Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates; drawing by David Levine

Interviewers like to ask Joyce Carol Oates, presumably in the accent of awe, how she finds time to write all those books: fourteen novels, counting A Bloodsmoor Romance, eleven collections of short stories, six books of poetry, counting Invisible Woman: New and Selected Poems 1970-1982, two plays, and three books of criticism. The question isn’t as innocent as it sounds. With a slight change of tone, it could come out differently, as if it asked: “Don’t you think your reputation would be even higher than it is if you took more time, let the typescripts stay on your desk for a year or two before sending them to the publisher? Think of E.M. Forster, a classic novelist on the strength of one book, eked out by a few short volumes and many years of silence.” Oates has answered the question, in its implied second form, by saying: “I write with the enormous hope of altering the world.” You might as well take as many shots at that target as you think you need, especially if proof that you’ve altered the world doesn’t come merely because you send for it. Oates might also deal with Forster by saying: think of Balzac, think of James.

The question, in any form, is a little vulgar, but it could be redeemed. There is a genuine question to be asked about a novelist who is, as Oates is, serious, prolific, and popular. Is her seriousness limited, carefully restrained to make it compatible with the demands of popularity? Is she popular because she is prolific, a success because she is already a success, the habit well formed? Or because it is attractive to see a writer as productive in her craft as, say, a successful businessman is in his? Oates has made much of a line in King Lear where the King says, “They told me I was everything. ‘Tis a lie,” and she has converted it into the motto that “the artist must act upon the frail conviction that he is everything, else he will prove nothing.” Believing that nothing will come of nothing, she speaks again and again.

Oates’s fiction is hard to describe, mainly because it is equivocal in its relation to the genres it ostensibly fulfills. Bellefleur (1980) comes as close as any other book to representing the quality of her work. It is a big book, a saga about an American family, already cursed and living out its doom. The generations are elaborately described, the narrative style is even more full-blooded than the blood it spills. The several stories are grandly sustained. But they are all told as if they had already been narrated elsewhere and have only to be alluded to. The strength of the novel arises from the impression, carefully maintained, that the events are now being recalled rather than imagined. In fact, we rarely feel, reading Bellefleur, that Oates’s imagination is creatively alive; it never seems spontaneous. Even when we believe that something Bellefleur tells us is indeed true, we are never seized by its truth or by a conviction of its reality.

The chief quality of Oates’s imagination is obedience, and what it obeys is not nature or circumstance but other fiction especially other romances or tragedies. In Bellefleur the hero Gideon is not himself but any and every leonine hero from romantic fiction, complete with “his thin, lined cheeks, and his shadowed eyes, and the almost cruel turn of his lips.” At one point Gideon is visited by Garnet Hecht, one of the many women he has loved and discarded. They talk of Cassandra, the child they have had. “Am I the father?” Gideon asks Garnet “sardonically.” Garnet rushes out into the night to drown herself in the lake, but is prevented by Lord Dunraven—“I say you must not”—whom she will eventually marry.

These characters are never allowed to understand themselves or to guess that the origins of their feelings are in literature rather than in life. They think they are spontaneous, but their lives are only imitations of other fictive lives. The closest Garnet comes to understanding her situation comes just before the scene I’ve referred to:

Blushing, Garnet saw by the flickering light (and perhaps she saw inaccurately, for the candle did flicker) a most embarrassing tapestry hanging just to the right of the bed: it showed a scantily clad couple, the woman as well as the man quite full-bodied, and vigorous, and impatient to make love, being surprised in a boudoir by—could it be?—a lascivious little Cupid leading, down a staircase, a horse—a horse with outlandish long eyelashes and a queer human expression. The lovers gaped with surprise: and indeed who would not have been surprised?

Garnet was staring at this strange tapestry (she could not decide if it was obscene, or merely playful; or both; but in any case it should be taken down and stored at the very back of the closet) when she heard a sound in the corridor.

The sound in the corridor is Gideon, but it might well be another noise—the sound of Joyce Carol Oates coming to remove the tapestry lest Garnet begin to sense that her life is merely an imitation of such tapestries, of old romances. Even the American history in Bellefleur is already literature, and to be known only as literature.


I am trying to describe Oates’s imagination and the curiously elusive forms it takes, the disjunctions and discontinuities that make her books not exactly what they seem to be. So I am emphasizing that Oates knows, while preventing her characters from divining, that their lives are unconscious mimicries. Indeed, her books might have been written to justify the argument, common in such books as René Girard’s Deceit, Desire, and the Novel and Jacques Lacan’s Ecrits, that spontaneous desire is a fallacy; it is a delusion if held as a sentiment, and a lie when social institutions offer it as a natural possession. Garnet, Gideon, his wife Leah, and the many other characters in Bellefleur are allowed to think their feelings are their own; but they are kept as ignorant of the origin of those feelings as they are distraught with fears for their continuity. But I have to suggest how it comes about that the scene of Oates’s imagination is the space between one tapestry and another.

