Oates, Joyce Carol 1938–
A National Book Award-winning novelist, Miss Oates is also a short story writer, critic, and poet. Her works include them, A Garden of Earthly Delights, and Wonderland. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Joyce Carol Oates is a strange pale flamingo of a woman with great jeweled eyes and a fate for literature. Word-mad, Irish-Catholic, working-class, she writes with the tip of an emotional tornado that has swept the critics into a limp pile of admiration….
No, her problem is not talent; it is temperament—the defect of her leading virtue. Miss Oates is an obsessive, and obsession is a jockey that runs a talent hard but only in one direction. Something unlived squats on her back: mad and hairy, red in tooth and claw. Her necessity is to obey her demon. But because her self is her subject, the world is distanced. In many of these stories the world is just a warehouse the writer borrows rooms or airports from, and people are puppets she costumes in her own compulsions. She tries to convince us that her demonic world is the usual world and that what happens there is happening here….
While I read, I am amazed; when I think about what I have read, I am bored. Everything this writer does has been done before—and done more powerfully—by Gogol, Melville, Ingmar Bergman. Don't let her fool you with stunt styles and timely touches. Keep your eye on her standard Victorian plots, observe the carefully prevented poetry of her prose. Joyce Carol Oates is an anachronism: the last of the 19th Century Gothic novelists, the fourth Brontë sister.
Maybe that's why I buy every book she writes.
Brad Darrach, "Consumed by a Piranha Complex," in Life (courtesy Life Magazine; © 1970), December 11, 1970.
Every one of these twenty stories [in The Wheel of Love, and Other Stories] is at the very least a respectable creation, and a surprising number deserve to be called accomplished in every sense of that word. There are a density and force in each of these compact works that come from a touch with words as sure as Richter's at the piano. No word is ever superfluous, as no image is either forced or flat. Form and content alike are constant in their intensity….
Often Miss Oates's perceptions are clinical in their thoroughness and accuracy, yet they are never without tenderness, no matter how unfashionable that quality may have become. Never does she permit herself, however, the vulgarity of sentimentality….
The reader of all these stories learns a good deal about what is the connection between person and person. The wheel of love does not stop turning: and everything before it, whether yielding or defiant, it runs over.
Charles Lam Markmann, "The Terror of Love," in Nation, December 14, 1970, pp. 636-37.
Joyce Carol Oates is, more than most women writers, entirely open to social turmoil, to social havoc and turbulence, to the frighteningly undirected and misapplied force of an American powerhouse like Detroit. It is rare to find a woman writer so externally unconcerned with form…. The sheer rich chaos of American life, to say nothing of its staggering armies of poor, desperate, out-raged, and by no means peaceful people, presses upon her; her fiction, Robert M. Adams has noticed, takes the form of "retrospective nightmare." What Elizabeth Dalton disapprovingly called "violence in the head" expresses, I suspect, Joyce Carol Oates' inability to blink social violence as the language in which a great many "lower class" Americans naturally deal with each other….
I would guess that Joyce Carol Oates' constant sense of Americans in collision, not to overlook characters who are obsessed without being able to talk freely, perhaps rubs the wrong way critics who like events to "build toward a climax, or accumulate tension and meaning." Oates is unlike many women writers in her feeling for the pressure, mass, density of violent American experience not known to the professional middle class….
Her … characters seem to move through a world wholly physical in its detail, yet they touch us and frighten us like disembodied souls calling to us from another world; "they live through terrifying events but cannot understand them." This is what makes Oates a new element in our fiction, involuntarily disturbing. She does not understand why she is disturbing. She is "radical" not programmatically but in her sweetly brutal sense of what American experience is really like. She knows that while "history" is all we save from death, people caught up in the convulsion of society cannot see the meaning to their lives that history will impose. Life as we live it, trying to save ourselves as we go, is really images of other people; hence the many collisions in Oates' work, the couplings that are like collisions, the crash of people against metal and of metal with metal. As Faulkner said, "it's because so much happens. Too much happens." People are literally overpowered by their experience….
She is … obsessive in her patience with the sheer factuality of human existence….
