Image: Matthew Loffhagen
What if I told you that some of the world’s greatest authors have formed a shadowy cabal dedicated to offering comprehensive, hours-long lecture series on how to improve your writing?
No? Well, what if I told you that MasterClass have offered a bunch of authors a truckload of money to assemble their best advice into feature-length lecture series of varying quality? Yeah, that’s more like it.
In the past, we’ve looked at which MasterClass writing lectures are worth your time and which aren’t, and we’ll be continuing that tradition today with a review of Joyce Carol Oates’ lecture series. If, however, this is the first you’re hearing of our reviews, you can find the existing list at the end of this article, and be sure to keep coming back, as we’ll be tackling even more of MasterClass’ offerings in the future. If, on the other hand, you’re here for some Joyce Carol Oates insight, read on.
What is MasterClass?
MasterClass is an educational service that solicits and hosts unique lecture series from world-renowned experts. They have classes on acting, cooking, photography and, of course, writing. Each lecture series is exclusive to MasterClass’ service, and they’re broken down into individual classes which tend to last between two and twenty minutes. These can be watched directly on the MasterClass site – as you’d watch a video on YouTube – or downloaded to the dedicated MasterClass app to watch offline (though you can’t download them straight to your computer.)
MasterClass supports its lectures with workbooks, though it’s worth nothing that these tend to be created to showcase whatever content emerges from the course, rather than having the big-name speakers add anything extra. MasterClass users also have access to The Hub, an internal forum where learners can pick each other’s brains and discuss lessons. Some lecture series offer additional resources, and most include some initial discussion with the lecturer for a few lucky early adopters.
While MasterClass series tend to hover around the four-hour mark, Joyce Carol Oates’ comes in at just over three hours and twenty minutes. Despite this, it’s worth giving Oates the benefit of the doubt for now, as her approach is a lot more traditionally academic than other lecturers, cutting out a lot of restatement and personal anecdotes. Oates’ lessons tend to be between ten and twenty minutes in length, with a couple of longer classes near the end of her series.
Lecture series are available for purchase either individually, by lecturer, or via a timed all-access pass that opens up every lecture on the site. At time of writing, individual classes are $90 and the all-access pass is $180 for a year or $15 per month, with both also available as gifts that can be sent to other people.
Why Joyce Carol Oates?
Strangely for perhaps the most critically respected author currently on its books, MasterClass’ course workbook for Oates doesn’t include much in the way of hype. It’s only in the marketing materials that they properly make their case for why Oates is the instructor you’ve been waiting for:
Joyce Carol Oates has been recognized as a literary treasure for more than 50 years. Her work has been honored with many distinguished awards, including the National Book Award for her novel “them.” She’s also won two O. Henry Awards, the National Humanities Medal, and the Jerusalem Prize.
… Prolific and adept at moving across genres, Joyce has written 58 novels so far and thousands of short stories, articles, and essays. Several of her novels, including “Black Water,” “What I Lived For,” and “Blonde,” as well as two of her short story collections, have been Pulitzer Prize finalists. She has taught at Princeton University since 1978, and now the esteemed creative writing professor teaches you the art of the short story.– ‘Joyce Carol Oates Teaches the Art of the Short Story,’ YouTube
The stated focus of the course is ‘the art of the short story,’ a subject on which Oates is more than qualified to opine. Her books and stories are literature rather than just entertainment (a hurdle not every MasterClass lecturer can, or wants to, leap), with many regarded as modern classics, and Oates’ background at Princeton means that – in theory at least – she knows how to put together a lecture.
Given all this, the question isn’t whether Oates has the knowledge to put together a worthwhile lecture on writing, but rather whether this lecture series lives up to that potential.
I experienced Joyce Carol Oates’ MasterClass series right after R.L. Stine’s; a process that threw each into stark contrast. With Stine, there’s the constant impression that he’s put his class together because that’s what he’s been asked to do. He rarely digs deep, and while there are gems to be found, they tend to be specific to his relatively narrow area of interest.
In comparison, Oates’ lectures represent a thick vein of ore – the kind that you have to put effort into mining. Likewise, Oates’ classes haven’t been assembled to fill the time, but are rather a truncated form of her undergraduate course at Princeton University.