To begin with, she is not a realist, except in the deep-down sense in which all writers think themselves realists. She has written serviceable pages in which she places a character in his setting and glances at a few of the circumstances of his life, but her imagination does not seem really seized by the question of self and society, by the relation between a character’s indignant perception—to use a phrase of Lionel Trilling’s from The Opposing Self—and the objective sources of his indignation. Oates’s imagination is not circumstantial. Her subjects—politics, car racing, high life in Washington, college teaching, or whatever—are well-enough sketched, if only sketches were needed, but they are always there to be got through or got over; they are there for the sake of something else, for inner lives that are frantic precisely because they have no real connection with the objective life that surrounds them.

Raymond Williams has a telling passage in an essay on realism where he says that the typical experience, according to nineteenth-century realism, was that of “finding a place and making a settlement.” In that sense, too, Oates is not a realist: her characters are never content to make settlements or to settle for the diverse experience of trying to make them. It is closer to the mark to say that she is a Gothic romancer, but that, too, is a side issue. The Gothic element in her work is her substitute for tragedy, as black farce is her substitute for comedy. But it is enough, for the moment, if we say that Oates is a psychological novelist rather than a social novelist or a realist. She assumes that one’s feeling is one’s truth: value consists in the intensity of one’s feeling.

But I have to make a further distinction. I want to describe Oates as an essentialist. If essentialism is the doctrine that essence is prior to existence, an essentialist believes that the essence of one’s life is separate from one’s existence. Or even, to go back a little, that the essence of a particular life is the rift between the self and the circumstances, merely given and arbitrary, in which it appears. Essence is felt to be discontinuous with the existence assigned to it. Oates’s characters are given this discontinuity as their fate: if they are conscious, they try to take the harm out of it by stirring in themselves local intensities of feeling.

Oates has referred to the rift between essence and existence, but not, so far as I know, in these terms. She has spoken rather of invisibility and visibility, particularly in relation to the experience of being a woman:

A woman often feels “invisible” in a public sense precisely because her physical being—her “visibility”—figures so prominently in her identity. She is judged as a body, she is “attractive” or “unattractive,” while knowing that her deepest self is inward, and secret: knowing, hoping that her spiritual essence is a great deal more complex than the casual eye of the observer will allow. It might be argued that the poet, inhabiting a consciousness and a voice, is “invisible” as well; it might be argued that all persons, defined to themselves rather more as what they think and dream, than what they do, are “invisible.”

I take this from the afterword to Invisible Woman,* where Oates writes of invisibility as the major preoccupation of her poetry, but it applies also to her fiction. She is an essentialist, accepting a disjunction between surface and depth, the overt and the secret. When she sets “complex” against “casual” in the quoted afterword, she shows how she claims for a fate the status of a privilege. I don’t doubt her enormous hope of altering the world, but I trust the tales rather than the teller, and what they say is that life is so appalling, it exhilarates. Her characters don’t try to change their lives—except when they think of ending them, like Garnet—because they are not even aware of them as discontinuous. Intensity is the only value they recognize. So they keep themselves going in the void by exacerbating whatever incitements they are given.


The rift between essence and existence takes various forms in Oates’s fiction. At its simplest, it is the rift between making a life and making a living. Unholy Loves is supposedly about college teachers, but the one thing they are not shown doing is teaching. Bellefleur is a family saga, but the one thing you don’t learn from it is what the members of the family do, day by day: the most memorable chapter in the book is a set piece, an aria, the rat-killing episode in Chapter 60, which has nothing to do with anything but itself.

Another form of the disjunction is the rift between feelings, deemed to be by definition secret and complex, and any manifestation available to them. Oates has quoted, as the epigraph to Unholy Loves, a passage from Soliloquies in England where Santayana remarks that “some philosophers seem to be angry with images for not being things, and with words for not being feelings; words and images are like shells—not less integral parts of nature than the substances they cover, but better addressed to the eye and more open to observation.” Santayana is not angry, he accepts that words are not feelings, and that it is to ask enough of words that they shelter feelings, as shells protect what they cover. But Oates is not as urbane as Santayana; mainly, I think, because she is not as sure of her feelings, and distrusts the appearances of their continuity. The hectic quality of her common style is explained by the fact that her characters, knowing nothing but their feelings, and always ignorant of their provenance, have to know them desperately: their knowledge can never have the urbanity of knowing that it is typical, either in its origins or its aspiration. They know themselves only as unique: it is desolation when they suspect they aren’t.

