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Joyce Carol Oats Essays

Joyce Carol Oates 1938–-

(Has written under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith) American novelist, short story and novella writer, poet, dramatist, essayist, author of children's books, critic, and editor.

The following entry provides criticism on Oates's short fiction from 1989 through 2000.

One of the most prolific and versatile contemporary American writers, Oates has published myriad novels, short stories, poems, and plays, as well as books and articles of criticism and nonfiction. In these works, Oates focuses on what she views as the spiritual, sexual, and intellectual decline of modern American society. Employing a dense, elliptical prose style, she depicts such cruel and macabre actions as rape, incest, murder, child abuse, and suicide to delineate the forces of evil with which individuals must contend. The tales in Oates's short story collections are frequently unified through central themes and characters, and while she has written extensively in several genres, most critics contend that her short fiction best evokes the urgency and emotional power of her principal themes.

Biographical Information

Born on June 16, 1938, in Lockport, New York, Oates was raised on her grandparents' farm in Erie County—later represented in much of her fiction as Eden County. A bookish, serious child, she first submitted a novel to a publisher at the age of fifteen. Oates attended Syracuse University on a scholarship and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1960; the following year she earned a master's degree at the University of Wisconsin and married Raymond Smith, a former English professor. From 1962 to 1968 the couple lived in Detroit, where Oates taught at the University of Detroit and published her first novels, short story collections, and poetry. She also witnessed the 1967 race riots, which inspired her National Book Award-winning novel them (1969). Shortly thereafter, Oates accepted a teaching position at the University of Windsor, Ontario, staying until 1978, when she was named a writer-in-residence at Princeton University; she joined the faculty there as a professor in 1987. Despite the responsibilities of an academic career, Oates has actively pursued writing, publishing an average of two books a year in various genres since the publication of her first book, the short story collection By the North Gate (1963). Her early novels consistently earned nominations for the National Book Award, while her short fiction won several individual O. Henry Awards and the O. Henry Special Award for Continuing Achievement in both 1971 and 1986. A poet of some merit and a regular contributor of essays and stories to scholarly journals, periodicals, and anthologies, Oates is a respected literary critic whose work presents logical, sensitive analyses of a variety of topics. In 1987 she published the widely admired nonfiction study On Boxing, which led to at least one television appearance as a commentator for the sport. During the 1990s Oates gained additional recognition as a dramatist for producing many plays off-Broadway and at regional theaters, including The Perfectionist (1993), which was nominated by the American Theatre Critics Association for best new play in 1994.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Oates's first two short story collections, By the North Gate and Upon the Sweeping Flood and Other Stories (1966), established her reputation as an innovative and commanding voice in contemporary literature. Both collections explore the decay of modern morality through a series of stories depicting a nonchalant brutality that, according to Oates, thrives and is often fostered in American society. Her next collection, The Wheel of Love and Other Stories (1970) is frequently described as Oates's finest volume of short stories. In these pieces, Oates explores the complex and sometimes mystifying emotions of love and the crippling effects that result from a failure to fulfill the potential of human relationships. The female protagonist in the title story, for example, commits suicide when she feels overwhelmingly confined by her husband's love. Oates also examines human sexuality in the critically acclaimed allegorical story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Connie, the naïve teenage protagonist, is eager to experiment with sex. Yet, when a young man, who Oates symbolically portrays as the devil, presents himself, Connie slowly realizes the terrifying possibilities of their liaison. In the end, she loses control of their relationship, and the tale concludes with a strong implication of rape. The Goddess and Other Women (1974) is another of Oates's collections that is unified by themes of sexual tension—specifically, sexual oppression of women.

Thematic unity among collected stories is especially evident in Oates's volumes Crossing the Border (1976) and All the Good People I've Left Behind (1978). Seven of the fifteen tales in Crossing the Border concern an American couple, Renée and Evan Maynard, who move to Canada. These stories are linked by the central motif of borders, suggested by the actual boundary line between the United States and Canada, as well as the psychological barriers that characters in these tales build to isolate themselves from close personal relationships. In All the Good People I've Left Behind, Oates constructs tales around her characters' egocentric quests for love. In her more recent collections of short fiction, critics have noted a growing shift from an emphasis on interpersonal relationships to a tendency to contextualize these relationships within political and social conditions. In Last Days (1984), several of the stories focus on the figure of the failed father and the repercussions of abuse and neglect on the family unit—especially the female children. Other stories in the volume, such as “Our Wall,” and “Ich bin ein Berliner,” explore the symbolism of the Berlin Wall before the fall of Communism. In Heat (1992), the stories touch on the external and internal threats to the security of middle-class existence. In “Shopping,” a mother and daughter shop at a suburban mall, but are followed around by a bag lady. Their different reactions to her plight expose a growing rift between them and disrupt their well-ordered existence. The Collector of Hearts (1999) and Faithless (2001) are collections of Oates's horror tales. The stories comprising Small Avalanches and Other Stories (2003), a collection for young women, the pieces focus on vulnerable, rebellious girls who fall victim to older, predatory males.

