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,...
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