In Praise Of: Joyce Carol Oates

16th Jun 2012

Often in our author spotlight series, we talk about writers who are both living and obscure, who are literary cult figures, or are deceased and were under-appreciated in their own lives, only to be celebrated and glorified with a new generation of readers. But today we're breaking the mould.


Joyce Carol Oates is the kind of woman who you find out about, enjoy her work, then feel increasingly foolish when complaining about your busy day.

She’s had fifty novels published, alongside short stories and novellas, essays and memoirs, young adult and children’s fiction, poetry, drama, and other work under the names of Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly. And she’s still going strong.

Born 16th June 1938 in New York to parents Carolina Bush and Frederic James Oates, Joyce’s life began simply. Raised as a catholic (though now an atheist), her first school was the same as her mother’s, a small, one-roomed school in which she soon learned the joy of reading.

She transferred to several other larger high schools and eventually became the first of her family to graduate high school. Thanks to a sponsorship she then attended Syracuse University, which she described as “a very exciting place academically and intellectually.”

Her personal life could be described as both joyfully simplistic and heart-wrenchingly tragic. She married her first husband Raymond J. Smith in 1961, and together they founded several papers and reviews which they edited together.

Joyce Carol Oates described the union as “a marriage of life minds – both my husband and I are so interested in literature and we read the same books…it’s a very collaborative and imaginative marriage.”

Tragically, Smith died in 2008 due to complications with an intense case of pneumonia. Joyce stated that she had very little energy since her husband’s death and often felt little interest in writing since her loss. However, Joyce went on to marry Professor Charles Gross in the early months of 2009.

Joyce’s awards are too numerous to name here, but it is safe to say that she has been appreciated readers, critics and academics. Significantly, Joyce has won her latest award this year, the Stone Lifetime Literary Award, which complements quite well her 2010 National Humanities Medal.

It is perhaps almost impossible to state which of Joyce’s books are the most well known, apart from perhaps Blonde, published in 2000.

She has been writing professionally since 1964, with her most recent novel Mudwoman published earlier this year, and her next title, The Crosswick Horrors, set to be published shortly.

You’ll be setting yourself an almost impossible task if you aim to read all of Joyce’s work, but I congratulate you even if you’re anywhere close. And many congratulations, salutations and much well-wishing to Joyce Carol Oates on her birthday today.

What are you favourite Joyce Carol Oates novels? Or are you more of a fan of her drama and poetry? Tell us your must-read recommendations…

(Image via Shaun Calhoun)