Joyce Carol Oates Reread: Overview and Interview with the Author

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Oates was born in 1938. She had a working class upbringing in a farming community near Lockport in upstate New York. During her studies at Syracuse University, on a scholarship, she began to publish her first short stories. Since then she has continued to write and publish industriously--an average of one or two books a year. In 1962 Oates taught at the University of Detroit where she wrote her early masterpiece, them (intentionally written with lower case t), which explores life in the inner-city, and challenges the taxonomy of the naturalistic novel. In 1968, she joined the English Department at the University of Windsor, in Canada, where she and her husband started a small press and published a literary magazine, The Ontario Review. Oates moved to Princeton in 1978, where she is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities and teaches creative writing.

More interested in enriching her oeuvre with new plots, forms and styles than in sticking to winning formulae or following the more acclaimed trends of the times, Joyce Carol Oates counteracts the prevailing notion of the isolated, minimalist and exclusivist literary genius. Her work defies pre-established views about the parameters of 'serious' writing, not only because of its astonishing prolixity but also for its ability to attract a popular readership. Oates's phenomenal productivity is uncommon in twentieth-century literature. To date (27 February 2006) Oates has written fifty novels and novellas, twenty-eight short story collections, eight poetry collections, eight volumes of drama, and eleven volumes of essays and criticism.

Anxieties about the volume of her oeuvre have partly fuelled the image of Oates as an 'automatic writer.' (1) Yet the massive number of manuscripts and typed drafts of texts collected in her archive in Syracuse University attest to Oates's insistent and careful revisions. Growing up during the Depression, she experienced at close hand her father's struggle to find work and make ends meet. This created in Oates a strong and resourceful work ethic, which shaped her approach to writing as a craft guided as much by passion and imagination as by persistence and discipline. Given her amazing output, the quality of work discloses inevitable heterogeneity. The varying quality of her individual works should not underestimate her ultimate achievements. In the process of writing major and minor works, always stretching her writing into new forms and themes, Oates has created such undeniable masterpieces as them, Bellefleur, The Wheel of Love and Marriages and Infidelities, which deserve a place among the best contemporary American fiction. Her work has been the recipient of countless awards. Oates's first published text was the prize-winning story 'In the Old World' printed in Mademoiselle in 1962. Since then, her short fiction--which is considered, by some critics, to be the best part of her work--has received twenty-eight O. Henry awards and seventeen of her stories have been chosen for The Best American Short Stories. Oates was the winner of the National Book Award for fiction, for them (1970), and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, among many other prizes. More recently, she won the Commonwealth Award for Distinguished Service in Literature (2003) and she was awarded the Prix Femina Etranger for her novel The Falls (2005).

Her oeuvre encompasses a wide range of generic forms, and registers and amazing variation of styles and subjects. Oates's novels, for instance, include naturalistic portrayals of suburban inner-city life such as them and Victorian family sagas such as Bellefleur; but then she can also write a Gothic Romance like Bloodsmoor Romance, the historical detective story Mysteries of Winterthurn, suspense thrillers such as her Rosamund Smith novels, among a variety of other literary ventures. Her literary range is broad. As John Barth pointed out, 'Oates writes all over the aesthetical map. …