I think this accounts for the panic in Oates’s heroes and, more often, heroines—panic of the sort we see in Garnet when she runs to drown herself in the lake, or stares at the tapestry. The intensity of their feelings is to themselves the only evidence that they exist. Hence the frantic sense, which occurs almost as a nervous tic in these characters, that they can’t feel, or can’t feel enough, so they are dead. The life of her characters depends upon the desperately asserted superiority of feeling to the world, since their sole relation is to themselves. At this point the distinction between Oates and her characters is hard to maintain. She can’t trust feeling enough to let it be, or to think of it as being sheltered and protected by the words for it, or by the extension of the words into the world at large, where feeling might be transformed. So she forces words into the pretense of being feelings, and asserts as their truth the extreme reach of her rhetoric. A risky procedure; it makes much of her writing, as in the chapters in Bellefleur on Veronica Bellefleur’s love for Ragnar Norst, sound like a parody of Daphne du Maurier:

She understood. Yet of course she did not understand. But her head was so heavy, her eyelids burned with the need to close, if only he would embrace her, if only he would whisper to her the words she so fervently wished to hear….

Deprived of other sources of life, Oates’s characters must be given, by way of exorbitance and self-exacerbation, whatever they need to assure them that they are alive. Having given them the empty privilege of self-identity, Oates has to pretend that their emptiness is fullness of a secret kind.

Here is a passage from The Assassins (1975). Hugh Petrie has been whining to his sister-in-law Yvonne, and she has been disengaging herself from him:

He said something further, but she was not listening. She was excited, frightened. It occurred to her that she had made an error, long ago—something to do with this man—a thought she had had about him but hadn’t taken seriously—she had lost her instinctive powers—something was going from her, fading, draining away—suspicion lay very lightly on the surface of her being now, skittering across her skin—and she stood back from it, did not heed it—

Nothing in Oates’s presentation of Yvonne makes it convincing that she should assign to her the feeling about suspicion lying on the “surface of her being.” The words are a flourish, but they issue from Oates’s addiction to this kind of thing as her way of enhancing her characters, rather than from any sensibility we might be persuaded to think of as Yvonne’s. Oates is trying to make up for Yvonne’s emptiness by forcing these words to constitute a sentiment which she can then, however improbably, assign to her, a sentiment that makes up in height for what it lacks in any authority she might imagine for it. The phrases are not composed in the hope of understanding experience but with the desperate intention of forcing a conceit, a verbal happening, to count as a sentiment for long enough to make it adhere to Yvonne. Oates is trying to make the words feel, even though no amount of adhesive paste, at this stage, will make them stick to Yvonne.

Much the same arises in Angel of Light (1981), where Nick Martens is murmuring to his lost, deceived friend Maurie Halleck:

But to know at last what one is, Nick murmurs aloud to Maurie, the corners of his eyes crinkling, to know the most magnanimous perimeter of one’s soul: not just one’s value on the market, but one’s worth in secret!—and he finds himself smiling at the sudden image of an enormous buzzing fly hovering…lowering itself with its many legs extended…squatting…quivering greedily…on a great unspeakable pile of shit.

Apart from the fact that the hovering fly comes from a famous scene in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, probably by way of Allen Tate’s essay “The Hovering Fly” in which its force is elaborately pondered, and apart, too, from our doubt whether the exorbitance of “unspeakable” is Nick’s or Joyce Carol Oates’s, there is the question of that magnanimous perimeter. Oates is doing for Nick what she has done for Yvonne, giving him sentiments for nothing, like a complementary copy of The Idiot. The magnanimous perimeter of one’s soul is a handsome phrase, but Nick is so limited that he wouldn’t know where it is or how to traverse it. Oates would know, and she is trying to keep Nick alive by giving him her knowledge. Unsure about Nick’s feeling and therefore about his life, she can at least be sure of the words, however exorbitant, seeing them on the page.

Oates has another way of considering this matter, apart from the question of invisibility. She often makes it a question of voice, of finding one’s own or separating oneself from a defunct voice. In Unholy Loves the heroine Brigit Stott is reading a book of poems by the famous English poet Albert St. Dennis:

She reads, loses the thread of meaning, begins again. What is the story, the pattern, the myth that I live? the poet asks. What is the voice that attends me? She reads passages and hears the old man’s voice drowning out this young man’s passionate words.

