Joyce Carol Oates 1938–-
(Has written under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith) American novelist, short story and novella writer, poet, dramatist, essayist, author of children's books, critic, and editor.
The following entry provides criticism on Oates's short fiction from 1989 through 2000.
One of the most prolific and versatile contemporary American writers, Oates has published myriad novels, short stories, poems, and plays, as well as books and articles of criticism and nonfiction. In these works, Oates focuses on what she views as the spiritual, sexual, and intellectual decline of modern American society. Employing a dense, elliptical prose style, she depicts such cruel and macabre actions as rape, incest, murder, child abuse, and suicide to delineate the forces of evil with which individuals must contend. The tales in Oates's short story collections are frequently unified through central themes and characters, and while she has written extensively in several genres, most critics contend that her short fiction best evokes the urgency and emotional power of her principal themes.
Born on June 16, 1938, in Lockport, New York, Oates was raised on her grandparents' farm in Erie County—later represented in much of her fiction as Eden County. A bookish, serious child, she first submitted a novel to a publisher at the age of fifteen. Oates attended Syracuse University on a scholarship and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1960; the following year she earned a master's degree at the University of Wisconsin and married Raymond Smith, a former English professor. From 1962 to 1968 the couple lived in Detroit, where Oates taught at the University of Detroit and published her first novels, short story collections, and poetry. She also witnessed the 1967 race riots, which inspired her National Book Award-winning novel them (1969). Shortly thereafter, Oates accepted a teaching position at the University of Windsor, Ontario, staying until 1978, when she was named a writer-in-residence at Princeton University; she joined the faculty there as a professor in 1987. Despite the responsibilities of an academic career, Oates has actively pursued writing, publishing an average of two books a year in various genres since the publication of her first book, the short story collection By the North Gate (1963). Her early novels consistently earned nominations for the National Book Award, while her short fiction won several individual O. Henry Awards and the O. Henry Special Award for Continuing Achievement in both 1971 and 1986. A poet of some merit and a regular contributor of essays and stories to scholarly journals, periodicals, and anthologies, Oates is a respected literary critic whose work presents logical, sensitive analyses of a variety of topics. In 1987 she published the widely admired nonfiction study On Boxing, which led to at least one television appearance as a commentator for the sport. During the 1990s Oates gained additional recognition as a dramatist for producing many plays off-Broadway and at regional theaters, including The Perfectionist (1993), which was nominated by the American Theatre Critics Association for best new play in 1994.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Oates's first two short story collections, By the North Gate and Upon the Sweeping Flood and Other Stories (1966), established her reputation as an innovative and commanding voice in contemporary literature. Both collections explore the decay of modern morality through a series of stories depicting a nonchalant brutality that, according to Oates, thrives and is often fostered in American society. Her next collection, The Wheel of Love and Other Stories (1970) is frequently described as Oates's finest volume of short stories. In these pieces, Oates explores the complex and sometimes mystifying emotions of love and the crippling effects that result from a failure to fulfill the potential of human relationships. The female protagonist in the title story, for example, commits suicide when she feels overwhelmingly confined by her husband's love. Oates also examines human sexuality in the critically acclaimed allegorical story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Connie, the naïve teenage protagonist, is eager to experiment with sex. Yet, when a young man, who Oates symbolically portrays as the devil, presents himself, Connie slowly realizes the terrifying possibilities of their liaison. In the end, she loses control of their relationship, and the tale concludes with a strong implication of rape. The Goddess and Other Women (1974) is another of Oates's collections that is unified by themes of sexual tension—specifically, sexual oppression of women.
Thematic unity among collected stories is especially evident in Oates's volumes Crossing the Border (1976) and All the Good People I've Left Behind (1978). Seven of the fifteen tales in Crossing the Border concern an American couple, Renée and Evan Maynard, who move to Canada. These stories are linked by the central motif of borders, suggested by the actual boundary line between the United States and Canada, as well as the psychological barriers that characters in these tales build to isolate themselves from close personal relationships. In All the Good People I've Left Behind, Oates constructs tales around her characters' egocentric quests for love. In her more recent collections of short fiction, critics have noted a growing shift from an emphasis on interpersonal relationships to a tendency to contextualize these relationships within political and social conditions. In Last Days (1984), several of the stories focus on the figure of the failed father and the repercussions of abuse and neglect on the family unit—especially the female children. Other stories in the volume, such as “Our Wall,” and “Ich bin ein Berliner,” explore the symbolism of the Berlin Wall before the fall of Communism. In Heat (1992), the stories touch on the external and internal threats to the security of middle-class existence. In “Shopping,” a mother and daughter shop at a suburban mall, but are followed around by a bag lady. Their different reactions to her plight expose a growing rift between them and disrupt their well-ordered existence. The Collector of Hearts (1999) and Faithless (2001) are collections of Oates's horror tales. The stories comprising Small Avalanches and Other Stories (2003), a collection for young women, the pieces focus on vulnerable, rebellious girls who fall victim to older, predatory males.
Critics generally have been impressed with Oates's versatility and productivity; her profuse output has drawn comparisons to the work of such nineteenth-century writers as Charles Dickens and Honoré de Balzac. Though some critics have condemned Oates for eschewing the contemporary literary trend of “less is more,” many commentators applaud her copious efforts, suggesting that her work may ultimately constitute an entire world of fiction. Commentators note that Oates occupies a controversial position in the feminist literary tradition. Her female characters are not considered feminist in nature: they are often dependent and passive and withdraw from sexual and emotional connections instead of articulating their needs and frustrations. Moreover, the objectification and abuse of women—sexually, physically, and emotionally—has been a recurring theme in Oates's work. Feminist critics view these female characters as masochistic and note the lack of strong, independent female role models in her fiction. Despite the general disregard of Oates as a feminist writer, a number of commentators have defended the feminist sensibility underlying much of her novels and short stories. They trace her changing portrayals of gender power in her later work, contending that her more recent fiction focuses on the power of female bonds and self-discovery. Most critics maintain that Oates vividly represents the underlying tensions of modern American society in her explosive tales and, at the same time, stretches the boundaries of the conventional short story.