What I would like to comment on here is not so much Joyce Carol Oates’s productivity, though that, of course, amazes us, but rather her excellence in so many different forms which I am not sure has been stressed sufficiently. It is hard to think of any other writer who excels as she does in these very different forms and I am just going to write about the fiction here.
Most of us are destined from the start to be sprinters or long distance runners to use a metaphor that Oates uses herself in one of her essays. We think of Alice Munro for example who excels at the short story or even a writer like Balzac who gave us mostly novels.
I can only touch on a few of the forms where Oates excels, going from the shortest of the short, the stories in “The Assignation” for example, which are sometimes just one page long yet contain all the elements of the whole: evocative imagery, suspense, closure, and even character hinted at, or so it seems to me.
Of course, her short stories are extremely well known or should be and as a teacher one can usually count on students to have read two things: the novel, "The Great Gatsby" by Scott Fitzgerald and “Where are you going and where have you been” a short story by Oates which has been so widely anthologized and even made into a film.
Then there is the short novel or novella which I recommend, particularly “Black Water” which takes up the Kennedy story at Chappaquiddick, a novella where we know the sad end for the young girl trapped in the car but read on hoping up to the last page. I recommend this novella for anyone who wishes to learn about suspense.
There are her full novels of which I can only mention a few “We Were The Mulvaneys;” “ Blonde,” “Mud Woman;” “ Them;” where we have so many portraits of men and women all conveyed with much sympathy, generosity, and understanding, complex human beings caught up in the dilemma of life rendered by someone who has surely listened carefully and felt deeply.
It has been so often repeated that Oates is a dark writer, and certainly she gives us a faithful portrait of life with all its cruelty and violence, but I would like to add that she seems to me a most hopeful writer. Reading her many pages we leave with a feeling of awe at the courage, optimism, the drive, and above all the study of her craft that has structured and sustained a work of such diversity for us to enjoy.
Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including the recent Dreaming for Freud.