"Homo sapiens is the species that invents symbols in which to invest passion and authority, then forgets that symbols are inventions." -- Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates (born June 16, 1938) is an American author. Oates published her first book in 1963 and has since published over fifty novels, as well as many volumes of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction. Her novel them (1969) won the National Book Award, and her novels Black Water (1992), What I Lived For (1994), and Blonde (2000) were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. With a reputation for prolificity, for creating compelling, complex characters and not least finding their distinctive voices, Oates has been one of the leading U.S. novelists since the 1960s.
As of 2008, Oates is the Roger S. Berlind '52 Professor in the Humanities with the Program in Creative Writing at Princeton University, where she has taught since 1978. The Program in Creative Writing, Princeton University
Oates has also written under the pseudonyms "Rosamond Smith" and "Lauren Kelly".
"Boxing has become America's tragic theater.""Boxing is a celebration of the lost religion of masculinity all the more trenchant for its being lost.""Boxing is about being hit rather more than it is about hitting, just as it is about feeling pain, if not devastating psychological paralysis, more than it is about winning.""If food is poetry, is not poetry also food?""If you are a writer you locate yourself behind a wall of silence and no matter what you are doing, driving a car or walking or doing housework you can still be writing, because you have that space.""In love there are two things - bodies and words.""It is not her body that he wants but it is only through her body that he can take possession of another human being, so he must labor upon her body, he must enter her body, to make his claim.""Life and people are complex. A writer as an artist doesn't have the personality of a politician. We don't see the world that simply.""Love commingled with hate is more powerful than love. Or hate.""Night comes to the desert all at once, as if someone turned off the light.""Nothing is accidental in the universe - this is one of my Laws of Physics - except the entire universe itself, which is Pure Accident, pure divinity.""Our enemy is by tradition our savior, in preventing us from superficiality.""Our house is made of glass... and our lives are made of glass; and there is nothing we can do to protect ourselves.""The great menace to the life of an industry is industrial self-complacency.""The third man in the ring makes boxing possible.""The worst cynicism: a belief in luck.""To be knocked out doesn't mean what it seems. A boxer does not have to get up.""We are linked by blood, and blood is memory without language.""What I aspired to be and was not, comforts me.""When people say there is too much violence in my books, what they are saying is there is too much reality in life.""Where we come from in America no longer signifies. It's where we go, and what we do when we get there, that tells us who we are."
Oates was born in Lockport, New York to Carolina Oates, a homemaker, and Frederic Oates, a tool and die designer. She was raised Catholic, and is now an atheist. Oates grew up in the working-class farming community of Millersport, New York, and characterized hers as "a happy, close-knit and unextraordinary family for our time, place and economic status". Her paternal grandmother, Blanche Woodside, lived with the family and was "very close" to Joyce. After Blanche's death, Joyce learned that Blanche's father had killed himself and Blanche had subsequently concealed her Jewish heritage; Oates eventually drew on aspects of her grandmother's life in writing the 2007 novel The Gravedigger's Daughter. A brother, Fred Junior, was born in 1943, and a sister, Lynn Ann, who is severely autistic, was born in 1956.
At the beginning of her education, Oates attended the same one-room school her mother attended as a child. She became interested in reading at an early age, and remembers Blanche's gift of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as "the great treasure of my childhood, and the most profound literary influence of my life. This was love at first sight!" In her early teens, she devoured the writing of William Faulkner, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Henry David Thoreau, Ernest Hemingway, Charlotte BrontŰ, and Emily BrontŰ, whose "influences remain very deep". Oates began writing at the age of 14, when Blanche gave her a typewriter. Oates later transferred to several bigger, suburban schools, and graduated from Williamsville South High School in 1956, where she worked for her high school newspaper. She was the first in her family to complete high school.
