20 Oct 2011

Should Book Clubs Read Joyce Carol Oates?

No Comments Book Club Notes, Book Reviews, Personal Thoughts, Uncategorized, What You Should Read

Interestingly enough, Gore Vidal told Christopher Hitchens that the three most dispiriting words in the English language were “Joyce Carol Oates”. You have to wonder if Oates’ dark view of men and her perpetual theme of the exploitation of women inspired Vidal’s remark. However, Oates generates much discussion and is not a universally loved writer of fiction.

But, you have to admire a writer who has won almost every major prize, including the National Book Award. She teaches at Princeton University, where young Jonathan Safran Foer was her student. She makes speaking appearances, and she contributes short pieces to magazines, including Narrative and the New Yorker. She’s very busy — and she produces more work (I think more than 37 novels to date) than seems humanly possible. (LA Times).

And, who is more adept at describing the dark undercurrents of adolescent sexuality? Her 2007 novel, The Gravedigger’s Daughter, centers on Rebecca, who is thrust into the world after her deranged father kills her mother and then himself with a shotgun. Rebecca’s two older brothers abandoned the family before the murder-suicide, leaving Rebecca alone in the world. Although she is taken in by her teacher who tries desperately to make a Christian out of her, the sixteen year old Rebecca winds up cleaning rooms at the George Washington Hotel. It is here that she meets Niles Tignor, a stranger that Rebecca innocently believes will marry her and carry her to a better life. Sadly, more violence awaits poor Rebecca, from which she seems unable to escape.

In her much anthologized story with a similar theme “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Joyce Carol Oates explores the turmoil that characterizes the life of another adolescent girl. The main character is a typically rebellious teenager named Connie. She is contemptuous of adult authority and decides to forego a family outing to stay home and wash her hair. Now vulnerable to danger lurking in the adult world, Arnold Friend shows up at her front door. He taunts her and threatens to kill her family if she doesn’t leave her home with him. In the end, she joins him, and the reader is all too aware of the fate that awaits her in this dark story.

So, why should women read Joyce Carol Oates? In the end, is the draw of her fiction much like that of a bad car accident–it’s just too hard not to look? This is surely an oversimplification of a woman writer who has a guaranteed place in the canon of American literature.

What do you think? What novels or short stories have you read and how did you react to them? Has your book club read any Oates? Let other smart women hear your opinion on the writer that led Vidal to make such a wicked statement.

written by

Lisa Forman Rosen is an avid reader and facilitator of book clubs in Miami, Florida. She has worked at the University of Miami since 1986, first in the Department of English Composition as a lecturer and now at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine as a writer. Lisa created this site to share her love of literature with others and expand the conversation into the virtual world.

Be the first to comment on to “Should Book Clubs Read Joyce Carol Oates?”

Join the Discussion