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The stereotypical older woman is many things. She is not, generally, a social media sensation. When my grandmother sends me the occasional text message, it is paragraph-length, peppered with delightful vocabulary and followed by heartfelt apologies for any offensive typos – her fingers are "old and thus not suited to the texting apparatus." To the Twitterate, this seems radically advanced – for her age.
Like my grandmother’s text messages, 75-year-old American author Joyce Carol Oates’s first attempts at tweeting were met with the kind of words we use for a child playing dress-up in mummy and daddy’s clothes: “sweet”, “cute”, “aw!” She spelled something wrong, then sheepishly corrected herself with an "oops!" She called Twitter "interesting", then doubted she would "remain active much longer". Rapidly changing technology is the realm of the young, so says convention. While we youths are not dismissive or exclusive about having to patiently explain the hashtag, we just don’t think the older and wiser will care.
“More than a year after dipping her toe into the Twitter feed, her style reflects the website at its best; she is, frankly, awesome”
So that a National Book Award-winning 75-year-old highly regarded for having written a fuck-ton of good books – more than 50 novels (plus a hefty number of short-story collections, memoirs, novellas, essays, reviews) is now a prolific tweeter with more than 83,000 followers seems a bit… funny, strange, cool? Despite Twitter’s 645 million-user+ popularity, we assume the over-50s will generally either accept it as a necessary marketing evil or agree with Jonathan Franzen, who denounced Salman Rushdie’s active involvement on the social media site in his infamous Guardian op-ed last September by saying Rushdie "ought to have known better." Twitter is fleeting and ephemeral – not to be taken as seriously as literature.
Despite the weight of these expectations upon her, however, Oates quickly rounded the learning curve. Now, more than a year after dipping her toe into the Twitter feed, her style reflects the website at its best; she is, frankly, awesome. She comments on movies; she muses on politics, culture, literature and the internet; she’s funny. 12 Nov 2012: "Know little about 'writers’ block' but guess it is somewhere in Park Slope & not cheap." 20 May 2013: "Does anyone ever say, 'But wait! There's less.’"
Know little about "writers' block" but guess it is somewhere in Park Slope & not cheap.— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) November 11, 2012
Does anyone ever say, "But wait! There's less."— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) May 19, 2013
Writers like Jennifer Egan and Teju Cole have experimented with the possibilities of Twitter fiction by tweeting stories in 140-character fragments, trying to fit the centuries-old square peg of timeless narrative into a round, iPhone-enabled hole. @JoyceCarolOates, meanwhile, like her contemporaries @judyblume and the generous retweeter @MargaretAtwood, doesn’t. Her style is incisive yet subtle, a breath of fresh air to all who grow weary of racist teenagers tYpInG lIkE tHiS unironically. (Maybe this makes me sound old, but: they’re still doing that?) She understands both that greatness can flash in a moment and that not every word must exude enduring genius; some duds are par for the course. She blends literary allusions with political debate with pictures of her cat and self-deprecation. See 17 Mar 2013: "My way of being smarter is to sprinkle my remarks with 'Walter Benjamin' pronounced in novel & startling ways."
My way of being smarter is to sprinkle my remarks with "Walter Benjamin" pronounced in novel & startling ways.— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) March 16, 2013
That Oates has embraced Twitter at all both defies the cliché of the aging female novelist and reaffirms social media’s value in our culture; when a respected intellectual takes part in something, it’s a nudge down the road to legitimacy. These are grounds enough to label her a 21st-century feminist role model. However, not all that can be said of @JoyceCarolOates is positive.
And that’s actually the best thing about her.
In July, Oates came under fire for a series of tweets bloggers immediately condemned as offensive and Islamophobic. To anyone familiar with the ethos of online editorials – "Offend nobody – or at least only conservatives!" – this is not surprising. (Remember Suzanne Moore’s "transphobic" aside in the New Statesman last January?)
One of the tweets read: "Where 99.3% of women report having been sexually harassed & rape is epidemic--Egypt--natural to inquire: what's the predominant religion?"
Where 99.3% of women report having been sexually harassed & rape is epidemic--Egypt--natural to inquire: what's the predominant religion?— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) July 5, 2013
Teju Cole was among the infuriated @-replies: "This makes me sad. Religion is a non sequitur here. You're being unfair, and presenting that unfairness as forthrightness." Oates ultimately qualified her statements: "Blaming religion(s) for cruel behavior of believers may be a way of not wishing to acknowledge they'd be just as cruel if secular." This might seem a retreat, but this revision is so relatively small compared to her initial, several-tweets-long argument. Plus, there’s her use of the word "may" – she didn’t really concede anything.
Oates not only challenges the older-woman stereotype; she also rejects female gender norms more generally. Whether she bakes cookies, I don’t know, but she is certainly not frail or pleasantly agreeable or churchgoing, and we all know the idea that women should be mild and likeable is bullshit. In a time when "respecting opinions" stops discourse and accusations of political incorrectness make even the most insignificant writers take back, apologise for and "deeply regret" things they probably still believe. At least one thing is indisputably, admirably feminist about Oates’s radical, offensive tweets: she didn’t delete them.
Follow Lauren Oyler on Twitter here @laurenoyler