The MasterClass follows the outline of my class, my undergraduate fiction writing class, at Princeton University. So, I’ve been teaching there for many years, and it’s the same syllabus that we go through like twelve, fifteen weeks, with the short assignments; beginning with really short, paragraph, page, two pages.– Joyce Carol Oates, ‘Lesson 1: Introduction,’ MasterClass
This may sound like good news (what better source material than an actual writing course?), but in practice it creates the major problem of Oates’ MasterClass. First of all, three hours and twenty minutes is a major truncation for a fifteen-week course. When you consider that you’re also losing Oates’ personalized assignments, in-class discussion, and writing consultation, what you’re getting is a compacted form of a class that, in its original form, was supported by a lot of now-absent material. (It’s worth noting that the accompanying course booklet, which we’ll discuss shortly, sets its own assignments, and some lessons do end with assignments and exercises, albeit ones you can’t turn in.)
This fact left me feeling a little trepidatious at the start of Oates’ lecture series. There’s no doubt that she’s an expert on writing, but conveying those expertise is its own skill, and there’s a big difference between having a few hours with a mass audience and spending fifteen weeks teaching students who can clarify your lessons on a one-to-one basis. One of Oates’ first points, included below, compounded this worry:
It helps to think of yourself as a writer, standing on the edge, on the marginal plane. There’s a plane here, of other people, and you’re standing on the edge and you’re looking at them. So, if you’re a writer, think of yourself also as a photographer with a camera. And you’re looking through a lens, and when you have your magic camera, that’s your writing. In other words, you turn this camera around and with the lens, you see the subject, but the camera is your writing, and that’s your position, your perspective, and that gives you the power.– Joyce Carol Oates, ‘Lesson 2: Principles of Writing Short Fiction,’ MasterClass
There’s a great point here, but it gets lost in its own imagery, and there’s the impression as Oates is speaking that she’s tripping over an idea she usually has longer to unpack. Of course, Oates struggling still beats most writers in their element, and she quickly gets back on track, presenting a much more cogent metaphor that explains something many authors miss in a way that makes it immediately and permanently clear:
I suggest to my students, if they have a story with a number of people in it, I’ll say, “What is this person doing? Why is that person there?” If they can’t answer that then I say, “We have to get rid of that person.” It’s like hiring actors in a play; you have to pay them. You pay five actors and you’re only using three actors, you can’t afford those actors, so I make them leave.– Joyce Carol Oates, ‘Lesson 2: Principles of Writing Short Fiction,’ MasterClass
It’s not just Oates’ style that’s shaped by her teaching background. In fact, the structure of her series differs drastically from those of other authors on the platform. Her classes are longer, denser, and vary in form. Often, Oates will explore a concept in multiple ways, spacing each exploration out so the student has time to digest her point. Lessons 4 and 6 tackle the theme of ‘Ideas,’ while Lessons 7 and 8 are both form studies.
Lesson 11 is particularly invaluable – here, Oates makes a study of Ernest Hemingway’s ‘Indian Camp,’ both making insightful points and demonstrating how to carry out a close reading. This is perhaps the chief benefit of Oates’ Princeton background; if you’ve never taken a writing course, she not only shares a lot of useful information, she demonstrates some of the techniques that are used to develop an academic understanding of writing.
Lessons 12 and 13 – which last more than twenty-five minutes each – are group discussions of work. Oates invites in her students Lindsey Skillen and Corey Arnold, whose short stories are downloadable resources for the course, and carries out a group discussion of what they were trying to do, what works, and what doesn’t. A three-person group doesn’t lead to a particularly lively discussion, especially when one of them is the author, but if you’ve never taken part in this type of literary vivisection, it’s a useful instruction in how to go about it.
