, are left to draw our own conclusions — and her followers had more than a few of those.
So, did Oates cross the line? Was it a case of a Twitter celebrity not knowing when to cut it off? Maybe and maybe — but I’m going to continue believing that the biggest problem that Oates suffers from on Twitter is one that afflicts many of us when trying to put pen to paper: Joyce Carol Oates simply tweets what she’s thinking at that exact moment, and what she’s thinking isn’t exactly what she really wants to broadcast to the world. I’m not looking to absolve Oates of her many social media sins; rather, I think she should think before she types. The one conciliation I’ll grant is that, unlike some people who think they can just delete tweets and erase history (you can’t do that, by the way), Oates at least has the decency to try and address those who took issue with what she wrote, and entertain that she was maybe on the side of wrong: