(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Invariably, when reviewers discuss Joyce Carol Oates, they resort to numbers, noting—with a mixture of envious astonishment and superior scorn—her prodigious production of more than seventy books of fiction, nonfiction, drama, and criticism since 1964. One critic suggested that probably only Oates herself knows precisely how many books she has published, since she occasionally uses a pseudonym. Of that impressive corpus of work, two dozen books are short story collections, prompting some reviewers to anoint Oates a master of the modern short story, comparing her to Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and Katherine Anne Porter. However, numbers alone do not a master make. When critics call Oates the most prolific author of serious fiction in America, they usually mean more serious than a popular writer such as Stephen King, but they are not always sure that she is as serious as a masterful literary writer such as Alice Munro.

The question readers must face when reading the stories of Joyce Carol Oates is whether she does indeed possess a literary voice that gives her gothic plots and lowlife characters artistic dignity. Is she indeed able to transform the stuff of reality television and tabloid journalism into significant art, or is she basically a competent professional who mimics the voice of better writers from whom she has learned her craft?

Although she won a National Book Award in 1970 for her novel them, serious critics have mostly regarded Oates as an intellectual and artistic lightweight and ignored her. Certainly she is the consummate professional writer, essaying everything from boxing to Marilyn Monroe, but many think she has neither the sagacity of Susan Sontag for the former task nor the bravura of Norman Mailer for the latter one. Moreover, in spite of the fact that the massive quantity of her work is surely the envy of every writer who aspires to make a living with words, her books were never big sellers until pop-culture diva Oprah Winfrey encouraged hordes of daytime television watchers to read her 1996 novel We Were the Mulvaneys by approving it for her book club in 2001.

Oates divides the twenty-one stories in this new collection, ambiguously entitled Faithless (leaving open whether it has to do with marital infidelity or religious lack of faith) into three separate sections. Most of the stories in the first section let the reader in on the secret life of female narrators who think they are ugly, who are obsessed with guns, or who seek revenge on lovers who have dumped them. In the second section, the focus is largely on the family, mainly the relationship between daughters and mothers. The third section springs the context somewhat wider to such social issues as stalking, capital punishment, and teenage mass killers.

If Oates has not received the critical recognition her fiction deserves, as some admirers have charged, it is legitimate to ask why this is so. Readers might well ask what is the difference between what Joyce Carol Oates does with the theme of a lonely, unattractive female in her story “Ugly” and what a writer such as Andre Dubus has done with similar themes. In Oates’s story, Alice, the cynical waitress, is angry at men for their insistence on beauty in a woman. However, Oates becomes so intellectually interested in this gender question and with the pop-psychology implications of female ugliness and its relationship to loneliness that her relatively uneducated waitress narrator constantly, and implausibly, ponders these issues in Oatesian aphoristic terms, observing, for example, that ugliness in a man does not matter much, while ugliness in a woman is her life, or that loneliness is like starvation, for you do not realize how hungry you are until you begin to eat, or that one advantage of being ugly is that you do not waste time trying to look your best, for you will never look your best.

The result of Oates having her narrator think about these things so much, thereby providing exposition for the theme of the story, is that the character herself never really becomes much more than a two-dimensional embodiment of that theme. Andre Dubus’s stories about unattractive women, in spite of feminist charges of gender appropriation when a man writes about a woman, create much more complex human characters and reader concern than Oates’s story does.

The title story, one...

(The entire section is 1785 words.)