Joyce Carol Oates: Wit And Fear

Some writers prevail by sheer bulk of production. Chesterton and Belloc come to mind, for the high-brow, Edgar Rice Burroughs for the low. Joyce Carol Oates is clearly high-brow, a “serious” writer, but she impresses you first of all by amount. Still in her thirties, she has published seven novels, six collections of stories, five collections of poems, three works of criticism, an anthology, and at least three plays. Roughly, twenty fat books in a decade.

This weight of words gives a critic pause. It invites generalization; but you hesitate, because the next book, which may be out before you finish your sentence, may throw that sentence out of court. On the other hand, such speed of production suggests a sameness of texture. To write that fast, a writer must have a strong sense of “voice”—a distinctive, serviceable style that is not too hard to sustain. Oates has such a voice, and it provides a good avenue into her work and intentions. So on this basis, with due respect for the future, I venture my comments.

What John O’Hara used to call “the badges” have come to Oates in plenty. She holds a secure academic post, has held a Guggenheim Fellowship, was nominated for the National Book Award three times and won once (them, 1969). The materials of her books appear continually in a wide range of literary and critical magazines. She publishes with Vanguard Press (New York), Louisiana State University Press, and Black Sparrow—trade publisher, academic press, “small press,” the basic range of modern American publishing.

Oates grew up near Lockport, New York, a town that appears briefly in Wonderland (1971) and in a recent poem (“City of Locks,” Angel Fire, 1973). She attended Syracuse University and the ...

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