Happy birthday Joyce Carol Oates!
(I hesitated to introduce Joyce Carol Oates as “prolific” because it seems to be both a lazy angle to take for a biography and does not really say much about her writing anyway. Productivity does not mean quality. However, I am going to introduce her that way anyway for the purposes of this blog [forgive my sins], because I think it is important to note that while Oates has been productive throughout her career, she is quick to point out that her productivity means little to her if she is not writing stories or poems worth writing; and, I think that is an important tip to remember as a writer.)
Joyce Carol Oates’ work is probably best defined as “vast” due to the sheer amount of writing she has committed herself to in her lifetime. In fact, one of the words used to label her most often it seems is “prolific,” and while that might be a complicated term to apply to a writer’s work ethic (often times synonymous with workaholic or maybe it is just an odd quality to fixate on when it comes to a writer’s career), Oates is undoubtedly a productive writer compared to many others. At 83 years old, she has written over 70 novels, and volumes of essays, poems, and criticisms (this is the type of thing that makes me feel a great sense of imposter syndrome when I call myself a “writer”).
Author and journalist Hermione Hoby wrote in an article for The Guardian that Oates does not think much of accusations of prolificacy.
“People think that I write quickly, but I actually don’t,” she writes. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘Am I still working on this novel?’ It’s such a slow evolution. The point of anxiety is lost in all that. You can’t be anxious every minute of every day for eight months” (Hoby).
Oates was born on June 16, 1938 in Lockport, New York. Her father was a tool-and-die designer and her mother was a homemaker. She took an interest in writing at an early age and was gifted a typewriter at the age of 14 years old. Through academic achievement in high school, she earned a scholarship to attend Syracuse University; afterward, she went on to earn her M.A. at the University of Wisconsin and taught at the University of Detroit in 1962 (Poetry Foundation).
“(Joyce) … had a front-row seat for the social turmoil engulfing America’s cities in the 1960s,” states The Academy of Achievement. “These violent realities informed much of her early fiction.”
In 1964, Oates published her first novel With Shuddering Fall, about a tragic affair, and in 1969 published them, which won the US National Book Award for Fiction. After moving to Canada to teach at the University of Windsor, she and her husband cofounded the Ontario Review in 1974. She would continue to write, sometimes publishing two novels a year (1979, 2013, 2015, 2019), and often publishing novels in quick succession, which one might think is a difficult sell for critical achievement (that quantity over quality idea), but that is not really the case with Oates’ writings. In fact, she has won quite a bit of critical praise and is a multi-award-winning author, having won the O. Henry Award, the Norman Mailer Prize for Lifetime Achievement, the PEN/Malamud Award, and many more (Academy).
She is also an accomplished poet, and has stated:
“Poetry is a rite involving language—at its very highest a sacred rite in that it transcends the personality of the poet and communicates its vision, whether explicitly or by indirection, to others. Many poets speak of the almost impersonal nature of their art when it is most pure and inspired” (Sjoberg)
Oates’ latest book Night, Neon: Tales of Mystery and Suspense was published on June 15, 2021.
You Must Remember This (1987)
We Were the Mulvaneys (1996)
The Accursed (2013)
The Gravedigger’s Daughter (2007)
“Joyce Carol Oates | Academy of Achievement.” Academy of Achievement, 8 Feb. 2021, achievement.org/achiever/joyce-carol-oates/.
“Joyce Carol Oates | Poetry Foundation.” Poetry Foundation, 15 June 2021, poetryfoundation.org/poets/joyce-carol-oates.
Hoby, Hermione. “Joyce Carol Oates: ‘People Think I Write Quickly, but I Actually Don’t.’” The Guardian, 22 Feb. 2018, theguardian.com/books/2016/jan/09/joyce-carol-oates-interview-people-think-i-write-quickly-but-i-actually-dont.
Sjöberg, Leif, and Joyce Carol Oates. “An Interview with Joyce Carol Oates.” Contemporary Literature, vol. 23, no. 3, 1982, pp. 267–284. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1208155. Accessed 15 June 2021.