My deepest feeling about her is that her mind is unbelievably crowded with psychic existences, with such a mass of stories that she lives by being wholly submissive to "them," the others. She is too burdened by some mysterious clamor to want to be an artist, to make the right and well-fitting structure….
Yet admiring her sense of reality, so unpresuming, honest, and truly exceptional, I have to add that the problem of dealing with Oates is that many of the things she has written are not artistically ambitious enough. They seem written to relieve her mind of the people who haunt it, not to create something that will live. So much documentation of the suddenly frightening American situation is indeed a problem in our fiction just now; the age of high and proud art has yielded to the climate of crisis. Oates' many stories resemble a card index of situations; they are not the deeply plotted stories that we return to as perfect little dramas; her novels, though they involve the reader because of the author's intense connection with her material, tend, as incident, to fade out of our minds. Too much happens. Indeed, hers are altogether strange books, haunting rather than "successful," because the mind behind them is primarily concerned with a kind of Darwinian struggle for existence between minds, with the truth of the universal human struggle. We miss the perfectly suggestive shapes that modern art and fiction have taught us to venerate. Oates is perhaps a Cassandra bewitched by her private oracle. But it is not disaster that is most on her mind; it is, rather, the recognition of each person as the center of the coming disturbance. And this disturbance, as Pascal [sic] said of divinity, has its center everywhere and its circumference nowhere.
Alfred Kazin, "Oates," in Harper's (copyright © 1971, by Minneapolis Star and Tribune Co., Inc.; reprinted from the August, 1971 issue of Harper's Magazine by permission of the author), August, 1971, pp. 78-82.
Wonderland is about a cluster of deeply related things—a cluster that seems to writhe frighteningly from a single source. It is about the spirit's hunger for strength and identity, its consequent need to possess others, its terror of the anonymity of flesh, of the blank nothingness of death. [Joyce Carol] Oates seems uncannily up with all of us, the very young, the middle-aged, the old; and though her three "book" titles sound tritely pretentious—"variations on an american hymn," "the finite passing of an infinite passion," "dreaming america"—she is to my mind one of the most comprehensive and knowing American novelists now writing….
The truth is that the plot of Wonderland, in any kind of outline one might make, could not accurately convey the content. The book is even less conventionally structured than them, which aspired to the supposed formlessness of life; and for a while it seems a lesser book because of it, until its imaginative logic makes itself felt. The strengths of both books are largely independent of sustained suspense. Oates does not so much tell stories or even create a world as dramatize a state of the spirit: that inner scream of anxiety as the avalanche loosens and begins to descend—the crush of poverty and family in them; of flesh, other Americans and again of family in Wonderland….
The supreme attraction, the essential originality of Wonderland, as of them, is its dramatic unpeeled quality. Everything in it seems loaded, exposed, veined and vulnerable yet opaque, like a skinless plum. The scenes and characters (even the minor figures) are fully there without being contained. They are uncovered rather than delineated, broken into, never packaged. Oates's style, correspondingly, is inventive and continually fresh without being sharp or self-alerting—it is not a stylist's style. Seriously, steadily, it reveals, reveals; it is the perfect medium for her empathic imagination.
Calvin Bedient, "Blind Mouths," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1972 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XXXIX, No. 1, 1972, pp. 124-27.
