“I just like to tell stories,” Joyce Carol Oates said with characteristic humility to the room of 5C students who were fortunate enough to speak with the author before her reading.
The renowned writer, who spoke and read this Monday, Feb. 4 in Claremont McKenna College’s Athenaeum, has little reason to be humble. Oates has written 56 novels, 30 short story collections, eight volumes of poetry, and numerous essays, plays, children’s books, book reviews, and long-form nonfiction. Although she is frequently associated with the Gothic style and many note the persistent melancholy and realism in her work, Ms. Oates defies classification: Her subjects range from 1960s Detroit to the Great Depression, from James Joyce to Mike Tyson, and they recently stretched to include the filmmaker Lena Dunham.
Her awards are as innumerable as her writing. Oates is the recipient of the National Book Award and PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, the Common Wealth Award of Distinguished Service in Literature, the Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement, and the Chicago Tribune Lifetime Achievement Award, and she was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She is currently the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University.
Yet to recite her accolades is not to fully sing her praises; the list cannot express the influence of her literary contributions, the empathy and humanity of her work, or the significance of her teaching.
Acclaimed author Jonathan Safran Foer was a student in her introductory writing course at Princeton. Oates once said that Foer possessed “that most important of writerly qualities: energy.” Beneath her calm and modest demeanor, Oates clearly possesses this vitality. Her career has continued unabated during her teaching, even stepping into new territories of experimental fiction and pseudonymous suspense novels, and she continues to run the small press she opened with her husband, The Ontario Review. Oates writes in longhand and for long hours—nearly eight hours each day.
Monday at 4 p.m., Oates read and answered questions about her writing in CMC’s Freeberg Room, and at 7 p.m. she read two pieces from her latest short story collection Black Dahlia & White Rose: “San Quentin,” inspired by her experience leading a writing workshop at San Quentin State Prison, and “A Brutal Murder in a Public Place,” based on watching a bird trapped at Newark Airport. This sample, of course, fails even to scratch the surface of her work. A 2003 article published in Rocky Mountain News was entitled “Joyce Carol Oates for Dummies” because her writing is so overwhelmingly abundant.*
Oates has had a fascinating life and career, and similarly, Oates’s biography for dummies might look something like this: Born during the Great Depression on a farm in Lockport, N.Y., Joyce began her novelistic career in high school and continued it at Syracuse University. Afterward, she attended the University of Wisconsin, where she met her first husband, Raymond Smith. She first settled in Detroit, Mich., where she witnessed the social revolution of the American 1960s.
“I still feel Detroit,” Oates said during her talk.
She then taught at the University of Windsor in Ontario, until she began teaching Creative Writing at Princeton in 1978. She is also currently teaching creative writing to “energetic students” at University of California, Berkeley.
After her reading, Oates answered questions from the audience, and she described a course she teaches at Princeton in which her students compile their work into books with self-designed covers. She expressed concern that e-books reduce the effort writers put into their work and change the place of the book in our culture. However, she is far from a technophobe. Every day, Oates tweets carefully crafted wisecracks and wisdoms through the medium she loosely compares to poetry.
For example, on the day of her talk at CMC, she tweeted, “Beautiful Claremont College makes me realize anew how many excellent ‘small colleges’ there are in US– where undergraduates matter.”
(For a daily dose of Oates, follow @JoyceCarolOates.)
*Rocky Mountain News recommended starting with her early short stories and the novels A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967), them (1969), Wonderland (1971), Black Water (1992), andBlonde (2000).