(Oates, Joyce Carol)


Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates
Oates in 2006.
Born16 June 1938 (1938-06-16) (age70)Lockport, New York
OccupationNovelist, short story writer, playwright, poet, literary critic, professor, editor
Writing period1963-present
Notable award(s)1967 O. Henry Award
1973 O. Henry Award
1970 National Book Award

Joyce Carol Oates (born June 16, 1938) is an American author. Raised in rural, working-class New York, Oates published her first book in 1963 and has since published over fifty novels, as well as many volumes of short stories, poetry, and non-fiction. Her novel them (1969) won the National Book Award, and her novels Black Water (1992), What I Lived For (1994), and Blonde (2000) were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. With a reputation for prolificness, Oates is one of the leading American novelists since the 1960s.

As of 2008, Oates is the Roger S. Berlind '52 Professor in the Humanities with the Program in Creative Writing at Princeton University, where she has taught since 1978.[2]

Oates has also written under the pseudonyms "Rosamond Smith" and "Lauren Kelly.


Early life and education

Oates was born in Lockport, New York to Carolina Oates, a homemaker, and Frederic Oates, a manufacturing worker.[3] She was raised Catholic, but is now an atheist.[4] Oates grew up in the working-class farming community of Millersport, New York,[5] and characterized hers as "a happy, close-knit and unextraordinary family for our time, place and economic status".[3] Her paternal grandmother, Blanche, lived with the family and was "very close" to Joyce.[5] After Blanche's death, Joyce learned that Blanche's father had killed himself and Blanche had subsequently concealed her Jewish heritage; Oates eventually drew on aspects of her grandmother's life in writing the 2007 novel The Gravedigger's Daughter.[5] A brother, Fred Junior, was born in 1943, and a sister, Lynn Ann, who is severely autistic, was born in 1956.[3]

At the beginning of her education, Oates attended the same one-room school her mother attended as a child.[3] She became interested in reading at an early age, and remembers Blanche's gift of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as "the great treasure of my childhood, and the most profound literary influence of my life. This was love at first sight!"[6] In her early teens, she devoured the writing of William Faulkner, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Henry David Thoreau, Ernest Hemingway, Charlotte Brontë, and Emily Brontë, whose "influences remain very deep".[7] Oates began writing at the age of 14, when Blanche gave her a typewriter.[5] Oates later transferred to several bigger, suburban schools,[3] and graduated from Williamsville South High School in 1956, where she worked for her high school newspaper.[citation needed] She was the first in her family to complete high school.[3]

Oates won a scholarship to attend Syracuse University, where she joined Phi Mu, a financially draining experience she later regretted.[8] Oates found Syracuse "a very exciting place academically and intellectually", and trained herself by "writing novel after novel and always throwing them out when I completed them."[9] It was not until this point that Oates began reading the work of D. H. Lawrence, Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Mann, and Franz Kafka, though, she noted, "these influences are still quite strong, pervasive."[7] At the age of nineteen, she won the "college short story" contest sponsored by Mademoiselle. Oates graduated Syracuse as valedictorian in 1960, and received her M.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1961.

Literary career

Oates published her first novel, With Shuddering Fall (1964), when she was twenty-six years old. In 1966, she published "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?", a short story dedicated to Bob Dylan and written after listening to his song "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue."[10] The story is loosely based on the serial killer Charles Schmid, also known as "The Pied Piper of Tucson".[11] The story was frequently anthologized and was adapted into the 1985 film Smooth Talk, starring Laura Dern. In 2008, Oates said that of all her published work, she is most noted for "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?".[12]

Oates's novel them (1969) received the National Book Award in 1970. Since then she has published an average of two books a year, many of them novels. Frequent topics in her work include rural poverty, sexual abuse, class tensions, desire for power, female childhood and adolescence, and occasionally the supernatural. Violence is a constant in her work, even leading Oates to have written an essay in response to the question, "Why Is Your Writing So Violent?" She is a fan of poet and novelist Sylvia Plath, describing Plath's sole novel The Bell Jar as a "near perfect work of art"; but though Oates has often been compared to Plath, she disavows Plath's romanticism about suicide and among her characters, she favors cunning, hardy survivors, both women and men.[citation needed] Oates' concern with violence and other traditionally masculine topics has won her the respect of such male authors as Norman Mailer. In the early 1980s, Oates began writing stories in the gothic and horror genres; in her foray into these genres, Oates said she was "deeply influenced" by Kafka and felt "a writerly kinship" with James Joyce.[13] She gained much attention for her book-length essay On Boxing (1987).[citation needed]

In 1996, Oates published We Were the Mulvaneys, a novel following the disintegration of an American family, which became a best-seller after being selected by Oprah's Book Club in 2001.[12] In the 1990s and early 2000s, Oates wrote several books, mostly mystery novels, under the pen names "Rosamond Smith" and "Lauren Kelly."

