Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates has been one of my favorite authors for more than 20 years so I'm always on the lookout for something new from her, an easy thing for Oates collectors because she rewards us with at least two or three new books every year. I am primarily a fan of her fiction, novels and short stories alike, but I've been impressed with and enjoyed much of her poetry, essays and literary criticism as well. Her energy and accomplishments are amazing.

This past Sunday, Oates received an honorary degree from Brandeis University and spoke with Dan Snyder, Arts Editor for the university newspaper, The Justice:
Many female authors find themselves pigeonholed as "women writers," especially when their novels and short stories are generally focused on female protagonists and their perspectives. Fortunately, Joyce Carol Oates does not find herself in such a position. Oates' works have garnered much critical praise throughout her prolific, decade-spanning career, saving her from being grouped with other female writers whose work is considered less universal. Over the past 50 years, Oates has received Pulitzer Prizes, a National Book Award and a spot in Oprah's book club.
...
"It is a coincidence that I will be receiving a distinguished degree from Brandeis at about the time that my novel of melancholy and loss of my 'Jewish' heritage has been published. Since my great-grandparents chose to live without religion or any acknowledgment of their background, my grandmother had no religion, no tradition and no 'history;' her own son did not know of his Jewish background, nor did anyone else in our family. Yet I had long been intrigued by the seeming mystery of both my parents' backgrounds, so, typically, given that time in our American history, the early 1900s, shrouded in obscurity and the upheaval of families."

Although Oates is known for her captivating novels and short fiction, she has also published works of poetry, young adult fiction, drama, essays and criticism. Besides The Gravedigger's Daughter, the ever-prolific writer is also currently working two other books in less specific genres. One is what she calls the first installment of her journal, covering the years 1972 through 1983, to be published next October. Oates' other upcoming work is "a difficult-to-classify book titled WILD NIGHTS! Five Gothic Portraits." Oates described it as consisting of "prose pieces imagining the 'last days' in the lives of Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway."
As you can see from the picture showing my two shelves of Joyce Carol Oates books (something over 80 of them now), I'm under her spell. I will, however, warn anyone not familiar with her work that her fiction tends to be dark and, at times, a bit depressing and filled with despair. She believes that the everyday world, especially for women, can be a very violent and dangerous place and that the violence, when it occurs, often springs up suddenly when a woman becomes too complacent about her surroundings and those around her. Joyce Carol Oates is not in the business of providing "happy endings" to her readers but, if you want to add some dark realism to your reading list, she is the master.

Note to my fellow book snoops: click on the photo to get a larger view of the titles. You'll spot some duplicates because I have a few ARCs and the like among the first editions on the shelf. The first shelf holds Oates novels, in the order in which they were written, and the second shelf does the same for her short stories, essays, plays and criticism. My collection, believe it or not, is far from being a complete one.

20 comments:

  1. I've seen the Joyce Carol Oates many times but never looked at any of her books. You've got me interested. Is there any book you suggest starting with? I was looking at Expensive People or them.

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  2. Matt, I don't think that I would start with her earlier stuff that way. IMO, her writing style has improved greatly over the years and you might be put off by some of what she wrote in the sixties or seventies.

    I would suggest something relatively recent like Because It Is Bitter and Because It Is My Heart or You Must Remember This. And, of course, there's always Oprah's choice (for what that is worth) We Were the Mulvaneys. It's a good book despite being chosen by Oprah.

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  3. I'm reading Black Girl, White Girl right now and am loving it. The Falls is probably up next for me.

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  4. I'm really looking forward to The Gravedigger's Daughter, Kirsten. I read Black Girl/White Girl recently and liked it even though I couldn't really find a likable character in the whole book. :-)

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  5. No one cranks out the books like Oates! I really enjoy her storytelling, but her writing styles is so distracting. Comma splices everywhere! It's hard for me to stay engaged in a story when the punctuation's all funky.

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  6. For short stories, I liked The Goddess And Other Women.