Typical activities in Oates novels are arson, rape, riot, mental breakdown, murder (plain and fancy, with excursions into patricide, matricide, uxoricide, mass filicide), suicide. None of these is more than sketchily motivated, because experience and feeling are by their nature mysteries, dissociated and inexplicable ("All of my writing," says Miss Oates, "is about the mystery of human emotions"), though it's not clear why inexplicable mysteries are always nasty rather than nice. Typical and predictable equations: man = irrational brute force; woman = irrational treacherousness; love = hate; passion = murder. The typical Oates plot begins at the bottom of the Depression (the extended time-scheme seems to have epic intentions, but its chief effect is a sluggish opening tempo); meanders for a hundred pages or so through a naturalistic account of uninterrupted misery over the long years (an account founded on the axiom that the poor, having read the sociology texts, spend decades at a stretch without a moment's peace or pleasure); and abruptly bursts into a carnival of arson, rape, riot, murder, etc. If Miss Oates begins with a whimper, she ends with a bang: With Shuddering Fall ends with a probable suicide, vigilante brutality, and the heroine's commitment to a mental hospital (in a "happy" epilogue, she returns home); A Garden of Earthly Delights—the title is ironic—ends with attempted matricide, accidental quasipatricide, suicide, and the heroine's commitment to a mental hospital; Expensive People ends with matricide; them tunes up with a brisk little inaugural murder, proceeds to a mental breakdown and an attempted murder, and ends with an urban riot and a cop-killing (by the hero of course). In Wonderland, which begins on an unexpected upbeat with a family massacre, Miss Oates makes an effort to splice her horrors (necrophiliac heterosexual cannibalism for one: a male doctor reports having taken home a female cadaver's uterus, broiled it, and eaten it) in at regular intervals among the dreary daily round of things: the dissociation and craziness are more evenly distributed; but the effect is rearrangement and aggravation rather than difference…. The only one of the novels that is more than clinically interesting is Expensive People, which is also the only one that attempts comedy and satire.
Marvin Mudrick, in Hudson Review, Spring, 1972, pp. 146-47.
In all of her fiction [Joyce Carol Oates] has dealt with the feeling individual who is fixed in some pattern beyond his control. The pattern is designed by social and historical forces, both local and general, and as her work has progressed this pattern—this fate, this emprisoning moment in history from which the individual can find no path of escape—has come more and more to be represented by America. Miss Oates has created an America that is similar to Hardy's Wessex, or Faulkner's Yoknapotawpha County: a known tract, an imaginary land that is both utterly familiar to the reader, and utterly alien, permeated by the author's vision of life, varied in its pursuits, containing within it a wealth of life to be explored, and yet the particularity of each life within that land is invaded and proscribed by the quality of the whole. Miss Oates moves through that land with the force and familiarity of a creator. I am speaking of course in a strictly literary sense: I do not mean that her America is not the real one. It may well be, (though we can always pray). But like those who spell it Amerika, she has made it her own. Perhaps originally she intended something in the tradition of Wessex; two of her earlier books flirt with a location in an imaginary county named, ironically, Eden. But Eden spread, and became America: violent, transient, massive, ugly, corrupt, vulgar, hysterical, and insanely rigid. It is intolerable and inescapable. It is our milieu….
Wonderland is an ambitious novel, and a fascinating exploration of an area which has always been at the core of Miss Oates' work, but which she has never approached so boldly: the matter of identity in a world whose reality is questionable.
Ellen Hope Meyer, in Mediterranean Review, Spring, 1972, pp. 50-4.
Joyce Carol Oates writes good poems and interesting novels; her short stories are the astonishing expressions of literary genius. In this second volume of collected fiction [The Wheel of Love], she exercises her editorial skill as well, choosing twenty previously published stories … to form a lens through which to examine the many-sided tortures of love: Eros and Agape. Those deprived of love as well as love's sufferers experience "fire, flood, earthquake, all the classic types of sorrow."…
These stories capture the transitory and incandescent moments in our lives, dissect them with a fine skill, and record, in a meticulous, powerful, colorless prose, the results of a thorough surgery. No relationship is allowed to escape this careful scrutiny: parent-child, husband-wife, lover-lover, artist-muse. The resulting book is beautiful in a unique way. To read it is to suffer an extension of moments so intense that life renders them brief in deference to the mind and body.
While her message has been apparent to faithful readers for several years, this incarnation carries us several notches higher; the prose is so refined, the style so honed in the service of passion, so passionless in its control and versatility that it is hard to imagine another step before the wheel turns down, hurling us upon another subject, another world as yet unexplored, waiting even now in the recesses of Miss Oates's mind.
Hilda Gregory, "Eros and Agape," in Prairie Schooner (© 1972 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Summer, 1972, pp. 177-78.