For more than twenty-five years, Oates has been rumored to be a "favorite" to win the Nobel Prize in Literature by oddsmakers and critics.[14] Her papers, held at Syracuse University, include seventeen unpublished short stories and four unpublished or unfinished novellas. Oates has said that most of her early unpublished work was "cheerfully thrown away."[15]

Teaching career

Oates taught in Beaumont, Texas for a year before moving to Detroit in 1962, where she began teaching at the University of Detroit. Influenced by the Vietnam war, the 1967 Detroit race riots, and a job offer, in 1968 Oates moved with her husband to teaching positions at the University of Windsor, Canada.[3] In 1978, she moved to Princeton and began teaching at Princeton University.

In 1995, Princeton undergraduate Jonathan Safran Foer took an introductory writing course with Oates,[16] who took an interest in Foer's writing, telling him that he had "that most important of writerly qualities, energy".[17] Foer later recalled that "she was the first person to ever make me think I should try to write in any sort of serious way. And my life really changed after that."[17] Oates served as the advisor to Foer's senior thesis, an early version of his novel Everything Is Illuminated, which was published to wide acclaim in 1999.[16]

Personal life

While studying at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Oates met Raymond J. Smith, a fellow graduate student, whom she married in 1961.[5] Smith became a professor of 18th-century literature, and later an editor and publisher. Together the couple founded The Ontario Review, a literary magazine, in 1974, on which Oates served as associate editor.[18] In 1980, Oates and Smith founded Ontario Review Books, an independent publishing house. In 2004, Oates described the partnership as "a marriage of like mindsboth my husband and I are so interested in literature and we read the same books; he'll be reading a book and then I'll read itwe trade and we talk about our reading at meal times[...]it's a very collaborative and imaginative marriage".[3] Smith died of complications from pneumonia on February 18, 2008.[18] In April 2008, Oates wrote to an interviewer, "Since my husband's unexpected death, I really have very little energy[...]My marriagemy love for my husbandseems to have come first in my life, rather than my writing. Set beside his death, the future of my writing scarcely interests me at the moment."[19] In 2009, it was revealed that Joyce became engaged to Charles Gross who is in the psychology department and the Neuroscience Institute at Princeton.[43]

Oates is devoted to running, and has written that, "[i]deally, the runner who's a writer is running through the land- and cityscapes of her fiction, like a ghost in a real setting."[20] While running, Oates mentally envisions scenes in her novels and works out structural problems in already-written drafts; she formulated the germ of her novel You Must Remember This (1987) while running, when she "glanced up and saw the ruins of a railroad bridge", which reminded her of "a mythical upstate New York city".[20]

In 1973, Oates began keeping a detailed journal documenting her personal and literary life; it eventually grew to "more than 4,000 single-spaced typewritten pages".[21] In 2008, Oates said she had "moved away from keeping a formal journal" and instead preserves copies of her e-mails.[19] Oates is a member of the Board of Trustees of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. She is also a member of Mensa.[22]

Style and themes

From her first novel With Shuddering Fall in 1964, up to Kindred Passions in 1987, Oates built up a literary corpus that mixes Gothic estrangement with high social observation. Her works contain the typical elements of this type of tale: unconscious forces, seduction, incest, violence, and rape, sometimes to the point of sensationalism. She has written in a variety of genres, eras and landscapesthus, she has works settled in a Faulkner-like Eden County, an imaginary area of upstate New York; in academia; in the Detroit slums and the Pennsylvania backwoods. But her works are not mere renderings of unusual experiences in far away places, both in space and time: novels such as A Bloodsmoor Romance, The Mysteries of Wintherthurn and Kindred Passions contain strong feminist overtones and use of the Gothic device to explore the ambiguities of gender and the sexual bases of fantasy.