Critical Reception

Critics generally have been impressed with Oates's versatility and productivity; her profuse output has drawn comparisons to the work of such nineteenth-century writers as Charles Dickens and Honoré de Balzac. Though some critics have condemned Oates for eschewing the contemporary literary trend of “less is more,” many commentators applaud her copious efforts, suggesting that her work may ultimately constitute an entire world of fiction. Commentators note that Oates occupies a controversial position in the feminist literary tradition. Her female characters are not considered feminist in nature: they are often dependent and passive and withdraw from sexual and emotional connections instead of articulating their needs and frustrations. Moreover, the objectification and abuse of women—sexually, physically, and emotionally—has been a recurring theme in Oates's work. Feminist critics view these female characters as masochistic and note the lack of strong, independent female role models in her fiction. Despite the general disregard of Oates as a feminist writer, a number of commentators have defended the feminist sensibility underlying much of her novels and short stories. They trace her changing portrayals of gender power in her later work, contending that her more recent fiction focuses on the power of female bonds and self-discovery. Most critics maintain that Oates vividly represents the underlying tensions of modern American society in her explosive tales and, at the same time, stretches the boundaries of the conventional short story.

To call Joyce Carol Oates merely prolific would be a towering understatement. Her debut novel, With Shuddering Fall, appeared back in 1964, and Oates, now 78, has been a prodigious presence in American literature ever since, pumping out novels, short stories, poetry, plays, nonfiction works, and even children’s books—more than 100 titles in all. There’s no shortage of accolades either. She’s won a National Humanities Medal, a National Book Award, the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, two O Henry Awards, and the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, to name just a handful.

Soul at the White Heat, an essay collection out on September 20, is Oates’ third book this year and perhaps one of her more meditative. Drawing on an array of canonical authors past and contemporary, she investigates what motivates some of the most prominent literary voices in the English language to do what they do. The author, whose dedication to the craft is beyond question, also scrutinizes her own relationship with the written word. I reached out to Oates via email to inquire about her process, her myriad voices, and how she maintains this literary stamina.

Mother Jones: In the opening essay of Soul at the White Heat, you stake out the different approaches of famous writers pertaining to the place of politics (or social justice) in their writing. On one side we have the likes of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Upton Sinclair, Charles Dickens. On the other there are Oscar Wilde and Vladimir Nabokov, who dismissed this type of writing roundly (“mediocrity thrives on ideas”). What place do politics hold in your writing?

Joyce Carol Oates: The greatest works of literature seem to embody both “art” and “morality” (of some sort). We come away from the tragedies of Shakespeare with a profound sense of having encountered reality in its most pristine form—yet the art-work is elaborately artificial, the very genre of tragedy in poetry an anti-naturalist perspective. Of course, both Wilde & Nabokov believe in many things, and these things emerge in their writing clearly—for Wilde, the folly of humankind and the (romantic) grandeur of the heroic, lone individual (not unlike Wilde himself); for Nabokov, the possibility of a kind of transcendence through a great, prevailing, superior sort of love (especially in Ada, the most self-congratulatory of novels.) There is a greater art in Dickens than in either Wilde or Nabokov, but it isn’t at the expense of Dickens’ social conscience. It would be difficult for a writer of realism to avoid suggesting a political/moral perspective in his or her fiction. “Politics” per se is absent from my writing but there is usually a moral (if ironic) compass.

“Art is about freedom of expression, and should not be molded to fit any propaganda or lofty ideal.”

Art is about freedom of expression, and should not be molded to fit any propaganda or lofty ideal. I feel akin to Shakespeare in the sense that, as I see it, he lived to dramatize the unfailingly exciting, unfathomably strange interplay among human beings that constitutes “scenes” in his plays, and constitutes “story” in prose fiction. There is something thrilling in the mimesis of life’s surprising unfolding. Long ago I’d said that I am “fascinated by the phantasmagoria of human personality”—this is perhaps even truer now than years ago.

MJ: Fiction writers in particular, it seems, often have an almost filial closeness with their characters. Do you share this?

JCO: Yes, the characters’ voices are sometimes (to me) so absorbing, I feel a terrible loss when I (eventually must) complete a work of fiction. Sometimes I stumble upon a wonderfully irresistible (to me) voice, unexpectedly; the young narrator of Expensive People, for instance, which was my first extended experience of writing in a voice distinctly not my own. Another, the narrator of Zombie. Still another, the narrator of My Sister, My Love. These novels are so special to me. (I don’t expect that they will have nearly the same significance to anyone else.) They represent a kind of fiction I would love to pursue more or less constantly, but dare not. (Why not? Not sure.)

