Obsessions & Exorcisms in the Work of Joyce Carol Oates Q & A
1. What led you to write literary criticism of Joyce Carol Oates?
I had been a fan of Joyce Carol Oates since I was in junior high school. I read a lot of her fiction, both short stories and novels, and saw certain themes and situations recurring. I decided to write an essay about one of them that especially troubled me, how crime victims are treated in her fiction. After writing that essay, I wrote essays on other themes in her work like how she deals with poverty, especially among white people, how she deals with race, and the way artists are depicted in her fiction.
2. What was the first book of hers that you read?
I believe the first Joyce Carol Oates book I ever read was her collection of short stories entitled Marriages and Infidelities. What sparked my interest was a review of that collection that I read in either Life or Look magazine. The reviewer said the stories are “nothing we’re meant to believe, not the way we believe the six o’clock news” but “we do believe” because “Oates has a gift that would have gotten her hanged in Salem: she can lie like an angel.” Oddly, the reviewer was not completely accurate in the assessment as the stories in that collection vary between realistic stories we are “meant to believe” and those that are horror or surreal.
3.The essays in Obsessions & Exorcisms in the Work of Joyce Carol Oates cover several themes. Is there one theme you find especially important or interesting?
As I already indicated, I personally found the way victims are treated in her fiction most interesting. In an essay for Time magazine, Oates denounced the idea of victim precipitation as “outrageous.” In an essay about William Faulkner, she called his seeming “dismissal of the very possibility of rape . . . vicious and even demented sentiments which, if followed to a logical conclusion, would indict the victim as the ‘cause’ of the crime.” Yet her early fiction returned obsessively to the idea of the complicity or guilt of the victim. Later, this changed drastically as victims were depicted as completely innocent and even as vengeful toward their attackers. I used these observations as the launching for the essay that is the first chapter of the ebook, “From Masochistic Provocation to Violent Retaliation: The Rape Victim in Joyce Carol Oates.”
4. Do you believe that chapter is the one most readers especially like?
When I talked to a couple of people who had read Obsessions & Exorcisms, both thought the chapters on class and race were most interesting.
5. Many people have asked why there is so much violence in Joyce Carol Oates. Do you have an opinion about this?
Joyce Carol Oates herself wrote an essay entitled, “Why Is Your Writing So Violent?” She called the question “always insulting, always ignorant, and always sexist.” It’s my belief that she is right that this question “would never be asked of a serious male writer.” There is a lot of violence in the fiction of Norman Mailer and Ernest Hemingway but it goes unremarked because they were males. Her writing does not focus obsessively on violence. Rather, the violence in her fiction reflects the sad truth that violence is all-too-common in real life.
6. The most anthologized short story of Joyce Carol Oates is “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” What do you think accounts for the interest in this story?
The story is significant because it captures the dangers inherent in the budding sexuality of teen girls. The central figure, Connie, is a high school kid who has attracted the sexual attention of an adult man, something all-too-common, and is put in danger because of it. The reader experiences the girl’s terror. The adult man who first flirts with her and then threatens her, Arnold Friend, has an aura of a kind of archetypal sexual danger. Some critics believe him to symbolize the devil. The story’s ending leaves the situation open. Connie might be raped and murdered, she might “only” be raped, she might be enslaved, she might . . . that we do not know her fate with certainty is part of what makes the story haunting.
7. Joyce Carol Oates is remarkably prolific. How do you think the sheer output affects her work?
I believe it may have some negative effects. The volume means that what she writes is very uneven. Many years ago, a reviewer noted that her reputation has gotten so high “no editor would dare touch her work.” As a result, some of her novels become cluttered with repetitions that serve no purpose.
8. What are your personal favorites of Joyce Carol Oates’s work?
Regarding short stories, I believe Marriages and Infidelities is one of her best collections. The Wheel of Love is another. Of her novels, I really like With Shuddering Fall, them, Do With Me What You Will, Son of the Morning, and Foxfire. The novellas I Lock My Door Upon Myself and Blackwater both pack a lot of power in a brief space.
9. What are her greatest strengths as a writer?
Her ability to believably get inside the heads of very different characters. She can write from the viewpoint of males and females, the impoverished and the rich, as well as rural, urban, and suburban characters. She can depict kind characters, morally ambivalent characters, and brutal psychopaths. She can write drama, melodrama, suspense, comedy, and satire. I don’t believe there has ever been a writer with greater range than Joyce Carol Oates.
10. Why should people read Obsessions & Exorcisms in the Work of Joyce Carol Oates?
It was praised by Joyce Carol Oates herself. I had previously sent her the individual essays that make up the book and she always complimented them. When I sent her “From Masochistic Provocation to Violent Retaliation: The Rape Victim in Joyce Carol Oates,” she emailed back, “You are a sensitive and probing interpreter of literary works.” She called other essays I wrote about her works “graceful,” “interesting,” and “thoughtful.” A reader of this book will gain insight into one of the most famous and respected serious writers in the world today.