Joyce Carol Oates Oates, Joyce Carol (Vol. 9)

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Oates, Joyce Carol (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Oates, Joyce Carol 1938–

Oates is an American novelist, short story writer, poet, playwright, and critic now living in Canada. Her work is peopled with lonely characters engaged in a vain search for love and self-knowledge in an indifferent world. Violence forms a motif throughout Oates's work; her characters are its victims as well as its perpetrators. A serious artist, Oates has yet to write a major work. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Oates writes prose of striking directness and simplicity. Everything she writes bears the marks of a terrific imaginative pressure. That pressure is also the clue to her astonishing productivity…. The model of the driven writer, she invests everything she touches with the qualities of her own voice, which is nervous, fast, febrile and hot as an iron. I'd unhesitatingly say that she is one of the most important living American writers, and sadly underestimated here [in England].

In the 24 stories of Marriages and Infidelities, dealing with adultery, death, murder, madness and obsessive relationships (a central theme for her), Oates creates a series of metaphors for American life, perhaps urban life, overridden by a panicked sense of unreality and hidden violence—violence which is about to happen. She can be very frightening, but is never merely sensational; nothing seems plotted simply for effect. Also, she reports an American reality seldom seen in fiction by a woman—the American of the working and lower middle class. Bus stations, the cosmetics counter at Woolworth's, Saturdays spent on crowded, gritty beaches, the smell of beer in a roadhouse parking lot: Oates has total recall of these details. And she is entirely unafraid to extend her normal manner, so that a number of these stories exhibit a stunning technical courage. (p. 261)

Peter Straub, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), August 23, 1974.

[The Poisoned Kiss and Other Stories from the Portuguese] are as 'Portuguese' as Mrs Browning's sonnets. They were inspired by an imagined Portuguese writer, 'Fernandes', who suggested images and stories to Miss Oates in a series of waking visions. Interestingly, it was not a case of possession or trance so much as of polite insistence from one part of her brain, which (usefully) interfered with neither her teaching nor the rest of her writing. There is no specific attempt to evoke Portugal, or indeed to present any close description; but despite the greater degree of abstraction, these stories come from the recognisable Oates territory of obsession and extremity, solitude and violence…. Miss Oates perhaps had more compunction about interfering with her Portuguese muse than with her native one; and some of the pieces are not so much brief as fugitive. But the longer ones (especially a neat tale of a writer discovering himself to be an unconscious plagiarist) have scale enough and a spare, intriguing power. (p. 685)

Julian Barnes, in New Statesman (© 1976 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), May 21, 1976.

The Joyce Carol Oates phenomenon has begun to jangle the nervous system of the literary establishment. Her name, once mentioned with reverence among the literati, is now increasingly spoken in jest. Her problem, imply the critics, is that she writes too much.

A work of art, these days, from conception to birth, must be years in the making. But Oates populates the literary world with a new one every nine months, and the critical feeling seems to be that if she can produce offspring as easily as an Irish washerwoman, then what she does can't be that good after all. As a result, The Assassins has caused only a minor literary stir. Had it taken three or four years to write the very same novel, however, I am convinced that it would have been greeted with boundless critical enthusiasm….

[It has a] story line … that should dazzle any with-it contemporary critic, as should the novel's theme and structure.

"Why insist upon...

(The entire section is 4,706 words.)