Authors: Joyce Carol Oates

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist, short-story writer, and poet


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.”{$I[AN]9810001006}{$I[A]Oates, Joyce Carol}{$S[A]Smith, Rosamond;Oates, Joyce Carol}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Oates, Joyce Carol}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Oates, Joyce Carol}{$I[tim]1938;Oates, Joyce Carol}

Joyce Carol Oates

(©Marion Ettlinger)

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.

BibliographyBastian, Katherine. Joyce Carol Oates’s Short Stories: Between Tradition and Innovation. Frankfurt: Verlag Peter Lang, 1983. Bastian surveys the Oatesian short story, providing occasional insights into theme and character. The focus is to place Oates in the tradition of the genre and find her links with its other masters.Cologne-Brookes, Gavin. Dark Eyes on America: The Novels of Joyce Carol Oates. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005. An analysis of selected, significant works wherein Cologne-Brookes attempts to expose Joyce Carol Oates’ philosophical and cultural worldviews. Valuable addition to Oates’ studies.Creighton, Joanne V. Joyce Carol Oates. Boston: Twayne, 1979. A penetrating exploration of the themes that dominate Oates’s work, such as self-definition, isolation, and violent liberation. Creighton devotes a chapter to the experimentalism of five short-story collections. Includes chronology, notes, and an annotated bibliography.Creighton, Joanne V. Joyce Carol Oates: Novels of the Middle Years. New York: Twayne, 1992. Focusing on Oates’s authorial voice and combining critical analysis of Oates’s work with the author’s own criticism of her work, this study serves as a companion to Creighton’s earlier volume (above). Surveying fifteen novels written between 1977 and 1990, Creighton explores the autobiographical elements, feminist subtexts, and realistic dimensions of the novels. Select bibliography.Easterly, Joan. “The Shadow of a Satyr in Oates’s ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’” Studies in Short Fiction 27 (Fall, 1990): 537-543. Interprets the character Arnold Friend as a satyr, a demigod from Greek and Roman mythology. Presents a number of arguments about the imagery and structure of the story to support this claim. Asserts Friend is the embodiment of dream, symbolizing the freedom of the imagination as opposed to the discipline of culture and intellect.Johnson, Greg. “A Barbarous Eden: Joyce Carol Oates’s First Collection.” Studies in Short Fiction 30 (Winter, 1993): 1-14. Discusses Oates’s By the North Gate as a microcosm of her entire career in fiction. Focuses on her Faulknerian mythmaking, her view of love as a violent force through which characters strive for power, and the similarity of her stories to those of Flannery O’Connor.Johnson, Greg. Invisible Writer: A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1998. Johnson provides a thorough analysis of Oates’s work and life in this full-length authorized biography. Draws on a variety of sources, including Oates’s private letters and journals.Johnson, Greg. Joyce Carol Oates: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1994. After a general introduction to Oates’s contribution to the short story, devotes separate chapters to feminism, the gothic, and postmodernism in several of Oates’s short-story collections. Includes a number of comments by Oates on the short story, as well as brief excerpts from seven other critics.Johnson, Greg. Understanding Joyce Carol Oates. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987. Geared to the general reader, this volume examines both Oates’s major novels and some of her best-known stories. The focus is more on specific works than on Oates’s overarching concerns. Easy to read, with a biography and bibliography.Pearlman, Mickey, and Katherine Usher Henderson. Inter/View: Talks with America’s Writing Women. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990. Numerous interviews with Oates have been published, but this one, conducted by Mickey Pearlman, reveals topics germane to the poetry: class relations, gender relations, and the vital role of memory in her creativity. Oates talks about the biographers (whom Oates labels “pathographers”) who ascribe sickness and deviance to women writers, conflating personal and professional lives in a very damaging way.Wagner, Linda, ed. Critical Essays on Joyce Carol Oates. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979. A good collection of twenty-eight reviews and essays, some on particular works, others on general themes or stylistic considerations. The short stories receive less attention than the novels and even, surprisingly, the poetry. Extensive and evenhanded, with a chronology and bibliography, and a short but refreshing preface by Oates herself.Wesley, Marilyn. Refusal and Transgression in Joyce Carol Oates’s Fiction. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1993. A feminist analysis, this work focuses on the family as portrayed in Oates’s fiction. Wesley contends that the young protagonists of many of Oates’s stories and novels commit acts of transgression that serve as critiques of the American family. Wesley maintains that the acts indict the society that produces and supports these unstable, dysfunctional, and often violent, families.
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