MJ: I’m curious whether you approach reading with the same ferocity you apply to your writing? 

“My first love was reading, which inspired me to write. Reading yields a wish to write, I think.”

JCO: Well, I am more or less reading all the time. My first love was reading, which inspired me to write. Reading yields a wish to write, I think, except if the reading is dull and uninspiring. It’s impossible to read a distinctive stylist like Faulkner, Joyce, Kafka, Mann, Woolf, James—and many more—without wanting to write, however entirely different one’s writing will be. That is the mystery: Reading Henry James can yield prose that is contrary to James, yet inspired by him. Who can understand this?

MJ: So much of your personal life goes into your writing. Is there anything off limits?

JCO: I tend to think in dramatic terms. In life, there may be an actual drama, but it would be the fictionalized, imagined drama that engaged me. Whenever I write about something that is (if remotely) real, it is imbued with the surreal and invented, as in most of my “real” settings like Detroit (them, and Do With Me What You Will), Syracuse (I’ll Take You There), Princeton (American Appetites, The Accursed). Nabokov said, “Ordinary reality begins to rot and stink if the imagination does not transform it.” For me, ordinary reality is a starting point. (Of course there is nothing “ordinary” about reality. Look what Joyce did with Dublin.)

MJ: I’m wondering what drives you to write so much, and what you hope to convey at this point in your career.

JCO: I don’t really seem, to myself, to write “so much”—nor do I write quickly. You would be surprised, perhaps stunned, to see how much revising I do in a typical morning. Obviously, there is pleasure in the execution of any sort of art, and using language, as Nabokov felt also, is an exquisite process. Writing allows for fictitious voices—the voices of persons unlike myself—that might otherwise be muted.

“Much in our lives is chance. I did not consider that I would lead a literary life.”

MJ: As someone whose first name is Joyce, who has taught James Joyce extensively, whose writing seems influenced by Joyce, do you ever feel like your literary life was a product of predestination?

JCO: I don’t believe in predestination—except for genetic predilections. Much in our lives is chance. I did not consider that I would lead a literary life. I’d thought initially, as a young girl, that I would be a teacher, since I so admired many of my teachers. And though I loved writing, I did not ever think of myself as a writer.

MJ:Soul and the White Heat contains reviews and literary analyses that have withstood the test of time. Are there works of literature about which you’ve had a radical change of opinion?

JCO: Nothing really comes to mind. I did not appreciate D.H. Lawrence so much as a younger writer as I did some years later, and I have not ever quite appreciated Virginia Woolf as so many others do, though I admire her diary enormously—it is one of the great diaries. Each time I undertake to reread Woolf, I am somewhat baffled by the signature breathlessness and relentlessly “poetic” tone, the shimmering impressionism, so very different from the vivid, precise, magisterial (and often very funny) prose of her contemporary James Joyce.

MJ: Tell me a bit more about your own writing process.

JCO: One of the qualities of writing that is not much stressed is its problem-solving aspect, having to do with the presentation of material: how to structure it, what sort of sentences (direct, elliptical, simple or compound, syntactically elaborate), what tone (in art, “tone” is everything), pacing. Paragraphing is a way of dramatization, as the look of a poem on a page is dramatic; where to break lines, where to end sentences. It’s always a challenge to discover the most effective first sentence, and the most effective final sentence, in a chapter for instance, and in the book as a whole. All these elements are particularly intriguing when a collection of short stories is assembled, for each story relates to the others thematically, and first stories and last stories should be related. It is important for me to discover the ideal title, for without this title the story or novel isn’t quite in focus.

“To choose the ideal voice for a character is to give a character an ardent and vivid life, to allow him or her to speak.”

All of these processes are constantly undergoing change, of course. “The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence has been written.” Only when you have completed a novel, or a story, can you return to the beginning and revise or rewrite. Though I revise constantly as I write, I will usually revise much of the work again after I’ve reached the ending. We have not discussed genres, but each genre exerts a considerable spell, as a kind of “form” to be filled, as a Shakespearean sonnet is filled.

I should stress that, for me, voice is predominant. I rarely write in my own voice except in book reviews and memoirs; otherwise, I am writing in mediated voices, modulated in terms of the characters whom the voices express. To choose the ideal voice for a character is to give a character an ardent and vivid life, to allow him or her to speak, rather than speaking for them, in an older style of omniscient narration. If Shakespeare’s great plays are variants of stories, even novels, you can see how each character is telling his story from his perspective; each is vying with the others for dominance, but in the end, in tragedy, most of these voices will die, to be replaced by the yet more vigorous voice of a younger generation. Shakespeare would seem to have been a person for whom the human voice/personality in all its splendid idiosyncrasy was absolutely enthralling.

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