    I really like her essay about boxing.

    Novel: Marya: A Life was good. I want to read Blonde, but haven't connected with it in a bookstore yet. It's either out of stock or I'm out of money.

    There is a good bio of Oates, but I can't remember the author.

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  7. An impressive collection, thanks for letting us snoop :) Your bookcase is beautiful. I have a few of her books but I've only read a couple essays and a short story or two. One of these days I will read more.

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  8. That is a really impressive collection! I had no idea she was so prolific! I have only read Foxfire and that was ages ago. She is really an author I need to read more of! Thanks for letting us snoop at your shelves. And I see you are a Ruth Rendell fan as well--I like her books very much!

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  9. Love Joyce C. Oates! I've read some of her stories. Keeps the reader engaged. Indeed her stories are slightly dark. Nice blog. I was lurking around-finally thought I'd comment:)

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  10. I hear you, Dewey. I think that Oates was more guilty of that in her earlier books...or maybe I just finally got more attuned to her style, I'm not sure. :-)

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  11. Good choices, IMO, bybee. I have that Oates biography and a couple of other books about her writing but I'm not at home at the moment and can't check the title and author. I think it was written by the same fellow who maintains a great website for her. It's a good book as I recall, one that I need to revisit, I think.

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  12. Stefanie, I'm sure that you know already that Oates is sort of an acquired taste...some of her work turns readers off and they never try her again. But she is so prolific that it's always worth taking another look at what she's been up to. If you like her short stories, I think that you would almost definitely enjoy some of her later novels as well.

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  13. Thanks, Danielle. Yeah, Joyce Carol Oates makes collecting her into an expensive hobby the way that she keeps releasing new work at such a rapid pace. But that's part of the fun and challenge because it's been fun to watch my collection grow from just a couple of books to more than two shelves of them now.

    Glad to see that you noticed the Ruth Rendell books...I purposely didn't crop the picture so that there was a hint of other titles there, figuring that would be a tiny challenge for book snoops and hard to resist. :-)

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  14. Thanks for the compliment, egg, and happy to see that you are another fan of Joyce Carol Oates.

    Don't be a stranger...

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  15. Sam, have you read her teen book? I like to try to steer the kids to good fiction at work, but I haven't read a lot of teen novels. I was wondering if her teen-oriented work was as dark as her adult-oriented work.

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  16. Anne, I haven't read any of her books for young adults or children but my impression of them is that they are empathetic looks at what children's lives are likely to be for anyone who appears to be "different." I don't know that they take a dark turn, and I expect them to be more motivational than anything else. I know that she's written one concerning gay teens, for instance, but I don't have a copy of that one.

    I do have Big Mouth and Ugly Gir which appears to be about two high school loners who find each other.

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  17. I really noticed it in Missing Mom.

    "Slightly dark?" I remember an Oates short story in which a mother boils her own baby. Kept me from reading anything more of hers for years and still freaks me out when I think about it!

    I'm really looking forward to your review of Freakonomics. I've been part of some lively discussions about it!

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  18. I haven't gotten around to Missing Mom yet, Dewey. It's on the shelf for later...just started another book of her short stories, The Female of the Species and every indication is that they are going to be a wild ride.

    That boiling baby story is shocking, but we just had the case in Galveston where some creature from Arkansas placed his infant into a microwave and turned it on. The baby was severely burned on one side of its body but will survive. Oates always says that her books are realistic...maybe she's right. :-(

    I'm almost done with Freakonomics and I'm still not sure what I think of it. Sometimes it makes perfect sense and I wonder why I never thought of something before...at other times I don't WANT to believe him.

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  19. I just wonder what your favorite JCO's books are ? I wish I would have such an impressive collection on my own shelf!

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  20. Ann, I think my favorite JCO books are: "Because It Is Bitter and Because It Is My Heart," "You Must Remember This," and "Blonde."

    Have you read her Rosamond Smith or Lauren KellY books? She is so prolific that she needs two pen names...

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