InstructorsStudentsReviewersAuthorsBooksellers Contact Us
Access Author Profile Pages by:
 Resource Centers
Textbook Site for:
The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Joyce Carol Oates
(b. 1938)

Critic, teacher, short story writer, poet, playwright, novelist, editor, and publisher, Joyce Carol Oates is an artist of amazing versatility, productivity, and range. She has written more than twenty novels and hundreds of shorter works; several of her plays have been produced off-Broadway; at least two of her stories have been made into films. Writing about men and women struggling for existence in “Eden Valley,” a region strikingly like her own birthplace in upstate New York, Oates has been variously classified as a realist, a naturalist, a “gothic” artist, and “the dark lady of American Letters.” She has won many prizes, including the National Book Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an O. Henry award for Special Achievement, and an award from the Lotos Club. Oates has been elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. While she calls herself a feminist, she prefers to be considered “a woman who writes.” She has a wide readership: her work is as likely to be found on an academic syllabus as on the best-seller list.

Oates has often been considered a realist in the tradition of Dreiser; she is indeed a social critic, focusing on contemporary events and issues in fiction and essays. But she is also testing classical myths and established literary conventions beyond the limits of any one genre. Curiously, as if to expand her own boundaries, Oates has published fiction—a series of harrowing psychological mysteries—under a pseudonym, Rosamond Smith.

Perhaps Oates is best understood as an artist in residence—in the largest sense of that term. She studied at Syracuse and then in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, and has taught literature and writing at Detroit and Windsor. As a scholar, she has written several collections of literary criticism, including New Heaven, New Earth, (Woman) Writer, and The Profane Art. She is on the Advisory Board of The Kenyon Review; she is a frequent reviewer of contemporary literature. Currently she is Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of English at Princeton, where she lives and writes and works at the press she founded with her husband, Professor Raymond Smith.

Oates draws upon this complex and varied background in her fiction. In one way or another, all of Oates’s characters struggle to find a place in a changing and often threatening world. In her early novels With Shuddering Fall and A Garden of Earthly Delights, she writes about rural America with its migrants, ragged prophets, and automobile junkyards; in contrast, Expensive People mocks the suburbanite, and her novel them dramatizes the violent lives of the urban poor. Wonderland is a novel of lost generations; the hero barely escapes from the gunfire of his crazed father; as a father himself, he is in danger of losing his daughter in the turbulence of the sixties. Childwold is a lyrical and experimental portrait of an artist as a young woman. Oates satirizes doctors, lawyers, preachers; she casts an especially critical eye at professors and resident artists in Unholy Loves, Solstice, American Appetites, and Marya: A Life.

Fascinated by the literary past and the work of other writers, she has also tried her hand at “imitations”—reimagining stories of Joyce, Thoreau, James, Chekhov, and Kafka. Oates produced a group of novels which represent her own imaginative view of nineteenth-century conventions, with particular emphasis on the constraints placed upon women both as writers and as hapless heroines.

But she is also inscribing the history of the present, memorializing the paranoia of the fifties in You Must Remember This, dramatizing explosive American race relations in Because It is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart, and publishing essays on boxing which have won her infrequent spots as a ringside commentator.

Joyce Carol Oates may be best known for her short stories, frequently included in the O. Henry annual Prize Selection and widely anthologized. Like her novels, many of her stories are experiments in form and character. Most focus on the personality at risk: on seemingly ordinary people whose lives are vulnerable to powerful threats from external society and the inner self.

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is one of these. A frightening view of “coming of age” written in 1967, the story has appeared in several collections, including The Wheel of Love; it has also been adapted for the screen (Smooth Talk, 1986). Its central character, Connie, is a young woman fatally at ease in the world of adolescent ritual: high school flirtations, hamburger hangouts and drive-ins, movies and fan magazines; her dreams are shaped by popular song lyrics. She seems destined for a conventional future very much like her mother’s, evident in their half-affectionate bickering. Yet as Oates deftly and gradually reveals, this sense of security is at best illusory; even the familiar language of popular song becomes the agency of seduction, making Connie the helpless victim of a grotesque and demonic caller she mistakes for a “friend.” Asking the question posed by the sixties balladeer and youth culture cult figure, Bob Dylan (to whom this story is dedicated), “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” powerfully represents the complex, open-ended literary project of author Joyce Carol Oates.

Eileen T. Bender
Indiana University

In the Heath Anthology
Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? (1970)

Other Works
By the North Gate (1963)
With Shuddering Fall (1964)
A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967)
Expensive People (1968)
them (1969)
The Wheel of Love (1970)
Wonderland (1971)
Marriages and Infidelities (1972)
New Heaven, New Earth (1974)
Childwold (1976)
Unholy Loves (1979)
Bellefleur (1980)
A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982)
The Profane Art (1983)
Last Days (1984)
Solstice (1985)
(Woman) Writer (1986)
Marya: A Life (1986)
You Must Remember This (1987)
On Boxing (1988)
Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart (1991)
Black Water (1992)

Cultural Objects
There are no Cultural Objects for this author.
Would you like to add a Cultural Object?

There are no pedagogical assignments or approaches for this author.


Declaration of Independence
A article by Oates on Jane Eyre.

Celestial Timepiece
An extensive resource on Oates including a biography, images, a discussion group, and much more.

Joyce Carol Oates reflects on writing
An article from the Yale Daily News.

New York State Writers Institute
A short biography and introduction to Oates, with a link to a reading in audio format.

New York Times Featured Author
A compilation of all NY Times pieces on Oates, including some interviews in audio format.

Secondary Sources