Joyce Carol Oates


by Ron Levao

It is with great pleasure that I introduce Joyce Carol Oates, the Roger S. Berlind Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University.

Experience has taught me that the best way to preface a much-anticipated reading is to be as brief as possible and then get out of the way. Conciseness is made easier by the fact that many of you probably already know a great deal about the author, not only from her astonishing array of novels, novellas, short stories, dramas, screenplays, poems, essays, and other forms, but also from the numerous studies published about her, from her television interviews, and from the unofficial but splendid website called Celestial Timepiece with its many images, links, and excerpts.

Oates’ working-class background has a powerful and heartfelt presence in her work, an unflinching strength of purpose enriched by American myth, beginning in the countryside outside Lockport, New York, and including her early education in a one-room schoolhouse. Her work has become both an important part of and a key to understanding that myth, as is clear through the admiration it has earned. As Henry Louis Gates has remarked: “A future archaeologist equipped with only Joyce Carol Oates’ oeuvre could easily piece together the whole of postwar America.”

Every introduction to her readings that I have attended, and most interviews, sooner or later come to rely on the word “prolific,” which has become a kind of Homeric epithet for her. It is certainty apt, but what the term fails to capture is the human alertness and focused ingenuity that have earned her the reputation of being one of America’s most consistently powerful and important writers over the last forty years.

Oates’ novel, A Garden of Earthly Delights, was the winner of the 1968 Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her novel, them, was the winner of the 1970 National Book Award. Oates has since been nominated for, and has won, a staggering number of prizes. You can find these rolled out on the Celestial Timepiece website, but one statistic I cannot resist invoking is the fact that she has been included in the New York Times Notable Books of the Year for 38 books over the last 39 years. This is an amazing record of consistently high inventiveness, the result not only of imaginative brilliance, but also of a mental toughness and stamina that perhaps explains some of her fascination with professional boxers. It used to be said of the Canadian heavyweight, George Chuvalo, that if every fight were a fight-to-the-finish, he would have been undefeated. That is the force of will one thinks of when looking over Joyce Carol Oates’ career.

Yet there is also a fineness in her work, an attention to the subtlest physical and psychological detail, as well as a mastery of larger literary forms. She is one of the leading and most flexible of modern formalists—capable of playful whimsy in her children’s stories, generous yet penetrating analysis of fellow artists and writers in her remarkable essays and reviews, as well as uncanny and disturbing violence in her famous novels and horror stories. Oates remains the most fascinating of writers because she, herself, is always fascinated by the cruel and beautiful worlds American culture ceaselessly builds for itself.