Oates writes in longhand,[23] working from "8 till 1 every day, then again for two or three hours in the evening."[14] Her subsequent prolificacy has become one of her best-known attributes; The New York Times wrote in 1989 that Oates's "name is synonymous with productivity",[24] and in 2004, The Guardian noted that "Nearly every review of an Oates book, it seems, begins with a list [of the number of books she has published]".[3] Critics have criticized Oates for the level of her output, most notably James Wolcott, who published an article in the September 1982 issue of Harper's Magazine titled "Stop me before I write again: Six hundred more pages by Joyce Carol Oates."[25] In the review, Wolcott wrote that Oates "slop[s] words across a page like a washerwoman flinging soiled water across the cobblestones", [3] and suggested that Oates's productivity was the result of an obsessive-compulsive disorder.[26]

In a journal entry written in the 1970s, Oates sarcastically addressed her critics, writing, "So many books! so many! Obviously JCO has a full career behind her, if one chooses to look at it that way; many more titles and she might as well... what?...give up all hopes for a 'reputation'?[...]but I work hard, and long, and as the hours roll by I seem to create more than I anticipate; more, certainly, than the literary world allows for a 'serious' writer. Yet I have more stories to tell, and more novels[...]".[27] In The New York Review of Books in 2007, Michael Dirda suggested that disparaging criticism of Oates "derives from reviewer's angst: How does one judge a new book by Oates when one is not familiar with most of the backlist? Where does one start?"[14]

Several publications have published lists of what they deem the best Joyce Carol Oates books, designed to help introduce readers to the author's daunting oeuvre. In a 2003 article titled "Joyce Carol Oates for dummies", The Rocky Mountain News recommended starting with her early short stories and the novels A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967), them (1969), Wonderland (1971), Black Water (1992), and Blonde (2000).[28] In 2006, The Times listed them, On Boxing (1987), Black Water, and High Lonesome: New & Selected Stories, 1966-2006 (2006) as "The Pick of Joyce Carol Oates".[29] In 2007, Entertainment Weekly listed their Oates "favorites" as Wonderland, Black Water, Blonde, I'll Take You There (2002), and The Falls (2004).[30] In 2003, Oates herself said that she thinks she will be remembered for, and would most want a first-time Oates reader to read, them and Blonde, though she added that "I could as easily have chosen a number of titles."[31]

Select awards and honors





Short story collections

Novels as "Rosamond Smith"

Novels as "Lauren Kelly"



  • Miracle Play (1974)
  • Three Plays (1980)
  • In Darkest America (1991)
  • I Stand Before You Naked (1991)
  • Twelve Plays (1991) (including Black)
  • The Perfectionist and Other Plays (1995)
  • New Plays (1998)
  • Dr. Magic: Six One Act Plays (2004)

Essays and criticism

  • The Edge of Impossibility: Tragic Forms in Literature (1972)
  • The Hostile Sun: The Poetry of D.H. Lawrence (1974)
  • New Heaven, New Earth: The Visionary Experience in Literature (1974)
  • Contraries: Essays (1981)
  • The Profane Art: Essays & Reviews (1983)
  • On Boxing (1987)
  • (Woman) Writer: Occasions and Opportunities (1988)
  • George Bellows: American Artist (1995)
  • "They Just Went Away" 1995
  • Where I've Been, And Where I'm Going: Essays, Reviews, and Prose (1999)
  • The Faith of A Writer: Life, Craft, Art (2003)
  • Uncensored: Views & (Re)views (2005)


  • Women In Love and Other Poems (1968)
  • Anonymous Sins & Other Poems (1969)
  • Love and Its Derangements (1970)
  • Angel Fire (1973)
  • The Fabulous Beasts (1975)
  • Women Whose Lives Are Food, Men Whose Lives Are Money (1978)
  • Invisible Woman: New and Selected Poems, 1970-1982 (1982)
  • The Time Traveler (1989)
  • Tenderness (1996)
  • The Coming Storm (Forthcoming)

Young adult fiction

Children's fiction


  • "I come from people who did not go to college. They didn't even finish high school. People who one might call ordinary Americans who are very hard-working."
  • "I'm drawn to failure. I feel that I'm contending with it constantly in my own life."
  • "Boxing is a celebration of the lost religion of masculinity all the more trenchant for its being lost."
  • "The brain is a muscle" from Love and Its Derangements (1970)
  • "Revenge is living well, without you."

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