Joyce Carol Oates

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Discussion Topics

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Identify the Gothic elements in the fiction of Joyce Carol Oates.

Oates has been accused of excessive violence in her novels and stories. What purpose does it serve in her fiction?

How does point of view operate in an Oates novel or short story? Is it consistent? Does it shift among different characters?

What does Oates say about contemporary American society? What are its preoccupations, its limitations?

How does the American family thrive in Oates? What are its strengths, and what are its problems?

Do Oates’s protagonists come to some understanding of their identity by the end of the work?

Other Literary Forms

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Joyce Carol Oates is remarkable for the volume and breadth of her literary output. In addition to hundreds of short stories published in collections and various literary journals and popular magazines, Oates produced several volumes of poetry, plays, numerous novels, and edited texts. Furthermore, through interviews, essays, editorship of anthologies and journals, and positions at the University of Windsor and then Princeton University, she engaged in an ongoing dialogue with the North American literary community.


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Joyce Carol Oates received National Book Award nominations in 1968 and 1969; she won the award in 1970, for her novel them (1969). Other honors include O. Henry Awards in 1967, 1973, and 1983 for her short stories, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and Rosenthal Fellowships, and election to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. She won the Heidemann Award for one-act plays and the Rea Award, both in 1990. Oates was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize for Black Water (1992), and she was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. She was a Pulitzer finalist again in 1995. In 1996 she won the Bram Stoker Award for Horror and the Fisk Fiction Prize for Zombie (1995).

Other literary forms

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Joyce Carol Oates’s first work for the stage, Miracle Play, appeared in 1974, and others opened later to appreciative audiences. In addition, Oates has published collections of short stories with regularity. These began with By the North Gate (1963), which predated her first novel, and continued with collections such as Upon the Sweeping Flood (1966), The Wheel of Love (1970), Marriages and Infidelities (1972), Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? (1974), The Poisoned Kiss (1975), The Seduction (1975), Crossing the Border (1976), All the Good People I’ve Left Behind (1978), A Sentimental Education (1980), Raven’s Wing (1986), The Assignation (1988), Where Is Here? (1992), Faithless: Tales of Transgression (2001), The Female of the Species: Tales of Mystery and Suspense (2006), and Wild Nights! Stories About the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway (2008). In the early years of the twenty-first century, Oates added literature for children and young adults to her repertoire. These works include Big Mouth and Ugly Girl (2002), Freaky Green Eyes (2003), After the Wreck, I Picked Myself Up, Spread My Wings, and Flew Away (2006), and Naughty Chérie (2008).

While Oates is often recognized as one of the primary American writers of imaginative literature, she also is a highly respected reviewer and critic. Some of Oates’s best literary criticism and writing about her work has been collected in such volumes as New Heaven, New Earth: The Visionary Experience in Literature (1974); (Woman) Writer: Occasions and Opportunities (1988), Where I’ve Been, and Where I’m Going: Essays, Reviews, and Prose (1999), and The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art (2003). In addition, Oates has edited several anthologies of the short fiction and nonfiction of other authors, including Night Walks: A Bedside Companion (1982), First Person Singular: Writers on Their Craft(1983), American Gothic Tales (1996), Snapshots: Twentieth Century Mother-Daughter...

(This entire section contains 338 words.)

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Fiction (2000; with Janet Berliner), and The Best American Mystery Stories (2005; with Otto Penzler). Oates’s books of poems include Anonymous Sins, and Other Poems (1969), Angel Fire (1973), Women Whose Lives Are Food, Men Whose Lives Are Money (1978), The Time Traveler (1989), and Tenderness (1996). In 1974, Oates and her husband founded the literary journal Ontario Review.


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As a writer and as a teacher, Joyce Carol Oates has collected numerous and varied prizes and honors. Among them are O. Henry Awards throughout the 1970’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s, twelve Pushcart Prizes, the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1968), the National Book Award for 1970, and the Lotos Club Award of Merit (1975). In 1990, Oates received the Rea Award for the short story and the Alan Swallow Award for her 1988 short-story collection The Assignation. Oates has also been honored with the PEN/Malamud Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Short Story (1996), the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Lifetime Achievement in American Literature (1998), the Thomas Cooper Medal for Distinction in the Arts and Sciences (2005), the Humanist of the Year Award (2007), and the Mary McCarthy Award (2008). She has also been the recipient of eight honorary degrees.

