One of America's most prolific and versatile contemporary writers, Oates began her literary career in 1963. Since then she has published more than twenty-five novels; hundreds of short stories in both collections and anthologies; nearly a dozen volumes of poetry; several books of nonfiction, literary criticism, and essays; and many dramas and screenplays. Writing in a dense, elliptical style that ranges from realistic to naturalistic to surrealistic, Oates concentrates on the spiritual, sexual, and intellectual malaise of modern American culture in her fiction, exposing the darker aspects of the human condition. Her tragic and violent plots abound with incidents of rape, incest, murder, mutilation, child abuse, and suicide, and her protagonists often suffer as a result of the conditions of their social milieu or their emotional weaknesses. This is especially true of her female characters, who are portrayed as dysfunctional, passive, and vulnerable to exploitation and abuse in a male-dominated society. For this reason feminist critics consider Oates a controversial figure, because she has created few strong, independent female role models in her numerous works.
Born in Lockport, New York, Oates was raised on her grandparents' farm in Erie County, a region that is 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 in Detroit, 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. Oates has written poetry and is a regular contributor of essays and stories to scholarly journals, periodicals, and anthologies. She is also a respected literary critic whose work presents logical, sensitive analyses of her subjects. 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 playwright 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.
With Shuddering Fall (1964), Oates's first novel, foreshadows her preoccupation with violence and darkness, describing a destructive romance between a teenage girl and a thirty-year-old stock car driver that ends with his death by accident. Oates's best known and critically acclaimed early novels form an informal trilogy exploring three distinct segments of American society: A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967) chronicles the life of a migrant worker's daughter in rural Eden County; Expensive People (1967) exposes the superficial world of suburbia; and them presents the violent, degrading milieu of an inner-city Detroit family. Oates's novels of the 1970s explore American life and cultural institutions, combining social analysis with vivid psychological portraits of frustrated characters ranging from a brilliant surgeon (1971; Wonderland), a young attorney (1973; Do with Me What You Will), and the widow of a murdered conservative politician (1975; The Assassins) to religious zealots (1978; Son of the Morning) and distinguished visiting poets and feminist scholars (1979; Unholy Loves). Her short stories of this period, most notably in Marriages and Infidelities (1972), and Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? (1974), considered by many to be her best work, concern themes of violence and abuse between the sexes. "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been," for instance, tells of the sexual awakening of a romantic girl by a mysterious man, Alfred Friend; this story is considered a masterpiece of the modern short form and was adapted for film.
Oates's novels of the early 1980s—Bellefleur (1980), A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982), and Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984)—exploit the conventions of nineteenth-century Gothic literature as they examine such sensitive issues as crimes against women, children, and the poor, and the influence of family history on shaping destiny; likewise, many of her short stories rely on gothic elements, including those collected in Haunted (1994) and First Love (1996). Most of Oates's fiction of the 1980s features more explicit violence than does her earlier fiction, which tends more toward psychological afflictions, but psychological obsessions nevertheless persist. In Marya (1986), for example, a successful academic searches for her alcoholic mother who had abused her as a child, and in You Must Remember This (1987), a former boxer commits incest with his niece during the McCarthyist 1950s. Oates's works of the 1990s continue to address relations between violence and the cultural realities of American society. Other topics addressed in Oates's works include racism, affluence, alienation, poverty, classism, sexual-political power dynamics, feminism, success, serial killers, and familial conflicts. The series of mysteries published under the pseudonym of Rosamond Smith—Lives of the Twins (1988), Soul/Mate (1989), Nemesis (1990), Snake Eyes (1992), and You Can't Catch Me (1995)—concern the psychopathic exploits of aberrational academics.
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 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 fiction. They trace her changing portrayals of gender power in her later work, contending that her more recent novels focus on the power of female bonds and self-discovery. A few critics have maintained that Oates's embittered portrayal of gender relations accurately mirrors a male-determined society. Although some critics have dismissed her gothic fiction as whimsical, others have suggested that it invigorates the gothic literary tradition, particularly feminist critics who often have likened Oates's ghosts to the cultural status of "invisible woman."