Joyce Carol Oates still bothers people—in all kinds of ways. For more than forty-five years she has been steadily producing novels, short stories, poems, essays, plays. Between the beginning of 2000 and the end of 2005 she published nineteen books. She has written over seven hundred short stories, more than Maupassant, Kipling, and Chekhov combined. There can’t be many literary quarterlies or little magazines in which Oates hasn’t appeared. They range from Agni to Zoetrope, and include both Family Circle and Playboy, Virginia Quarterly Review and Cosmopolitan.
In her archives at Syracuse University lie the finished manuscripts of several books she mysteriously decided not to publish, most notably The Crosswicks Horror, which was intended as a companion to her pastiches of nineteenth-century sensation fiction, Bellefleur and A Bloodsmoor Romance. She’s brought out psychological suspense thrillers under the pen names Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly—and even written children’s books (Come Meet Muffin!) and young adult novels.
Her work is regularly chosen for The Best American Short Stories—and for The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. In her thirties she won the National Book Award for Them, and in her sixties We Were the Mulvaneys was picked as an Oprah Book Club choice. In the years between, she received, among many other honors, the Lifetime Achievement Award of the International Horror Writers Guild. For more than twenty-five years she’s been rumored to be a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature.
Such astonishing range and productivity might instill envy in even the industrious Henry James and Virginia Woolf (the serious professional writers with whom Oates most identifies). Yet throughout her life Oates has also been a professor of English, first at the University of Detroit, and for many years now at Princeton. Her students have included the youthful novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, who has said that she acted as his mentor in producing his widely admired Everything Is Illuminated. Teaching clearly matters to her, since she could have afforded to give it up long ago.
With her husband Raymond Smith, moreover, Oates has edited The Ontario Review and, from time to time, published books under its imprint. She has regularly contributed substantial essays and reviews to, among others, The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, and The New York Review of Books. Somehow, the seemingly tireless writer also keeps a journal, plays the piano, jogs, gardens, draws, cooks, and reads as indefatigably as she writes. (But she doesn’t watch television: TV, Oates has said, is “for people who are skimming along on the surface of life.”) Her good friend the scholar Elaine Showalter once remarked that you had but to mention a book and “Joyce will have the novel read by next week.”
In short, Joyce Carol Oates is a major one-woman industry. Her journal tells us that she writes from 8 till 1 every day, then again for two or three hours in the evening. And she revises and polishes and reworks page after page after page. Such commitment,…
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