Hilary Mantel, the English writer who died on September 22 at the age of 71, was famous for her highly fanciful novels about the Tudor court, including the Booker Prize–winning Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. But she also made a name for herself with a couple of surprisingly vicious attacks on female contemporaries. In 2013, in a London Review of Books essay called “Royal Bodies,” she diagnosed Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, from a distance, describing the remarkably lovely and elegant damsel who’d married Prince William two years previously as an empty vessel — a woman “without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character.” The next year, in the short story “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher,” a tasteless wish-fulfillment fantasy published in the Guardian (where else?), Mantel imagined the murder of the recently deceased prime minister.
What could inspire Mantel to pour out such hurtful bile — first, about a harmless princess who’d done nothing to offend her; second, about a head of government who, being a Tory, had obviously done a thousand things to offend the lockstep-leftist Mantel, but who was now safely dead? It’s hard not to feel that at least part of the reason why Mantel dug her claws into those two ladies was that Kate was a beauty of the first order and that Maggie, while no supermodel, was in her heyday considered quite a looker, especially given that she had zero competition on this front in Westminster. None other than Christopher Hitchens pronounced Thatcher “sexy.” And Mantel? Well, Mantel had certain exceptional attributes, but conventional physical attractiveness was not among them.
What Mantel did to Thatcher and Kate is not unlike what Oates did to Marilyn Monroe, at over 700 pages’ length, in her 2000 novel Blonde, which is the basis of a vile new movie on Netflix.
Mantel wrote a dozen novels, two short-story collections, and a memoir. Not a meager output at all. But she was a piker compared to America’s own Joyce Carol Oates, now 84, who has published more than 60 novels, 50-odd short-story collections, a dozen or so essay collections, and another dozen or so books of poetry. She’s always been prolific. So was Anthony Trollope. But he managed to breathe life into his 47 novels. Oates’ fiction reads like something that came off of an assembly line. The details feel random, the emotion counterfeit, the message-mongering heavy-handed. Not that I’ve read all of her work. Far from it. Nobody has.
I yoke Mantel to Oates because what Mantel did to Thatcher and Kate is not unlike what Oates did to Marilyn Monroe, at over 700 pages’ length, in her 2000 novel Blonde, which is the basis of a vile new movie on Netflix. Oates, needless to say, could be pretty sure that a sensational novel by her about Monroe would, if properly promoted, reach a wide audience, bring in more cash than usual, and help shape a generation’s notion of the tragically short-lived icon. A daunting responsibility for a purportedly serious literary novelist, you’d think. But by her own admission, Oates, when banging out her book, paid little or no heed to the facts of Monroe’s life.
Yes, all biographical novels — and biographical movies — juggle the details for dramatic purposes. But the best ones at least strive to capture the essential truth about the person. Not Blonde. Oates had no interest in capturing the real Marilyn Monroe. She wanted to take Monroe’s famous name and attach it to a figment of her own lurid imagination. In a recent interview with the New Yorker, Oates described Marilyn as “my Moby Dick, the powerful galvanizing image about which an epic might be constructed, with myriad levels of meaning and significance.” This is not only puerile (when Oates talks about literature, she tends to sound like a graduate student trying to impress a professor) but soulless.
No surprise there, really. Not infrequently, Oates’ fiction is centered on horrific violence, often abusive violence, which she often uses to underscore (yawn) the purported duplicity of the American dream. Of course, violence has its place in artworks; think of the ways in which it’s used in the Godfather movies, for example. But in Oates’ work, violence invariably feels like a gimmick, a cheap way to shock, a lie. Compare her to Truman Capote. In his later years, he was a sad mess, but at his peak he was a great prose stylist — and such a sensitive soul that the research and composition of his masterwork In Cold Blood, a powerful account of a true-life mass murder and double execution, caused him emotional damage from which he never recovered. This has never happened to Oates. It never will. It couldn’t. Her emotions are never engaged on such a level by what she’s writing. Over the years I’ve mocked the notion of the suffering artist, but Oates is at the other end of the spectrum — the creator as award-hungry, log-rolling robot.
Capote saw this. Calling her “the most loathsome creature in America” and commenting on the phony fan letters she’d sent him, he added: “I’ve seen her, and to see her is to loathe her. To read her is to absolutely vomit.” I gather that Capote was referring there, in the “I’ve seen her” part, to Oates’ physiognomy. It’s true that, like Mantel, Oates was never blessed with anything remotely like comeliness — and one is constantly reminded of this fact as one watches Blonde, in which writer/director Andrew Dominik, cleaving closely to Oates’ narrative, puts Monroe through a series of abuses that bring to mind the Saw movies. (Dominik, incidentally, seems to have been the perfect guy to adapt Oates’ book. “She was symbolic of something,” Dominik said about Monroe in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. “She was the Aphrodite of the 20th century, the American goddess of love.” Beyond idiotic.)
One good thing: Even the mainstream media that usually lap up Oates’ glib garbage when it’s between hard covers aren’t having Blonde, the movie. In the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday accused Dominik of “revel[ing]” in Monroe’s “victimization and self-abnegation.” In the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote: “Given all the indignities and horrors that Marilyn Monroe endured … it is a relief that she didn’t have to suffer through the vulgarities of ‘Blonde.’” At Variety, Zach Sharf reported that the film “is leaving many subscribers outraged.” Good.
After the film’s release, Charles Casillo, author of Marilyn Monroe: The Private Life of a Public Icon (2018), published a terrific article enumerating some of its callous mendacities. Among other things, Oates invented — and Dominik depicted — a rape, a ménage à trois, an attempted murder, a miscarriage, and an abortion, none of which ever happened in Monroe’s real life. Cumulatively, wrote Casillo, these and other falsehoods serve to reduce Marilyn “to a lewd and unfunny punch line” in a film that “goes to fictitious extremes to degrade and humiliate her,” making a smart, charming woman look as if she was “a bewildered nitwit.” Remarkably, both Vulture and People, neither of which is exactly known for its scholarly fastidiousness, have also run articles sorting the fact in this movie from the fiction.
None of this seems to faze Oates, who has pronounced Dominik’s adaptation of her novel “a work of cinematic art.” Well, it certainly poses as one. Shifting back and forth between color and black-and-white cinematography, with plenty of silent, lingering closeups of Marilyn in emotional extremis that vaguely recall some of the greatest hits of the French nouvelle vague, the movie wants you to think that it’s pushing past the superficiality of Hollywood stardom and penetrating the tormented heart of a real-life woman. Oates’ explanation, offered up on Twitter, for the fierce pushback against this masterpiece is that “so relatively few people read or even know of a ‘literary’ novel, it is rare for one to draw much outrage; but a Netflix film like ‘Blonde’ attracts a much wider audience with different expectations.”
In other words: “Those deplorables!” But Blonde’s claim to be high art is absurd. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a high-class prostitute. Which makes Oates and Dominik, of course, a couple of pimps.