While still in her twenties, Joyce Carol Oates was recognized as an important writer. After decades of consistent publication, her place in the first rank of contemporary American authors is assured. Born on June 16, 1938, in Lockport, New York, Oates was reared in a rural, Catholic, working-class family. Her father, Frederick, was a tool-and-die designer who quit school in the seventh grade to go to work. Her mother, the former Caroline Bush, was a housewife. Oates attended a one-room elementary school, the junior high in Lockport, and a high school outside Buffalo. She has used few of her childhood experiences, but she has frequently used the locale of Erie County, New York, which she ironically fictionalizes as “Eden County.”
Joyce Carol Oates
Oates received a New York State Regents’ Scholarship that allowed her to attend Syracuse University. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa and class valedictorian in 1960; she majored in English with a minor in philosophy. As an undergraduate, she was a cowinner of first place in Mademoiselle’s college fiction contest. In 1961, she completed a master’s degree in English at the University of Wisconsin. It was there that she met and married Raymond J. Smith. After a brief stay in Texas, the couple accepted teaching positions in Detroit: Oates at the University of Detroit and Smith at Wayne State University. In the next four years, Oates published two collections of short stories and her first novel, With Shuddering Fall. In 1966, Smith accepted a position at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada. A year later Oates began teaching there as well. In 1967, Oates received the first of many O. Henry Awards for her story “In the Region of Ice.”
During her eleven years at the University of Windsor, Oates published eight novels, eight collections of short stories, four collections of poems, three critical works, and numerous journal articles. She and her husband also founded Ontario Review: A North American Journal of the Arts. Despite her lengthy Canadian residence, Oates’s fiction focuses on American subjects and characters. The Detroit area was a particularly important inspiration, a symbol of violence and energy that Oates used as the setting for some of her most forceful work, including them, which earned for her the National Book Award in 1970 and helped establish her reputation as a master of psychological realism.
In 1978, the couple moved to Princeton, New Jersey, where Oates accepted a position at Princeton University as writer-in-residence. In the 1980’s, Oates published a series of novels in the mystery/romance genre, beginning with Bellefleur. She then returned to mainstream novels that featured characters who, like Oates herself, came of age in upstate New York in the 1950’s. These novels, Marya, You Must Remember This, and Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart, also continue to explore the troubled and violent underside of American life within the context of race and social class. Several novels in the 1990’s were inspired by real-life events: Black Water is based on a political scandal, Foxfire concerns the social problem of girl gangs, Zombie goes inside the mind of a serial killer, and Blonde fictionalizes the life of Marilyn Monroe. In other novels, Oates examines social mores through the fates of families: The best-seller We Were the Mulvaneys tells the saga of a prominent family’s downfall following the rape of a daughter, while My Heart Laid Bare presents an epic about a family of confidence artists in nineteenth and early twentieth century America.
Most of Oates’s fiction portrays the individual’s struggle to balance self and community in a violent and amoral society. The pessimism of her early novels earned for her a reputation as an eccentric gothicist, but her later work, although still marked by depictions of horror, offers greater hope for transcendence. She is an outspoken defender of realism and narrative form and views the antinarrative experimentation of much contemporary fiction as an example of anachronistic, masculine egocentricity that ignores the necessary connection between writer and reader.
No clear consensus on Oates’s place in American literature exists. Some scholars, troubled by her prolificacy and popularity, see her work as careless and repetitive. She is also criticized for her reliance on action and traditional narrative forms. Others, however, compare her body of work to that of William Faulkner and argue that she has established herself as among the greatest contemporary American authors.