Oates’ unique approach is part of why her course is significantly shorter than the average, as well as why her individual classes tend to be longer. These aren’t classes to put on while doing something else (a significant disadvantage for some users), and Oates’ classes are perhaps the first where I’d say that multiple viewings may be necessary to absorb everything she has to offer. That’s not just because Oates’ classes are long – they’re also dense, and Oates draws on a range of disciplines to make her arguments, from literary theory to neurology:
There are two ways of looking at writing. One way is that you’re telling a story very transparently, the other is that you’re telling a story with language, and language is the point. George Orwell said that prose should be like a window, it should be very clean. … Orwell’s idea of prose was that there was nothing between you and the reader. I don’t necessarily think that that is the way that I particularly want to write. I’m much more interested in language being present. … [Many accomplished writers] are more interested in the language of the story.– Joyce Carol Oates, ‘Lesson 2: Principles of Writing Short Fiction,’ MasterClass
[Stories that experiment with visual form] are very interesting because they acknowledge the fact (that’s neurological) that art comes to us through our eyes. Art and literature come to us through our eyes, and you can do things with the white space that’s very arresting.– Joyce Carol Oates, ‘Lesson 5: Structure and Form,’ MasterClass
In this way, there’s a pronounced difference between what’s appropriate for a university undergraduate and what’s approachable for a beginner. If you’re looking for a cheap(er) way to get all the information you’d get from an undergraduate class, Oates’ lectures are the answer, but if you’re just trying to write better short fiction, her classes may be overwhelming or even dispiriting.
That’s not to say that Oates doesn’t cover vital points. There are things that should be included in any amateur writing course (though hopefully, as in Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass, presented in a fresh and engaging way), and while Oates doesn’t take pains to cover them all, you’re still certain to come away with useful insights:
When you’re writing, it’s very good to have readers, so that you don’t become isolated and become really obsessed with your work. It’s better to have like a deadline and have to turn something in, even though it’s not complete, and have to talk about it and go back and revise it and bring it back to the workshop. It’s more aeriated than it is a very isolated and solitary activity. It’s good also to have an environment where everything is understood to be imperfect.– Joyce Carol Oates, ‘Lesson 13: Revision Workshop: “Near Death”’
While Oates’ stated focus is the art of the short story, a lot of her insights apply to all types of writing. This is typical for MasterClass lectures, where there are a lot of competing pressures for authors to share their specific expertise while also being relevant to as wide a market as possible. Still, Oates keeps returning to her theme, and while there’s a lot that could weigh down first-time writers, there are also frank, helpful tips on how to approach short fiction:
Particularly with a short story or a novella, which is basically a short novel, it’s very, very helpful to know what your first sentence is, and the first scene, and then go for a long walk, or a run, or a bicycle ride and try to see the whole thing as a movie. … Then, when you come back home, you rapidly take notes. I take them in longhand, just as fast as I can write, but you can type on a laptop, and just take any notes; no chronological order, just anything, little snatches of dialogue, anything that you remember that’s memorable and important will come flooding back up. And then, the next time you go on a run or a walk or a bicycle ride, you sort of do the whole thing over again, and this time you get different things coming to you. Things that you maybe weren’t working on the first time, you work on the second time, you know. Basically, you’re accruing all these notes.– Joyce Carol Oates, ‘Lesson 3: Journals: Observing the World’
It may sound like I’m down on Oates’ class, but that’s only in contrast to what it could have been. The meat of what Oates brings to the table easily puts her in the top three writing lecturers on the site, it’s just that she could have been number one if her classes were more tailored to the service.
While it might sound great to be getting all the good stuff from a Princeton University lecture series, you’re actually losing everything around that series that helps you learn. In practice, you’re not invited to every class, you’re not able to ask questions, and no-one’s looking at your work. The consequence is that Oates’ classes require a lot more effort than those of other MasterClass tutors. They’re thick with information, much of it built on an assumption of some academic experience, and while Oates does unpack a lot of what she’s saying, she’s already trying to get through a class she doesn’t have the usual amount of time to teach. When, in that initial quote, she talks about being on a marginal plane, then having a camera, then that camera being magic, you’re not hearing a single, scattered idea, but rather three ideas merged together by the constraints of how they’re presented. If you can separate those ideas out, they’re genuinely insightful, but a lot of the time, the work of doing so will be on you.
