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 …