Joyce Carol Oates, author of some forty novels (nine written under an assumed name), twenty short story collections, six novellas, eight volumes of poetry, seven of plays, and nine of essays, may be our most prolific contemporary writer. She may also be our most critically confounding. Hosts of reviewers have thrown up their hands at her ever-expanding body of work and criticized her for writing too much, or revising too little, and for other actual or imagined literary infractions. Indeed, few writers in recent memory have inspired so many strident, often ad hominem attacks and denunciatory reviews, characterized by John Updike as “some of the harshest scoldings ever administered to a major talent.” She has been parodied in The New Yorker, and, in Harper’s in 1982, she was the subject of James Wolcott’s disdain in an article entitled “Stop Me Before I Write Again: Six Hundred More Pages by Joyce Carol Oates.” In an interview, Truman Capote once said, “To me, she’s the most loathsome creature in America.”
What is it about Oates’s work that has inspired such vitriol? While prodigious, her output must be matched or outmatched, page for page, by some of the long-winded nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century masters, among them Balzac (whose Comédie humaine alone consists of some ninety novels and novellas), George Eliot, Charles Dickens, and Henry James. In a recent essay, Oates quotes admiringly Conrad’s famous description of writing as the “conversion of nervous force” into language, a description that aptly captures her own often breathless style, characterized by italicized interpolations, exclamations, and a galloping, frantic pace. It is a style that has invited parody. And her gender politics as perceived by feminists—she has summoned heroine after heroine of striking passivity, weakness, even masochism—have been determinedly unfashionable.
But Oates’s preoccupation with violence may be the ultimate source of the inflammatory rhetoric. As decades of critics have observed, Oates’s primary subject is victimhood, and her work features a kind of Grand Guignol of every imaginable form of physical, psychological, and sexual violence: rape, incest, murder, molestation, cannibalism, torture, and bestiality. While violence is commonly an element of fiction, no American writer has devoted herself with more disquieting intensity to the experience and consequences of being victimized, a devotion that seems, strangely, to have inspired a kind of reactionary violence all its own.
In the essay “Running and Writing,” collected in The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art, Oates invokes the exhilaration of both activities, which, for her, are closely related:
Running! If there’s any activity happier, more exhilarating, more nourishing to the imagination, I can’t think what it might be. In running, the mind flies with the body; the mysterious efflorescence of language seems to pulse in the brain…. Ideally, the runner-who’s-a-writer is running through the land- and cityscapes of her fiction, like a ghost in a real setting.
But as she exhausts the superficial joys of these activities, Oates moves rapidly to their compulsive and “highly addictive” qualities, their “special solitude,” and finally, with a kind of inevitability, to their association with primal fears:
Art by its nature is a transgressive act, and artists must accept being punished for it. The more original and unsettling their art, the more devastating the punishment.
If writing involves punishment, at least for some of us, the act of running even in adulthood can evoke painful memories of having been, long ago, as children, chased by tormentors…. Are there any adult women who have not been, in one way or another, sexually molested or threatened?
For Oates, exhilaration and stark terror exist side by side in her fiction as they have in her life, ever since her experience of violence as a child:
Often when I’m running in the most idyllic landscapes, I’m reminded of the panicked childhood running of decades ago; I was one of those luckless children without older brothers or sisters to protect her…. I…came to see years later that such abuse is generic, not personal; it must prevail through the species; it allows us insight into the experiences of others, a sense of what a more enduring panic, entrapment, suffering, and despair must be truly like.
In fact, Oates’s experience of childhood violence seems to have been anything but generic. Born in 1938 and growing up poor in a rural family farmhouse in upstate New York, outside Buffalo, Oates remembers vividly the same one-room schoolhouse in Niagara County that her mother had attended before her. A specific schoolyard incident of what she later termed “semi-molestation,” which occurred in the late 1940s, during the fourth grade, has become the touchstone and emotional impetus behind much of her work:
[to] be dragged, terrified, desperately resisting, in the direction of the boys’ outhouse, to the accompaniment of collective jeering and laughter, was a nightmare experience for younger girls.
The incident has been reenacted many times in her fiction, according to Invisible Writer, a richly detailed biography of Oates by Greg Johnson, a scholar who has identified “dozens” of instances of rape, incest, and molestation in her work.1 Such attacks are commonplace in Oates’s short stories and novels. In the novel Marya: A Life (1986):
She remembers, afterward, one of them prying her legs apart—she remembers him prodding and jabbing at her—trying to enter her—trying to force his penis in her—but she might have squirmed free, arching her back, or one of the others hauled him away.
Indeed, such violence seems to have been—despite close and caring parents—native to her extended family and rural upbringing. In 1995, in a New York Times Magazine article, she wrote:
As a writer I’ve been constantly queried why do you write about violent acts?… I might say that my entire life, indeed the lives of both my parents, have been shaped by “violent acts.”