Oates won a scholarship to attend Syracuse University, where she joined Phi Mu, a financially draining experience she later regretted. Oates found Syracuse "a very exciting place academically and intellectually", and trained herself by "writing novel after novel and always throwing them out when I completed them." It was not until this point that Oates began reading the work of D. H. Lawrence, Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Mann, and Franz Kafka, though, she noted, "these influences are still quite strong, pervasive." At the age of nineteen, she won the "college short story" contest sponsored by Mademoiselle. Oates graduated Syracuse as valedictorian in 1960, and received her M.A. from the University of Wisconsin—Madison in 1961.
Oates published her first novel, With Shuddering Fall (1964), when she was twenty-six years old. In 1966, she published "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?", a short story dedicated to Bob Dylan and written after listening to his song "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." The story is loosely based on the serial killer Charles Schmid, also known as "The Pied Piper of Tucson". The story was frequently anthologized and was adapted into the 1985 film Smooth Talk, starring Laura Dern. In 2008, Oates said that of all her published work, she is most noted for "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?". Another noted early short story, "In a Region of Ice" (1967) dramatizes the drift into protest against the world of education and sober, established society of his parents, depression and eventual murder-cum-suicide act of a young, gifted Jewish American student. Like a number of other novels and short stories in her body of work, this was inspired by a real-life incident, and Oates had been acquainted with the model of her protagonist. She revisited this subject in the title story of her collection Last Days (1985).
Oates's novel them (1969) received the National Book Award in 1970; it is set in Detroit during a time span from the 1930s to the 1960s, most of it in black ghetto neighborhoods, and deals openly with crime, drugs and racial/class conflicts. Again, some of the key characters and events were based on real people whom Oates had known or heard of during her years in the city. Since then she has published an average of two books a year. Frequent topics in her work include rural poverty, sexual abuse, class tensions, desire for power, female childhood and adolescence, and occasionally the supernatural. Violence is a constant in her work, even leading Oates to have written an essay in response to the question, "Why Is Your Writing So Violent?" She is a fan of poet and novelist Sylvia Plath, describing Plath's sole novel The Bell Jar as a "near perfect work of art"; but though Oates has often been compared to Plath, she disavows Plath's romanticism about suicide and among her characters, she favors cunning, hardy survivors, both women and men. Oates' concern with violence and other traditionally masculine topics has won her the respect of such male authors as Norman Mailer. In the early 1980s, Oates began writing stories in the gothic and horror genres; in her foray into these genres, Oates said she was "deeply influenced" by Kafka and felt "a writerly kinship" with James Joyce. HorrorOnline Author Focus: Joyce Carol Oates 1999 She gained much attention for her book-length essay On Boxing (1987).
In 1996, Oates published We Were the Mulvaneys, a novel following the disintegration of an American family, which became a best-seller after being selected by Oprah's Book Club in 2001. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Oates wrote several books, mostly mystery novels, under the pen names "Rosamond Smith" and "Lauren Kelly."
For more than twenty-five years, Oates has been rumored to be a "favorite" to win the Nobel Prize in Literature by oddsmakers and critics. Her papers, held at Syracuse University, include seventeen unpublished short stories and four unpublished or unfinished novellas. Oates has said that most of her early unpublished work was "cheerfully thrown away."
Oates taught in Beaumont, Texas for a year before moving to Detroit in 1962, where she began teaching at the University of Detroit. Influenced by the Vietnam war, the 1967 Detroit race riots, and a job offer, in 1968 Oates moved with her husband to teaching positions at the University of Windsor, Canada. In 1978, she moved to Princeton and began teaching at Princeton University.
In 1995, Princeton undergraduate Jonathan Safran Foer took an introductory writing course with Oates, who took an interest in Foer's writing, telling him that he had "that most important of writerly qualities, energy". Foer later recalled that "she was the first person to ever make me think I should try to write in any sort of serious way. And my life really changed after that." Oates served as the advisor to Foer's senior thesis, an early version of his novel Everything Is Illuminated, which was published to wide acclaim in 1999.