Other literary forms

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Joyce Carol Oates is best known as the author of many novels, including them (1969), which won her the 1970 National Book Award. She is also a respected short-story writer, a playwright, and the author of numerous critical articles.


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Many of Joyce Carol Oates’s short stories have been honored by inclusion in The Best American Short Stories and the O. Henry Awards Anthology; she won a National Book Award for the novel them. In addition, Oates is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and has received both a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Endowment for the Humanities grant.


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Bastian, Katherine. Joyce Carol Oates’s Short Stories: Between Tradition and Innovation. Frankfurt: Verlag Peter Lang, 1983. Bastian surveys the Oatesian short story, providing occasional insights into theme and character. The focus is to place Oates in the tradition of the genre and find her links with its other masters.

Cologne-Brookes, Gavin. Dark Eyes on America: The Novels of Joyce Carol Oates. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005. An analysis of selected, significant works wherein Cologne-Brookes attempts to expose Joyce Carol Oates’ philosophical and cultural worldviews. Valuable addition to Oates’ studies.

Creighton, Joanne V. Joyce Carol Oates. Boston: Twayne, 1979. A penetrating exploration of the themes that dominate Oates’s work, such as self-definition, isolation, and violent liberation. Creighton devotes a chapter to the experimentalism of five short-story collections. Includes chronology, notes, and an annotated bibliography.

Creighton, Joanne V. Joyce Carol Oates: Novels of the Middle Years. New York: Twayne, 1992. Focusing on Oates’s authorial voice and combining critical analysis of Oates’s work with the author’s own criticism of her work, this study serves as a companion to Creighton’s earlier volume (above). Surveying fifteen novels written between 1977 and 1990, Creighton explores the autobiographical elements, feminist subtexts, and realistic dimensions of the novels. Select bibliography.

Easterly, Joan. “The Shadow of a Satyr in Oates’s ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’” Studies in Short Fiction 27 (Fall, 1990): 537-543. Interprets the character Arnold Friend as a satyr, a demigod from Greek and Roman mythology. Presents a number of arguments about the imagery and structure of the story to support this claim. Asserts Friend is the embodiment of dream, symbolizing the freedom of the imagination as opposed to the discipline of culture and intellect.

Johnson, Greg. “A Barbarous Eden: Joyce Carol Oates’s First Collection.” Studies in Short Fiction 30 (Winter, 1993): 1-14. Discusses Oates’s By the North Gate as a microcosm of her entire career in fiction. Focuses on her Faulknerian mythmaking, her view of love as a violent force through which characters strive for power, and the similarity of her stories to those of Flannery O’Connor.

Johnson, Greg. Invisible Writer: A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1998. Johnson provides a thorough analysis of Oates’s work and life in this full-length authorized biography. Draws on a variety of sources, including Oates’s private letters and journals.

Johnson, Greg. Joyce Carol Oates: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1994. After a general introduction to Oates’s contribution to the short story, devotes separate chapters to feminism, the gothic, and postmodernism in several of Oates’s short-story collections. Includes a number of comments by Oates on the short story, as well as brief excerpts from seven other critics.

Johnson, Greg. Understanding Joyce Carol Oates. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987. Geared to the general reader, this volume examines both Oates’s major novels and some of her best-known stories. The focus is more on specific works than on Oates’s overarching concerns. Easy to read, with a biography and bibliography.

Pearlman, Mickey, and Katherine Usher Henderson. Inter/View: Talks with America’s Writing Women. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990. Numerous interviews with Oates have been published, but this one, conducted by Mickey Pearlman, reveals topics germane to the poetry: class relations, gender relations, and the vital role of memory in her creativity. Oates talks about the biographers (whom Oates labels “pathographers”) who ascribe sickness and deviance to women writers, conflating personal and professional lives in a very damaging way.

Wagner, Linda, ed. Critical Essays on Joyce Carol Oates. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979. A good collection of twenty-eight reviews and essays, some on particular works, others on general themes or stylistic considerations. The short stories receive less attention than the novels and even, surprisingly, the poetry. Extensive and evenhanded, with a chronology and bibliography, and a short but refreshing preface by Oates herself.

Wesley, Marilyn. Refusal and Transgression in Joyce Carol Oates’s Fiction. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1993. A feminist analysis, this work focuses on the family as portrayed in Oates’s fiction. Wesley contends that the young protagonists of many of Oates’s stories and novels commit acts of transgression that serve as critiques of the American family. Wesley maintains that the acts indict the society that produces and supports these unstable, dysfunctional, and often violent, families.


Critical Essays