Joyce Carol Oates Falls Down a Pronoun Hole

Literary Twitter roasts 83-year-old writer for wrongthink

If you were online yesterday and preoccupied with other literary drama, you may have missed author Joyce Carol Oates’ stepping in it with her extremely gross foot. Oates, whose 1970 novel Them won the National Book Award for Fiction, shared a New York Times op-ed to argue against the use of the singular “they” pronoun—and things got a little transphobic.

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Written by John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University, the op-ed is essentially a defense of a previous column explaining and defending the use of “they.” McWhorter received enough blowback that he continued his defense this week, saying,”It seems that quite a few people have a major problem with this change in pronominal usage. I understand all of their objections but disagree with them.”

“‘[T]hey’ will not become a part of general usage, not for political reasons but because there would be no pronoun to distinguish between a singular subject (‘they’) & a plural subject (‘they’),” tweeted Oates in response to McWhorter’s piece. “[L]anguage seeks to communicate w/ clarity, not to obfuscate; that is its purpose.”

In the following 24 hours (in between cat photos; she is 83 after all), Oates clarified that she was speaking about the likelihood for the language to popularize the singular “they”, not her own inclination to misgender. “I’d never said that I ‘opposed’ anything linguistic, just wondered how widespread the usage would be in the US,” she wrote. “[L]anguage evolves…it can’t be ‘opposed.’”

In response to user @PlusStebe sharing a thread of the author’s, in which she uses the singular “they” pronoun, she tweeted the parenthetical, “(but I do use ‘they’–often!  I wasn’t talking about myself.  I was speculating about the probability of a general use of the term, not a highly specialized use, as in, for instance, the majority of Americans who are not ‘woke’ or even anti-’woke.’  just–not au courant.)”

One tweet, to me, rang especially hollow from a writer as well-known as Oates:

Literary twitter was no more convinced of her sincerity than I, particularly given Oates’ history of putting her (again, gross) foot in her mouth online. In 2016, Lithub chronicled the author’s history of problematic tweets, and two years prior, Gawker asked Oates to delete her account. This piece from Kirkus brings Oates’ online gaffes up to the present.

“[A]nd that’s why ‘you’ will never supplant ‘thou’ as the second person singular,” wrote @evanewashington.

“Roses are red / Violets are blue / Singular ‘they’ predates / Singular ‘you’,” tweeted user @LaurenThemself.

Oates also unfortunately pooh-poohed some skeletal Halloween decorations this week—”you can always recognize a place in which no one is feeling much or any grief for a lost loved one”—before Twitter duly owned her. @AchillesTeeth pointed out that Oates, who people criticized for writing a short story about the real-life death of one of her neighbors, may not be the best person to judge someone’s response to death and dying.

“Uh oh no one tell her about mexicans,” wrote Hola Papi author JP Brammer in a thread. “I am not upset at her tweet I hope she never stops posting. each one a cursed banger…this is why I come to twitter. Joyce Carol Oates is calling out plastic skeletons for insensitivity. that’s what I want”

“I can only assume Joyce Carol Oates could not stand seeing the kidney lady get all that attention yesterday and was like ‘hold my hand blown crystal glass of expensive wine,’” tweeted @NeolithicSheep.

I’m with Brammer; I hope Oates and her chaotic energy never stop tweeting.

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Katie Smith

Katie Smith is a Philadelphia-based writer. Find her on Instagram @saddy_yankee for cat pics.

One thought on “Joyce Carol Oates Falls Down a Pronoun Hole

  • October 7, 2021 at 2:04 pm

    Cancel culture is like a snake eating its own tail. This is the same Joyce Carol Oates who has called Hemingway a misogynist and added “but to accuse him of that is to accuse of being a male writer.”

    Where does it end? This would all be comical if it weren’t so destructive of our most cherished freedoms.


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