The Purposeful Life of Joyce Carol Oates
Despite her mastery of the written word, Joyce Carol Oates is skeptical about how well conversation can express the complexities of thought and emotions.
Joyce Carol Oates is an esteemed writer who has published over 50 novels, as well as plays, short story collections, memoirs, and poetry.
Oates was born in 1938 in Longport, NY, and raised on her family farm in western New York State. She graduated as valedictorian at Syracuse University and completed an MA in English at University of Wisconsin–Madison. She began a PhD at Rice University, but left after the release of her first novel, With Shuddering Fall (1964). Coming at a steady clip of about one a year, her books have been nominated for five Pulitzer Prizes and five National Book Awards—a prize she won in 1969 for her novel them.
Oates’s acclaimed memoir A Widow’s Story (2011) discussed the death of her first husband, Raymond J. Smith. Her second husband, neuroscientist Charles Gross, died in 2019.
A professor of English at Princeton University from 1978 to 2014, Oates also taught creative writing at New York University, Rutgers, and the University of California, Berkeley.
Now in her mid-eighties, Joyce Carol Oates may well have become the grand elder of American letters. She’s been extraordinarily prodigious and her output has been, by and large, exemplary. This, she says, is because she has wholly immersed her entire self, her very being, into the practice of writing.
Joyce Carol Oates: I don’t think of myself as unusual. I mean, I don’t think about myself that much. If I’m working on a short story, I’m not thinking about my own fluency, I’m just thinking, I’m trying to figure out how we get from here to here and transcribing some sort of emotional experience. I’m thinking about a problem. I have to figure out the tone of a voice. I have to figure out whether this is realism or surrealism. I have to figure out whether the best way to express it is through a lot of dialogue and drama or whether it should be more like a lyric description. These are all very specific to a task.
And this dedication to specific tasks has yielded much acclaim. A National Book Award in 1970 for her iconic novel Them, a PEN/Malamud Award for excellence in short fiction, and in 2010 a National Humanities Medal. Her dedication to craft is matched by her commitment to putting in the work.
Oates: So, I always think if I have an hour of my life, am I just gonna waste it or shall I try at least to work out a story? So, I try to make use of my time because otherwise it would just fritter away. We have 24 hours in a day and what use will we make of it? So, probably some of us inherit a work ethic from our parents or from a background where people kept busy. And there are other people who don’t work and don’t see any particular moral principle in work.
Yet despite this dedication to her craft and her extraordinary capacity with words, she has little belief in the spoken word to express the full scope and depth of the human experience.
Oates: Life is beyond our ability to comprehend and language doesn’t really encompass it. So, anything we say about life and death is usually somewhat banal. It’s not adequate.
AJC: But you’re very good with language.
Oates: Well, if I work on something, I can write a poem that might express a complex emotion, an experience, but I’m probably not likely just to say that in a casual way. Art really is dependent upon thinking and structure. And just generally speaking I don’t think language is adequate to talk about profound things. There’s almost nothing that doesn’t sound banal and stereotypical. But you know, if you’re listening to the music of Wagner, you’re sort of getting the sense of the tragedy and passion of life and to talk about it in ordinary language is just really to reduce it I think.
Joyce Carol Oates has not only outlived many of her literary contemporaries, she’s also been twice widowed. She wrote about the loss of her first husband of 47 years, Raymond J. Smith, in an acclaimed memoir, A Widow’s Story. Her second husband, Charles Gross, an emeritus professor of psychology at Princeton, died in 2019, a decade into their marriage. Losing these men, her closest confidants, is not something she’s found easy peace with.
Oates: You mentioned that I’ve lost two husbands, so I’m a widow, and by contrast with what a widow feels, most things are pretty trivial. But I think losing people, that’s the blow. It is losing people who are gone. That’s what is so upsetting. So, I mean, it comes with getting older, but that’s not the main thing. If you have your health, then that’s all that matters. But at a certain point, as Phillip Roth said, his address book is mostly just people crossed out.
Today Oates continues to write prodigiously and in long hand, and to look after her own health, walking or running daily. And many of her ideas, she says, are finessed when she’s in motion.
Oates: Running will help you with your writing if you’re trying to think of some, probably with anything in life, where you’re trying to work out some problem, the running is very helpful. I run up a hill. It’s about a mile away or so, two miles, probably about a two-mile run, and I usually get some ideas.
And this processing of ideas, this working out of problems, has produced an extraordinary body of work: short stories, essays, memoirs, and criticism, and under her own and various pseudonyms, at best guess 58 novels.
Oates: Well, it’s one word at a time. I mean, I never set out to write 58 novels. I’m not even sure that I have written 58 novels. I mean, it’s like, how many dreams have you had? Each night you have dreams and each dream is very intense. Each dream is very meaningful, can be emotionally very powerful, but then it sort of ends. You don’t remember your dreams from 1975, but they were important then. So, the intensity of the work is what’s compelling. It’s intense and fascinating.
And the results of the work have been compelling, intense, and fascinating for multiple generations of readers and students who Oates has been connected with through her teaching at NYU, Rutgers, and Princeton. She feels that those who are now coming into adulthood face far deeper, more daunting problems than those who came before.
Oates: Well, this generation, they are so stricken with, to call it a problem is an understatement, the phenomenon of climate change and global warming and the deterioration of the environment. That’s a strong theme in 18 and 19-year-olds. Well, my students are very serious. They’re much more, probably more concerned about the environment maybe than their own parents or grandparents. I mean, our species homo sapiens, has done pretty well, but we are very vulnerable and we could just be wiped out. Looking into the future is something that the young people do out of necessity.
Joyce Carol Oates has had an extraordinary career, but she’s not done yet. She has still much to say and will not be putting away her proverbial quill anytime soon.
Oates: That’s why retirement is so hard for people. Many people, especially men, cannot do with retirement because they’re suddenly of no use. And even though they don’t care about making money, they already have enough money, but there’s something about the activity of being of use in the world is definitely very positive, I think.
AJC: Purpose, purpose.
Oates: Purpose and use, yeah.