Critics slight Joyce Carol Oates when they tag her as merely, or primarily, a "gothic novelist" (i.e., lurid, grotesque, grisly). Some have clucked suspiciously about how much she manages to write and publish (14 books now), hinting quality must suffer. Some find her work repetitious in theme and content, even (somehow) more like refined but still sensational journalism rather than carefully crafted fiction. These demurrers shy from the most astute challenges posed by Oates in her lushly tense, often wounding novels and stories. She is no more "gothic" than today's headlines, no more violent than the nightly bloody canapés served up on the six o'clock news. But her focus and creative impulse tend to deinstitutionalize the blood-letting, causing the impact to bite deep, even in media-narcotized minds. If there is any "journalism" in her writing, it is in the crushing immediacy of contemporary atmospheres and details which, coupled with her unabashed fictional virtuosity, makes the terrifying aspects of American life vivid for her readers. Certainly there has been no absence of acute high quality in anything she has recently undertaken in fiction. And rather than repetitions in her work (are Matisse's nudes or Picasso's satyrs repetitious?), I think one discovers Oates has a brazenly disciplined and audacious methodology for attacking metaphysical problems while integrating the real, or apparent, textures of modern life into the equation.
Like any author of more than passing interest, Oates has powerful creative fixations and preoccupations (the fugitive, fragile nature of Self; the elusive structure and growth of personality; the sudden eruptions of impacted anger or submerged misery, triggered in wrenching episodes attenuated in a gray, dreamy aggregate of time; the terror and waste of people inhabited by strangers they only occasionally recognize)….
These [stories, in Marriages and Infidelities] are her characteristic exercises in extreme sympathy, a sympathy that lays out all the "facts" and almost scientifically withholds easy judgments….
Sometimes, given the bleakness (and disarming ornateness) of her vision, Oates is just too tough to take…. To read Oates is to cross an emotional minefield, to be stunned to the soul by multiple explosions, but to emerge to safety again with the skull ringing with shocked revelation and clarity.
Her refreshing nonpoliticization and lack of presumption, her superlative middle-American scope and focus (like a Dos Passos, a Zola or a Dostoevski), and her unerring dedication to curing the absence of empathy that pervades so much of our contemporary writing all combine to make her one of the top writers truly puzzling out the complexity of the American experience today.
S. K. Oberbeck, "A Masterful Explorer in the Minefields of Emotion," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), September 17, 1972, pp. 4, 10.
[Joyce Carol Oates] has now arrived at a time when she is one of the most famous of living American writers, but her reputation can't be pin-pointed to a single decisive work. The phenomenon of her astonishing career, which has come into being without the support of any sort of mafia, tends in its rapidly enlarging entirety to overshadow the individual books that comprise it.
At thirty-four, she is already the author of five novels, four collections of short stories, a collection of literary essays, two volumes of poetry, and two plays (not yet published in book form, but both produced Off-Broadway). Even in the least of these there is a prodigality of talent that places her among the most remarkable writers of her generation, and, at their best, they reach a level of achievement that sets her impressively apart. Marriages and Infidelities, the newest seasonal addition to the canon, confirms what has already been evident for some years: In the landscape of the contemporary American short story Miss Oates stands out as a master, occupying a preeminent category of her own.
William Abrahams, "Stories of a Visionary," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, September 23, 1972; used with permission), September 23, 1972, p. 76.
Ruthlessly devouring the external details of the "real" world about her, then transmuting them into a fiction which has the traditional realist's concern for fidelity to historical accuracy (at least to all appearances), Oates has repeatedly been compared to Dreiser because of the documentary amplitude and textural busyness of her work. Yet she is impatient with cavils about her inaccuracies in using those details; and it ought to be noted that her method treats such "materials" as evil necessaries, while her real subject is what does not spring to the mind's eye in reading, but to the brain's heart—to the seat of despair and terror. Superficially similar to realistic fiction, yet tonally aligned with the experimentalists, her fiction shares the latter group's concern with inner states—no longer quite the same as a character's "psychology," but the fragmented reflection by his mind of the fragmented external world. This fragmentation does not often appear, except in the cases of Expensive People and certain of her recent short stories, as an explicit formal device, such as the prismatic, many-lensed visions of reality—often presented in short, numbered passages which may overlap or even contradict one another—common in the fictions of other experimentalists. What Oates shares with them is the shattered vision: in one of her other books, she refers to the city of Detroit as a "nightmare"; the term is realistically absurd (except in certain senses and at certain times, or for people in certain mental states, or conditions of heightened perception) but apt as an index of her use of the real world. Sharing the nightmare reordering of details characteristic of the experimentalists in general, Oates is bound to them in spirit if not in form.
