The Life and Works of Joyce Carol Oates

Term Paper, 2010

12 Pages, Grade: 3.0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Joyce Carol Oates
2.1 Childhood and Adolescence
2.2 Beginning of the Literary Career
2.3 Teaching and Writing
2.4 21st century

3 Conclusion


1 Introduction

According to Greg Johnson, the bibliographer of Joyce Carol Oates, she is “the most talented, most inventive, and most exciting of American fiction writers” (Johnson, Invisible Writer XV). Novelist, short story writer, poet, playwright, critic, teacher, editor, and publisher, Joyce Carol Oates is an artist of amazing versatility, productivity, and range. She is the author of more than 1,000 short stories, over 50 novels, dozens of books of essays, plays, and poetry (including a dozen novels published under two literary pseudonyms: Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly). Her works are translated into more than 30 languages.

Joyce Carol Oates is often characterized as a workaholic. But in “A Brief Biography” on her official web-site Greg Johnson quotes her reply to this statement in one of the interviews to the New York Times, where she said “I am not conscious of working especially hard, or of ‘working’ at all. Writing and teaching have always been, for me, so richly rewarding that I don’t think of them as work in the usual sense of the word”.

Oates’s productiveness has become not only one of her best-known attributes but also a great obstacle for new readers who are often confused by such an amount of her works and do not know what title they should start with. So in this paper besides the description of Joyce Carol Oates’s life and literary legacy I single out her most notable and important works that ought to be read in the first place.

2 Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates has been variously classified as a naturalist, a “gothic” artist and a realist in the tradition of Dreiser; she is indeed a social critic, focusing on contemporary problems and issues. But she is also testing classical myths and establishing literary conventions beyond the limits of any one genre. Perhaps the most fame is brought to her by short stories. Like her novels, many of her stories are experiments in form and character, where most focus is brought to the personality at risk: to seemingly ordinary people whose lives are vulnerable to powerful threats from external society and the inner self. (Bender 2158)

Joyce Carol Oates’s fictive world is violent, full of destruction, nightmares, and horrors as real as the front pages of a daily. From violence in her world there is no escaping. Even characters who seem incapable of performing violent acts themselves participate in violence by being victims. Any understanding of Oates’s fiction is relied on an understanding of the place violence has in her body of work (Grant 31-32).

Very often the meaning of violence in her works was misinterpreted by readers and critics. She was so frequently asked questions like: “Why is your writing so violent?” and “Why do you focus on the violent?” and if perhaps she had an unhappy childhood that influenced her writing. Oates was so tired of those questions that in 1981 in response to them she wrote an essay “Why Is Your Writing So Violent?”. According to Oates this question “is always insulting. The question is always ignorant. The question is always sexist.” As the question presupposes that “the territory of the female artist should be the subjective, the domestic. She is allowed to be “charming,” “amusing,” “delightful.” Her models should not be Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky but one or another woman writer.” And Oates believes that her “writing isn't usually explicitly violent, but deals, most of the time, with the phenomenon of violence and its aftermath” (Oates, Violent ). Besides already in 1970 she announced, accepting the National Book Award for Fiction for them :

In the novels I have written, I have tried to give a shape to certain obsessions of mid- century Americans - a confusion of love and money, of the categories of public and private experience, of a demonic urge I sense all around - an urge to violence as the answer to all problems, an urge to self-annihilation, suicide, the ultimate experience and the ultimate surrender. The use of language is all we have to pit against death and silence (Grant 164).

However Oates’s essay did not throw daylight upon her childhood and upon a possible influence of her childhood on her literary works. That is why, in order to unveil this mystery, the next chapter of this paper will be dedicated to Oates’s childhood and adolescence.

2.1 Childhood and Adolescence

Joyce Carol Oates was born on 16 June 1938 to Carolina and Frederic Oates. She spent her childhood and adolescence on her grandparents' farm in Millersport, several miles outside Lockport, New York.

Her parents were deeply affected by the Depression (that is why in many of her novels the action takes place in this period and Depression became for Oates a symbol of American dislocation). Although their economic situation was not always good, Oates constantly repeated in numerous interviews that she had a happy childhood: her relationships with the parents were always very affectionate and warm; they recognized and promoted her abilities at an early age, in fact Oates was the first person in her family to go to college (Friedman 2).

As a child Oates attended the same single-room schoolhouse in western New York that her mother had attended 20 years before, the school had scarcely changed in those years. In spite of the lack of books both at school and at home Oates became interested in reading at an early age. After she learned to read, most of her reading was related to school, except for a few books at home, including The Gold Bug and Other Stories by Edgar Allan Poe (Oates, The Faith of a Writer 7). Poe’s writing produced a great impression on her. Speaking about the influences of other authors on her works Oates once expressed the following thought:

There are two primary influences in a writer’s life: those influences that come so early in childhood, they seem to soak into the very marrow of our bones and to condition our interpretation of the universe thereafter; and those that come a little later, when we are old enough to exercise some control of our environment and our response to it, and have begun to be aware not only of the emotional power but the strategies of art (Oates, The Faith of a Writer 13).


Excerpt out of 12 pages


The Life and Works of Joyce Carol Oates
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
383 KB
Joyce Carol Oates, Gothic Literature
Quote paper
Anatoly Dunaev (Author), 2010, The Life and Works of Joyce Carol Oates, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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