Living Legends: Joyce Carol Oates

Dear Reader,

It seems almost impossible that I have gone on this long without mentioning one of the writers that I hold most dearly. Her name, if you are unfamiliar with her, is Joyce Carol Oates. Chances are that if you have come within twelve feet of a bookstore, you have seen or heard of her before. To date, this is her list of completed works. It seems that virtually every review of hers always takes time at the start to marvel over her many published works. And yes, she does have many. She has been publishing since 1963, publishes regularly, and is not slowing down. But I don’t want to go into that. It seems that her label as prolific has hurt her more than it has helped her (if indeed it has helped her at all). The label of “prolific” seems to give the indication that she is sloppy, reckless, and just doesn’t care about the quality of her fiction so much as just receiving her personal deadlines so she can cash in that next royalty check. This leads to the perception that she is not a “real” writer, not a “serious” one to be respected. As writer Truman Capote once famously said, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” Obviously, he was not a fan of hers.

No matter, as there are plenty of those who are fans of hers (myself included). And perhaps my greatest reason for being her fan is because I know about her writing and I know how untrue the stereotypes are. Contrary to the belief of some, she is slow and careful in her composition. Concepts of time work differently for her than they do for other people. Some writers are content with going into their office, doodling on the manuscripts for a few hours, and then going back to their “real” life with real duties and responsibilities. And that is great for those people.

Fortunately/unfortunately for Miss Oates, her creative process does not allow that. It seems to me that Oates places her fictional worlds with so much importance, so much pressure and a sense of reality, that they become just as pressing as everyday matters. Due to this, she is almost always thinking about her projects. In fact, the reason why it seems that she does not do much writing is because a lot of her writing is done outside of her study. She calls writing “an act of remembering” and “rewriting” rather than writing: that is to say, by the time she goes to her study, she has already played out the scenes in her head. She is not creating something new, but is trying to recollect what her mind already imagined. Of course, this goes not unnoticed. Oates has confessed to a “constant feeling of anxiety” when working on a novel. (I imagine she is not the only writer to feel so). But, with her, she is living with her characters in a way that is really inspiring to those who aspire to reach her heights. Joyce Carol Oates is someone who has worked very hard not just in imagining (a word I hate to use in fear that it will make writing sound like playtime), but then revising and rewriting each page “as much as 17 times.” She is fearless in the subjects that she chooses, the characters that she inhibits, the voices that she delves into. Formula-based writing is not something she follows. Name a genre and I am sure that she has already covered it, or is working on it now: realist drama, parody, historical fiction, science fiction, horror, suspense, psychological thriller, romance, young adult, children’s picture books, poetry, reviews, comedy, essays, novella (if that can be called a genre), sweeping saga, and so on.

And, now in the changing twenty-first century, she has also added a new category, which is maintained on a daily schedule: she is on twitter.


Jumbled Writer


12 Responses to Living Legends: Joyce Carol Oates

    • Yes, she has such a vast range of interests and subjects that she has been willing to explore. I love how she does not just hold herself in one subject/topic.

  1. I’ve only read a couple of her books. The one that stands out in my memory is We Were the Mulvaneys (I hope that’s right.) It was a terrific story. Thanks for your comment on my blog. Much appreciated.

  2. What a thoughtful and well written post. I love learning about a writer’s process since I have a hard time calling myself a writer. Then when I read of how Joyce Carol Oates plays out scenes in her head it reminds me that I do that too. So, maybe… Thanks for commenting on my blog so that I could find yours.

    • Thanks for commenting back. She really is a great one to study. I agree that it is interesting to study the writing process of different authors, especially since there is never any “right” answer. It’s entirely up to you.

  3. Joyce Carol Oates is one of my favorite authors. She has such incredible insight into human thought and behavior. Sometimes when reading her books I found it hard to believe that just one person was writing so many vastly different characters, and empathizing with each one’s point of view on a deep level.

    • I completely agree. Her range, either from novel to novel or just chapter to chapter, is amazing. I always find myself asking, “How does she know that?” because of the details that she goes into, the details that seem to be only something you could get if you lived the exact life of the characters described. Thanks for visiting and commenting!

  4. I think you’ve made an eloquent case for the unique talent of JCO, who does seem to stretch the fabric of time when it comes to her writing career. Like Anthony Burgess, she’s a prolific author whose output comes at a price: the pressure of realising these fictional worlds she’s clearly unable to ignore and a certain amount of bewilderment among sections of the public and press. I was certainly stunned to see the brick-sized volume The Accursed the other day, following two or three other books in the past year. You’re right, it has become a bit of a cliche to begin with a gushing reference to her output – one of which I am guilty – but it was heartening to see her title a chapter in her A Widow’s Diary memoir with one quote (from an exhibition about JCO) that suggests she sees the funny side of her reputation: ‘The Wonder Woman of American Literature’! Oh, and her Twitter is addictive: gnomic, revealing and funny – for example: ‘First, you hope for an eventful life. Then, you hope for an uneventful life.’ – with typical Oates-ian levels of productivity and quality control.

    • Hi. Yes, her Twitter account is great. I do read it as much as possible. Many critics note that she is violent and prolific in her writing, but I think what should also be emphasized is how observant she is with American culture. Besides her stories, her Twitter is another outlet for that. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

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