Joyce Carol Oates: (Woman) Writer

This entry was first published in September 2006 and has been pulled from the archives and lightly updated by request.

Joyce Carol Oates (or, more accurately, my admiration of her work) was partially responsible for my success in graduate school: One of two scholarly essays of mine to capture honors in my second year of study concerned JCO, and part of my oral defense involved examining her work within the framework of the Burkean pentad.

Perhaps because I've been so frank in my admiration or maybe because I've recommended so many of her works, a few readers have written to ask my opinion about reading and appreciating JCO. I had occasion to review my replies to two such queries this weekend and realized they might be pulled together into worthwhile entry.

She has written so many books! Where should I start?

Where to start, where to start... Well, the first book I read was her first, Them, but I think others are far more inviting: Marya, What I Lived For, Because It Is Bitter and Because It Is My Heart, American Appetites, Foxfire, You Must Remember This, Blonde....

Then again, her collections of short stories give you an opportunity to dip and choose. Haunted, Heat, and A Sentimental Education come immediately to mind.

And her non-fiction is the easiest of all her work to embrace. My particular favorites: (Woman) Writer, The Faith of a Writer, and Where I've Been and Where I'm Going.

Oates has written a number of psychological thrillers under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith (e.g., The Barrens), as well as several slim, intense novels (e.g., Zombie, Beasts, Rape: A Love Story) and a number of novels for young adults (e.g., Freaky Green Eyes, Sexy). If you like mysteries, psych thrillers, and/or YA lit, then these may be comfortable introduction to the slightly off-kilter world of JCO.

If she's an entirely new author to you, why not start with the short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been"? It's widely anthologized and also available online.

I just recalled that We Were the Mulvaneys was an Oprah pick. Like most O selections, it's a large, sprawling novel of the despair and destruction just beneath the surface of a seemingly "perfect" family. What separates it from most of the talk show host's selections is that this is a remarkable piece of contemporary fiction. Of course, I'm partial to the amazing Ms. Oates.

Some tips: 

■  JCO's sentences tend to repeat, fold in upon themselves, and swirl like water down a drain. This effect is a hallmark of her style. It drives some readers bonkers.

■  It's not uncommon for her to wander down one path, chase a thought to its near death, and then... abandon it. Just as we do, her characters do.

■  Some her work spends a lot of time in the darkest, most appalling places of the human experience and imagination. If you arrive at one of these novels or short stories and it's some place you don't want to be, set it aside. Not all of her books go there... or there... or even there. If, for example, the humanization of a serial killer boggles your mind, skip Zombie. If the secret sexual predilections of senior professors on a sleepy college campus do not interest you one bit, skip Beasts.

Her body of work is immense and, some have argued, uneven, but it's the work of a living literary legend. Choose the pieces that appeal to your readerly soul. And enjoy.

What makes What I Lived For a good book to you? This book is so gritty (for lack of a better word) that I have a hard time appreciating it.
JCO often employs the meanest aspects of life -- poverty, brutality (sexual, emotional, physical), prejudice, ignorance, etc. -- as characters in her books, and, as I remember, it is wanton stupidity (Corky's) that plays a leading role in WILF. How does one accumulate so much wealth and power and fail to accumulate any wisdom, any insight into the nature of being fully human? Corky dies a meaningless death, having lived a meaningless life, ending, as he did, profoundly unenlightened, uninformed, and unshaped by the people and events of his life.

Murder. Cruel sex. Drug use. Corruption. These are, indeed, gritty. But Corky's failure to learn and grow is, perhaps, the most haunting aspect of Oates' portrait of a politician. (Related aside: Much is made of Oates' use of metaphor and metonymy. Is what Corky lived for, then, essentially nothing? Did he even really live?)

Oates spends a lot of time charting the dark side of the human soul. Even her non-fiction obsession with boxing is about the sport's animal-like violence. I'll confess to having more stomach for her when I was younger. Hers is a bleak world, a sort of suffocation in the suburbs -- where men stray, women suffer, politicians lie, and children know far too much about the adults in their lives. Firmly planted in middle age, I find that Oates (who will likely win the Nobel Prize in Literature -- if she lives long enough; the Nobel is not only a testimony to greatness but to endurance: it is never awarded posthumously) still astounds me as a stylist but confounds me as a storyteller; that is, she is great, but she is unrelentingly grim, and in my middle years, I am having more difficulty bouncing back from the depths of despair into which she can sink me. I share this by way of saying that JCO is an acquired taste for some readers.

It's hard to know exactly which book will interest someone else; I like nearly all of them, including those published under her pseudonym. You know, while reading The Thirteenth Tale [in 2006], I was struck by some of the same readerly reactions I remember experiencing when I read JCO's Bellefleur. That may better suit you than WILF.

And now, reviewing my reply, I see that I didn't explain, as you asked, what makes this a good book to me. It's been a decade nearly two decades since I read WILF. I remember closing it and turning to Kurt, with whom I rode the train home from work many evenings, and saying, "This will win the Pulitzer... or at least be shortlisted." It was shortlisted. Isn't it funny how we can recognize greatness -- in art, in music, in literature, even in a sporting arena -- and not necessarily possess the vocabulary with which to explain its greatness?

For more information about the incomparable JCO, visit Celestial Timepiece.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am always affected by her short stories; they stick with me for years. The last book of hers I read was We Were the Mulvaneys and memories of it are haunting. I find her work (that I've experienced) to have a darkness that I have a difficult time carrying with me. I love her style, but I feel too heavy after reading her to seek after it very often. I think I've read her work about once every five years or so and I have so few of her books I wouldn't even call it a collection.