John Ditsky, "The Man on the Quaker Oats Box: Characteristics of Recent Experimental Fiction," in Georgia Review, Fall, 1972, pp. 297-313.
These 24 stories [Marriages and Infidelities] display variously diminished people at various moments of crisis and crack-up, but the diminishments and the crack-ups don't go together as often or as well as they should. The despair in most of these lives is too flat and too clear; these are failed, dim, weary people lacking the energies which call up Miss Oates's best writing—or to put that another way, Miss Oates is not a writer who can make compassion pay off when the objects of her compassion are so incapable of doing anything for themselves…. She is groping, then, for themes and forms in far too much of this book. But even her groping is worth looking at, reveals returning preoccupations that will surely blossom into better work….
[The] successes [in the collection] make the failures seem self-indulgent, a refusal by the writer to know what she knows.
The successes are about survivals—the survival of excitement in the language of a narrative about death and despair, the survival of hysteria by apparently comfortable normal people—and, above all, about the prices of such survivals, about the quantities of reality you have to shut out in order to keep going afterwards. And it seems to me that the form Miss Oates writes in—and is perhaps trying to find her way out of—is itself a technique of survival, a closed, shaped form set up against a shapeless, leaking world. I think the form can probably still be made to work, in important minor ways if not in major ones. But, for that, the form would have to acknowledge its artifice, its estrangement from reality, the degree to which it represents a wish, and not a picture of the world.
Michael Wood, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 1, 1972, pp. 6, 43.
If you met her at a literary party and failed to catch her name, it might be hard to imagine her reading, much less writing, the unflinching fiction that has made Joyce Carol Oates perhaps the most significant novelist to have emerged in the United States in the last decade.
At 34, her sweeping vision of America as a delusive wonderland of colliding forces, where love as often as hate leads to violence, has established Miss Oates as a major—and controversial—figure in American writing….
Each of Joyce Carol Oates's books has been a different technical and intellectual experiment, gradually building up a fictional world that is recognizably her own. It is a world of such violence that Oates has often been called "Gothic"….
But Oates is non-Gothic, and original, in her tenacious adherence to the humble ordinariness that surrounds violence. Her people blot things out that they can't deal with…. They go on, as dully and inarticulately as before, and as a result some have found her accounts of them all too full of verisimilitude….
What Joyce Carol Oates has done is to take the novel back to its root meaning—"news"—in a period when some of the best of her contemporaries have frankly explored fiction as artifice or turned from fiction to the New Journalism or to the "nonfiction novel" of Mailer or Capote. She is nineteenth century in her patient faith that the novel can show us "The Way We Live Now," as Trollope called one of his best books….
Intensely feminine, Joyce Carol Oates is not a doctrinaire feminist; she is a writer first of all, whose sex is neither an issue nor a weapon. Her utter lack of malice and her generosity to fellow authors contrast with the snobbish attitude that many sleek Eastern writers adopt toward her—an attitude summed up by one big female literary name with the dismissive comment: "She's not our sort."…
Though she is as aware as anyone of the possibilities of experimentation and as haunted and oppressed as any of her contemporaries by feelings that American life may be "too much," too crazed, too accelerated to be captured in a novel, she hasn't lost confidence in the power of narrative fiction to give coherence to jumbled experience and to bring about a change of heart….
Like the most important modern writers—Joyce, Proust, Mann—she has an absolute identification with her material: the spirit of a society at a crucial point in its history.
Walter Clemons, "Joyce Carol Oates: Love and Violence," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc. 1972; reprinted by permission), December 11, 1972, pp. 72-4, 77.