Returning to her apartment, Brigit thinks about her own writing, her unwritten novel:

She is lost, it is hopeless, she can never handle so much material. But the characters are living people, they demand to be heard in their own voices, they are far more real than the people Brigit sees in Woodslee, they will insist upon the mad proliferation of details that constitute their lives.

Then she muses in unison with Joyce Carol Oates:

Her external self, her social persona, Brigit Stott, hardly represented her—it was, in fact, an indifferent performance at best, since her imagination was usually elsewhere; and she assumed that the same was true of everyone. The interior life is rich and deep and strange and inexplicable, and the exterior life—the “social” life—is no more complex than it needs to be. Brigit Stott is a character she lavishes little skill on: it is a vessel, a means, a transparency.

Oates, too, asks herself: what is the voice that attends me? Excluding from Invisible Woman many early poems and her entire first book, she explains that “it isn’t so much that I have rejected them as poems, as that I fail to recognize my own voice in them: I feel no kinship, no sense of continuity. That aspect of the past is finally past—and cannot be retrieved.” But the explanation seems disingenuous. It is not that one aspect of the past is past, but that the voice she hears now is one she doesn’t want to hear.

It is not clear from Oates’s account of it what she means by voice. It could mean a writer’s achieved style, something that comes at last, presumably, with luck, practice, and discipline. Does she mean voice as the only appearance, the only form of existence, in which she is willing to have her essence manifested, as if in that one instance she were willing to posit a relation between essence and existence, not as a permanent attribute but good for the time being? Her secret self, audible while the going is good? But if that is what she means, why is she willing to lend her voice to Nick or Yvonne or Leah or Kirsten or anyone who happens to come along, magnanimously extending their otherwise narrow perimeters?

It is only by thinking along these lines that I can make anything of A Bloodsmoor Romance. If I had never read a line of Joyce Carol Oates and merely happened to come upon this new book, I would find it almost unreadable. It is a parody Victorian romance, beginning with the cruel abduction, on September 23, 1879, at seven o’clock in the evening, of one Deirdre Louisa Zinn, adopted daughter of Mr. and Mrs. John Quincy Zinn of Kiddemaster Hall, duly haunted. Deirdre has four “sisters,” Constance, Octavia, Malvinia, and Samantha. In 1880 Constance marries Baron Adolf von Mainz, but on their wedding night she places a dressmaker’s dummy where her own tremulous body should be, causing the Baron to deal with it as if it were the real warm thing. Constance then runs away, and lives the rest of her life as a man named Philippe Fox. Malvinia, too, runs off, but takes one Orlando Vandenhoffen with her: eventually, discarding him, she achieves a great career on the stage and has an affair with Mark Twain. Deirdre herself turns up as Deirdre of the Shadows, a trance medium sponsored by Madame Blavatsky, W.B. Yeats’s associate. And so, indeed, on.

The language of the book is adorned with many ofts, nays, and alases, not to speak of “the outlaw euphoria of the racing pulse”:

Know, O Reader, that, after upward of twelve months’ agitation, during which time poor Prudence oft questioned herself, as to whether, in the fever of her own heart’s adulation, she might not be imagining all, the dread impasse betwixt the young lovers was resolved!—resolved, I am happy to say, most agreeably for all, and, as Chance would merrily have it, in the very house in which Prudence had initially met her “fate.”

Even as a joke, it’s very long.

The only way I can account for the book is by a supposition. Suppose Joyce Carol Oates, worn out with extending everybody’s perimeters, were to long for a rest; to get away from the questioning of voice, her own voice, other voices, and the diverse importunities of her characters, their selves and feelings, their repetitive solitudes. Wouldn’t she find it a relief to be writing a book that required nothing but the rough-and-ready allusion to other books, books that have as their chief attribute the fact, thanks be to God, that nobody is required to care about them? She could deal with the demands of her current voice by silencing them; as if to say: “I will get back to you, or to whatever lavish form your successor will take, in my next.” Wouldn’t it be a particular pleasure for her to produce characters who have no responsibility for the objective world, having no relation to it; and to let them rush about in the paperchase where she found them, that of Victorian popular romance?

Or so A Bloodsmoor Romance seems to me. To a recent reviewer, apparently, it seems otherwise, its real subject “the lot of women, especially the customs and attitudes that confined and oppressed them in the nineteenth century, but also the present-day remnants of those conditions.” If A Bloodsmoor Romance were offered as a serious account of the lot of women, then or now, it would be ludicrously inadequate to its theme. I think it wholly removed from such a concern. I see no merit in forcing upon the book the social density and public ramification which Joyce Carol Oates has taken care to exclude from it.

This Issue

October 21, 1982