Yes, Joyce Carol Oates, we read

Joyce Carol Oates is a much better writer than I am. She’s much smarter than I am, too. But dang, she sure wrote a stupid Tweet.

Carl Rollyson (who I am sure is thrilled to be part of this poop storm) tweeted a photo of a Faulkner banner in the Mississippi State University library. Ms. Oates, who was apparently feeling her oats, retweeted it with this gem of a insult: “So funny! If Mississippians read, Faulkner would be banned.”

OK.

I know she was commenting on the current flap over the Biloxi School Districts mind-numbing decision to yank the Harper Lee’s classic novel “To Kill A Mockingbird” from their curriculum because, wait for it, “it made people feel uncomfortable.”  I’m 100% in Ms. Oates’ corner if she’s stunned at the ridiculousness of that decision. The only way a brain can grow is to feel uncomfortable. I personally feel uncomfortable if kids aren’t exposed to great literature. And “To Kill A Mockingbird” is as good as it gets.

The problem is, Ms. Oates didn’t focus on just that decision. She picked up a several-mile-wide brush and painted every single person in Mississippi as an illiterate ignoramus.

So funny! Not.

It’s not the first time we’ve heard Mississippi jokes. Yes, we wear shoes. Yes, we have electricity. Yes, we have indoor plumbing (well, maybe not at deer camp). Ha ha ha ha ha.  And yes, we have problems. Big problems.  We’re last in many of the good lists and first in the some of the bad ones.  I’ll even boldly say that we sometimes deserve a joke or two.

But not this one.  She went for rotten, low-hanging fruit. And it stinks.

The irony of the tweet for me is that I just got through interviewing Mississippi’s wonderful poet laureate Beth Ann Fennelly for an upcoming episode of my Mississippi Public Broadcasting TV show, Conversations. We had just spent the better part of 30 minutes talking about Mississippi’s literary tradition and why we both chose to live here.  We agreed that this a land of great stories and great storytellers.  And c’mon, the last time checked, William Faulkner was FROM Mississippi. So we know at least one person from Mississippi could read.  Eudora Welty, Richard Wright, Richard Ford, Greg Illes, John Grisham, Tennessee Williams — oh, you know, all our famous authors could read, too.  Heck, even I can read.  My kids can read. My dog, well, no, she can’t read.  And as Ms. Oates found out on her Twitter account, hundreds of Mississippians who responded to her tweet can read, too.  They read her tweet after all.

I doubt she’ll be having a booksigning at Lemuria or Square Books anytime soon. But if she did, she’d also find out we have two of the finest independent bookstores in the country here, too.  They’d have closed years ago if we couldn’t read. Maybe she should come to the Mississippi Book Festival next year. She might be surprised.

Social media is a funny beast. It can be your best friend and then in the time it takes to hit “send”, can maul you like a pack of rabid nutria.  There is no editor. No filter. No second chance when you screw up. Yes, you can delete your offending tweet, but someone will be there to take a screen shot.

Ms. Oates walked up to a Twitter hornet nest, took a cheap shot and now is facing the wrath of ticked off Mississippians. If her phone is lighting up, she earned it.

Many times, when I hear a Mississippi joke, I shrug my shoulders and think. “Yeah, we had that one coming.” Not this time. I’ve lived here long enough to know a cheap shot when I see it.  And this was a cheap shot.

Joyce Carol Oates is a brilliant writer. We’re better than her tweet. And so is she.

 

About Marshall Ramsey