Joyce Carol Oates- Yea or Nay?

In another blog I follow, they were discussing favorite authors, and somebody mentioned Joyce Carol Oates.  I have read some of the anthologies that she has compiled, but had never read anything actually written by her (which I know is hard to do, given how many books she has written and how much I like reading; but there you have it).  She seems to be one of those polarizing authors who people either really love or really hate.  Ever the curious reader, I wanted to see for myself.

So the last time I was at the library, and in need of a book on CD, I saw a book by her (Little Bird of Heaven, published in 2009) and picked it up to see what all the fuss is about.  And started listening to it.  And instantly started feeling kind of ill.  Somber and ill.  And I’m not 100% sure why.

Oates is one of those very (for lack of a better term) “biological” writers.  She talks at length about bodies and bodily functions and hormonal developments.  Very physical, descriptive, sentient writing.  This I wouldn’t label as good or bad; I am here just objectively describing how she writes.

Her writing is very rhythmic and repetitive too.  It has a cadence, I don’t know how to describe it other than that, and don’t have a direct quote.  But just as a bad sort of example, she could write something like:  “It was a cat.  A cat that was black.  A cat that was black and could slip into the blackness of the night, leaving you to question whether it had ever been there at all.  Except you knew it was there.  Knew because of the dead and mangled mouse it had left on your doorstep.  A stiff reminder of where we all came from, and where we were all going.  That black cat.  Dark night.  Death…”

But this particular story (***spoiler alert***) is about an 11-year-old girl in Sparta, New York (fictional city) whose father is cheating on her mother with a woman of questionable morals who ends up getting killed and the father becomes a person of interest in the investigation but then he dies/is killed too.  Almost every character in the book is an alcoholic and/or on drugs and/or clinically depressed.  Yes, fun stuff.

And the girl, Christa (I only remember because she repeats her name about 1000 times), always refers to her father (Eddie Deal; this name also remembered because she mentioned it 1000 times) as “Daddy.”  And some of this could be the narrator’s spin/tone, but the “Daddy” (repeated about 10,000 times) gets sickening after not very long.  As does “Daddy’s” referring to Christa as “Puss.”  Very disturbing.

And the narrator kept repeating this one quote from the dead woman in this spooky/sexy voice (“Well…sayyyy…thought it was you”) in a way that was really creeping me out.

I just couldn’t get into this book.  Like I said, it started out rough, but I muscled through thinking “I’m going to give this a fair shot; maybe it will get better.”  But it didn’t.  It wasn’t.  And when I put in Disc 5 and it was just more of the same, and I still had 8 more discs to go, and I knew that they were just going to be more of the same; more of the same, only different, but same.  Oh, Daddy.  Oh my little Puss.  Always more of the same, and same, and same until death, oh he couldn’t have done it, but did he do it, my Daddy, the sweet, sickening smell of whiskey, Sparta, “Well, say, thought it was you,” that woman, my Daddy, me his Puss, Daddy…Sparta…Same…Whiskey… “Well, say….”

The final straw came in the form of a (probably) 50 page monologue by a strung out, fat prostitute.  When even that didn’t captivate my interest, I knew I and the Little Bird of Heaven were done.

I also picked up a hard copy of Oates’ Zombie, published 1995.  The chances of me reading that, now, I’d say pretty slim.

But, I don’t want to write her off completely.  I am still fascinated by her as a person and a writer.  Especially after, doing some quick research for this post, I learned that “Oates writes in longhand, working from ‘8 till 1 every day, then again for two or three hours in the evening.‘   Her prolificacy has become one of her best-known attributes; The New York Times wrote in 1989 that Oates’s ‘name is synonymous with productivity.’ ”  See

She has written and published a veritable ton.  And won awards.  A success by pretty much anyone’s definition of success.

I guess I’d like to know if anyone has read anything by her and enjoyed it.  Maybe I should have started with one of her more popular, award-winning books.  Should I look further, or just expect more of the same?



10 thoughts on “Joyce Carol Oates- Yea or Nay?

  1. My favorite quote of all time might be Gore Vidal saying “The three most oppressive words in the English language are Joyce Carol Oates.”

    I told that to a friend who loves JCO more than anything and even she agreed.

    As for me, I’ve read a bunch of her short stories, Zombie (not a fun one, don’t do it if you don’t want to), and We Were the Mulvaneys.

    I think she is a very gifted writer who isn’t writing anything that really stirs me up.

    • That is a great quote, and I can see it, even based on my limited exposure (in fact, it was your blog and that quote that first got me interested).

      I think your “she is a very gifted writer who isn’t writing anything that really stirs me up” is the perfect summation. The more experience and maturity I get, the more I recognize and appreciate the difference between “good writing” and “good writing FOR ME.”

      She is talented and I can see why people like her. But that doesn’t mean that I have to.

      • No, you have to. But I don’t.

        Seriously through, I don’t even dislike her at all. I’m almost completely without an opinion, other than what I said. She writes a lot, I’ll say that much. I admire her output.

        • Fine!

          I admire her output too, and her success. I don’t dislike her. It was for me too, I guess, sort of an absence of opinion. Or like “this isn’t bad, but I just don’t particularly find myself enjoying it.” Not that the sole purpose of literature is enjoyment. It just wasn’t for me. But that is okay.

  2. I love that you guys are having a discussion via post on YOUR OWN BLOG!

    As to JCO – I was always a little afraid to try her. I thought the writing would be too dense and inaccessible (and this, of course, was decided without even picking up one of her books). My first exposure was We Were the Mulvaneys and I loved that book. I’ve since gone on to read The Falls; My Sister, My Love (a freaky and thinly disguised novel about the Jon Benet Ramsey case) and Blonde (about Marilyn Monroe). They were all interesting and compelling in their own right. However, We Were the Mulvaneys remains my favorite JCO book.

    • Lilysusana, you mention Mulvaneys: do you think that’s the best starting point for a JCO neophyte? You say it’s your favorite, which isn’t always the same as “I think you should start with this one.”

      Just curious.

    • Sometimes no one else wants to talk; what can you do?

      If We Were The Mulvaneys is your favorite, maybe I should start there. If I can’t like that, it might need to be a permanent parting of ways. Between she and I. Hopefully you and I can just agree to disagree.

      • I think We Were the Mulvaneys is an excellent place to start (and maybe stop for some) to try JCO. It was not a difficult or off-putting read and I recall being very interested in where the story took me. Of them all, this was the one where I said to others, “You have to read this book.” The other books were not difficult, but at times somewhat dark or freakish. However, with the exception of portions of Blonde, (which seemed a little too ponderous) I was glad to have spent the time reading the other books.

  3. Joyce Carol Oates is like comfort food for me. I often return to her when I can’t decide what to read next and, because she has been so prolific, there is always something new at the library or bookstore. But I am the only one I know that really loves her.

    I find her depiction of alienation and lost innocence in American society piercing and moving (with satire too) and she moves among many social classes, regionalities and time frames with consummate ease. American Appetites which I picked up a few days ago deals with her own glittery and self-satisfied academic milieu at Princeton, which seems especially relevant to me in the context of the 2016 presidential election. But she is mostly at home on “the wrong side of the tracks” in small town America and rural America now and in the past (again timely for me).

    • I am intrigued by your interest. American Appetites just made my to-be-read list. If you have so enthusiastically enjoyed her work(s), there must be something there. Maybe I just haven’t found the right one yet. Every author deserves a second chance at least.

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