Joyce Carol Oates’ MasterClass rewards effort on the part of the student, but that effort is more necessary than it should be. The majority of other MasterClass lecturers field classes you can listen to in the bath or pause halfway and revisit later, but Oates isn’t as accessible, and you should go into her classes ready to take notes. In terms of value for money, that’s a good thing, and there’s particular value here if you want to beef up your toolkit for evaluating your and others’ writing. While other MasterClass lecturers might offer simpler classes, none of them show you how to carry out a close reading or run a revision workshop, so if you’re not already comfortable with these skills, Oates has even more to teach you.
I’ve already talked about the revision workshops Oates runs towards the end of her lecture series, but it’s worth noting that among the downloadable resources are both stories, one of which includes an original version, a revised version, and a version with tracked changes showing the alterations that have been made. If you’re someone who struggles to rigorously draft and redraft their own work, these resources (and your ability to see them used in the workshops) will add real value.
The same can’t really be said for the workbook accompanying the class. If you’ve read our reviews of other MasterClass courses, you’ll be sick of me bashing their workbooks – which, admittedly, have gotten better with time.
In short, MasterClass advertise their workbooks as if they add significant value to their courses, but they don’t put in the work to make this a reality. The workbooks are competently assembled accompaniments to lectures – they recap the points made, they offer further reading, and they sometimes pose assignments for students to complete – but they’re someone else’s summary of the class you already heard.
That’s a little more necessary with Oates’ course, but it would still be wrong to pretend that even MasterClass genuinely consider their workbooks a real consideration in the money you’re paying for the course. If so, you might expect Oates’ workbook to be a little more comprehensive than normal, considering that her course is on the short side. At just over three hours and twenty minutes of video, Oates’ workbook comes in at sixty-six (generously spaced) pages. In contrast, Margaret Atwood’s course, which takes just over three hours and forty minutes, has a ninety-two-page workbook. So, if you’re already getting more time with the instructor, why is Atwood’s workbook longer? Because there’s more to rephrase, and that’s really all the workbooks are doing.
Is Joyce Carol Oates’ MasterClass worth your time and money?
Joyce Carol Oates’ MasterClass suffers from being a more involved, more comprehensive course forced into a simpler, less interactive format, but she’s still an expert. While this lecture is a relatively poor way to benefit from her insights, that ‘relatively’ matters, and if you’re writing short fiction, you should hear what Oates has to say, even if that means rolling your sleeves up and taking a pickaxe to this course in particular.
If it weren’t for one factor, which I’ll come to in a moment, I’d say that – in terms of insight and information – if you only take one MasterClass course, it should be this one. You’ll have a much better time with R.L. Stine, and Neil Gaiman offers a magical blend of self-indulgence and sincere insight, but Joyce Carol Oates is on another level. Her class is harder to parse because she’s offering a deeper level of insight, and while I think treating her MasterClass lecture as its own thing would have produced something more conducive to confident learning, you’re ultimately doing more work for more reward.
So, yes, Joyce Carol Oates’ MasterClass is probably worth your time and money, depending on whether or not you have another way to engage with her teaching.
Here, however, we have to come back to that one factor that keeps me from saying that Joyce Carol Oates’ class is the most vital MasterClass writing course. That factor, in short, is Margaret Atwood, whose MasterClass lecture series offers the same kind of academic rigor, the same multi-discipline insights and practical tips, but in a way that’s vastly more accessible to all writers and far more tailored to the MasterClass model.
We’ll be reviewing Margaret Atwood’s MasterClass soon, but if you’re only going to buy one, that’s currently the one to choose (unless, of course, you’re more interested in one lecturer’s specific area of expertise.) If, on the other hand, you’re wondering if there are enough quality lectures to justify a MasterClass subscription, then the Oates-Atwood combo is a resounding ‘yes.’ In Dan Brown and R.L. Stine, MasterClass offered up lecturers for students who wanted to hear from their favorite authors, but in Joyce Carol Oates and Margaret Atwood, the service offers up genuine, meaty literary theory mixed with practical industry advice. While Oates’ lecture series isn’t perfect, it exemplifies the model on which MasterClass sells itself – exclusive advice from the greats in your field of interest. Make no mistake; Oates’ class could have been a lot better and a lot more accessible, but it still contains insight that will help you grow as a writer.
Have you taken Joyce Carol Oates’ MasterClass? Let me know what you thought of it in the comments, and check out our other reviews for what we thought of MasterClass’ other writing classes.