Before she was born, her paternal great-grandfather attacked his wife with a hammer, then fatally shot himself; her maternal grandfather was beaten to death in a bar fight. Both events had lasting repercussions on the family fortunes. When she was seven, she saw the body of a dead man pulled from the Erie Canal with a hook, and recollections of her Hobbesian schoolyard days include
so many brutal, meaningless acts …incredible cruelty, profanity, obscenity…even (it was bragged) incest between a boy of about 13 and his 6-year-old sister…things done to animals.
Johnson reports that Oates’s adult life—she married soon after graduating from Syracuse University and pursued successful careers in both teaching and writing—has also been punctuated by brushes with violence. In the mid-1960s, a graduate student at the University of Detroit, where Oates was teaching, consulted her persistently and manically before suffering a psychotic breakdown and fatally shooting a local rabbi and then himself. In 1967—the year of the Detroit riots, when buildings only blocks from Oates’s home were looted and destroyed—another disturbed student made threats on her life.
While the Depression-era poverty of her childhood inspired Oates’s earliest fiction, particularly her second novel, A Garden of Earthly Delights (published in 1967 and revised and republished in 2003), she soon seized on the disruption and social unrest of the 1960s. Her student’s mental breakdown inspired the short story “In the Region of Ice,” which won an O. Henry Award in 1967. The 1969 novel them follows the travails of a poor white family through prostitution, rape, sodomy, and murder, from 1937 to the Detroit riots. This was the novel that made Oates famous, winning the National Book Award, landing her on the cover of Newsweek magazine in 1972, and inspiring comparisons of her social realism to that of Balzac and Dreiser.
The next phase of her career—a series of mannered gothic melodramas, Bellefleur (1980), A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982), and Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984)—veered in a completely different direction. Set in cas- tles, peopled with such characters as a mass murderer, a sleepwalker, a vampire, an uncanny cat, and a bizarrely deformed baby, these works underscore Oates’s taste for horror—the grotesque and the extreme—extending it into the territory of Poe and the Brontës. Oates’s detour into genre fiction (as with her pseudonymous series of murder mysteries, written under the name Rosamond Smith, some of which take up such gothic subjects as twinning or doppelgängers) also illustrates her concern with violence-as-experienced-by-powerless-victim, the Poe-like nightmare of characters finding themselves buried alive or dancing at a masquerade with Death. “Gothicism,” she once told an interviewer for Time, “is not a literary tradition so much as a fairly realistic assessment of modern life.”
In recent years, Oates has returned to realism, often choosing American crimes as her subject. The novella Black Water (1992), inspired by Chappaquiddick, recounts the drowning of a young woman abandoned by a drunken senator. Zombie (1995), a portrait of a Jeffrey Dahmer–style sociopath, follows a serial killer as he goes about his gruesome routine. Rape: A Love Story recalls the rape of the Central Park jogger. These fictions based on real lives all reveal Oates’s trademark occupation with the corrosive effect of violence on personality, as if violence were an acid capable of eating away individuality, leaving behind some rudimentary animal core.
Black Water and Zombie are bookended portraits of the extreme self-effacement wrought by violence. In Black Water, the naive young Kelly Kelleher, having left a party in a Toyota driven by “The Senator” with a drink in his hand, finds herself flying off the road, sinking in a swamp, trapped in the car, and abandoned by the senator who staggers away from the scene, saving himself. As she struggles to breathe from a vanishing bubble of air, she helplessly relives her past, recent and distant, with visionary clarity, and fantasizes her rescue, flashing on the possibility that the accident had never happened:
And, yet, had it happened…? The car speeding skidding along the road that seemed to have no houses, no traffic only swampy land stretching for miles everywhere…and the harsh percussive rhythm of the insects’ cries in their mating as if sensing how time accelerated, how the moon would shortly topple from the sky turned upside down and Kelly saw without registering she saw (for she and The Senator were talking) in a shallow ditch beside the road a broken dinette table, the front wheel of an English racing bicycle, the headless naked body of a flesh-pink doll…looking away from the doll not wanting to see the hole between the shoulders like a bizarre mutilated vagina where the head had been wrenched off.
As she approaches death, her personality seems to empty out and fragment into successive images, memories, and hallucinations, as if she herself were a doll thrown by the roadside, reduced to a truncated shell vaguely suggestive of sex.
The dissolution of personality that violence creates is the exclusive purview of Zombie, one of Oates’s most remarkable works, a brilliant treatment of a sordid, peculiarly American subject. In 1994, Oates reviewed for The New York Review of Books ten titles about serial killers and subsequently reproduced with uncanny accuracy the serial killer’s blank inability to empathize or maintain human relationships, his contempt for others and tendency to grandiosity, and his weird fetishizing of body parts and crippling, lethal fantasies and urges.2 In the first-person narration of Quentin P__, or, as he refers to himself, QP, she recreates the inner life of such a person as he goes about manipulating his unwitting parents, and his parole officer and therapists, who mistakenly believe him guilty of an attempted sexual molestation of a younger man, someone he was actually stalking in order to enslave and murder:
Invisible Writer: A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates (Dutton, 1998). ↩