While studying at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, Oates met Raymond J. Smith, a fellow graduate student, whom she married in 1961. Smith became a professor of 18th-century literature, and later an editor and publisher. Together the couple founded The Ontario Review, a literary magazine, in 1974, on which Oates served as associate editor. In 1980, Oates and Smith founded Ontario Review Books, an independent publishing house. In 2004, Oates described the partnership as "a marriage of like minds...both my husband and I are so interested in literature and we read the same books; he'll be reading a book and then I'll read it...we trade and we talk about our reading at meal times[...]it's a very collaborative and imaginative marriage". Smith died of complications from pneumonia on February 18, 2008. In April 2008, Oates wrote to an interviewer, "Since my husband's unexpected death, I really have very little energy[...]My marriage...my love for my husband...seems to have come first in my life, rather than my writing. Set beside his death, the future of my writing scarcely interests me at the moment." In early 2009 Oates became engaged to, and married, Professor Charles Gross of the Psychology Department and Neuroscience Institute at Princeton.
Oates is devoted to running, and has written that, "[i]deally, the runner who's a writer is running through the land- and cityscapes of her fiction, like a ghost in a real setting." While running, Oates mentally envisions scenes in her novels and works out structural problems in already-written drafts; she formulated the germ of her novel You Must Remember This (1987) while running, when she "glanced up and saw the ruins of a railroad bridge", which reminded her of "a mythical upstate New York city in the right place".
In 1973, Oates began keeping a detailed journal documenting her personal and literary life; it eventually grew to "more than 4,000 single-spaced typewritten pages". In 2008, Oates said she had "moved away from keeping a formal journal" and instead preserves copies of her e-mails. Oates is a member of the Board of Trustees of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. She is also a member of Mensa.
Oates writes in longhand, working from "8 till 1 every day, then again for two or three hours in the evening." Her subsequent prolificacy has become one of her best-known attributes; The New York Times wrote in 1989 that Oates's "name is synonymous with productivity", and in 2004, The Guardian noted that "Nearly every review of an Oates book, it seems, begins with a list [of the number of books she has published]". Some critics have frequently stated misgivings on the level of her output, or claimed that it includes a level of violence, contrived situations and rough, unpolished oppression (family conflict, domestic violence, incest, class-related, sexual and gender prejudice) that supposedly wouldn't fully belong in high literature, but this kind of criticism has become less frequent during her later career.
In a journal entry written in the 1970s, Oates sarcastically addressed her critics, writing, "So many books! so many! Obviously JCO has a full career behind her, if one chooses to look at it that way; many more titles and she might as well... what?...give up all hopes for a 'reputation'?[...]but I work hard, and long, and as the hours roll by I seem to create more than I anticipate; more, certainly, than the literary world allows for a 'serious' writer. Yet I have more stories to tell, and more novels[...]". In The New York Review of Books in 2007, Michael Dirda suggested that disparaging criticism of Oates "derives from reviewer's angst: How does one judge a new book by Oates when one is not familiar with most of the backlist? Where does one start?"
Several publications have published lists of what they deem the best Joyce Carol Oates books, designed to help introduce readers to the author's daunting oeuvre. In a 2003 article titled "Joyce Carol Oates for dummies", The Rocky Mountain News recommended starting with her early short stories and the novels A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967), them (1969), Wonderland (1971), Black Water (1992), and Blonde (2000). In 2006, The Times listed them, On Boxing (1987), Black Water, and New & Selected Stories, 1966-2006 (2006) as "The Pick of Joyce Carol Oates". In 2007, Entertainment Weekly listed their Oates "favorites" as Wonderland, Black Water, Blonde, I'll Take You There (2002), and The Falls (2004). In 2003, Oates herself said that she thinks she will be remembered for, and would most want a first-time Oates reader to read, them and Blonde, though she added that "I could as easily have chosen a number of titles."