Joyce Carol Oates

Known for her productivity, Joyce Carol Oates (1938) has published over 70 novels, poetry collections, and short story collections as well as many essays. She is also a versatile author, having written popular works in several genres. She is known for her depictions of hardship and violence experienced by everyday people. 

Joyce Carol Oates Joyce Carol Oates

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Table of contents

    Joyce Carol Oates: Biography

    Joyce Carol Oates was born in Lockport, New York, on June 16, 1938. Her parents were Carolina Bush and Frederic James Oates. Oates enjoyed a happy, though financially strained, childhood growing up on her family’s farm in Millersport, New York. Oates loved reading from a young age, and her grandmother gave her a copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) which became an early inspiration.

    Joyce Carol Oates was very close to her grandmother Blanche. When Blanche died, Oates was surprised to learn that Blanche had long hidden her Jewish heritage—a revelation that would inspire Oates’s novel The Gravedigger’s Daughter (2007).

    When Joyce Carol Oates was 14 years old, she started writing her own stories, again inspired by a gift from her grandmother—this time a typewriter. Oates attended Williamsville South High School, where she wrote for her school newspaper. She became the first member of her family to graduate high school in 1956.

    Oates received a BA in English From Syracuse University in 1960, and then an MA in 1961 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Oates then enrolled as a Ph.D. student at Rice University; however, she left soon after to focus on writing.

    At Syracuse, Oates was first exposed to works that would be hugely influential on her own career, including those by Flannery O’Connor, D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Mann, and Franz Kafka.

    Adult Life and Career

    Joyce Carol Oates married Raymond J. Smith in 1961. They had met at the University of Wisconsin while they were both graduate students. Oates worked as a professor at the University of Detroit starting in 1962, and in 1963 her first book was published—the short story collection By the North Gate. In 1964, Oates’s first published novel, With Shuddering Fall, was released. She followed it up quickly with “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?????” in 1966, which has remained one of her most popular short works. Her second novel, A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967), is another standout among her works.

    Joyce Carol Oates, a city street in Detroit, StudySmarterFig 1: Oates's time living in Detroit inspired the novel Them.

    Oates moved to Canada and began teaching at the University of Windsor in 1968. Another very famous work by Oates, Them, came out in 1969; it was set in Detroit and inspired by her time living there. In 1974, Oates and her husband created The Ontario Review, a literary magazine. In 1978, she became a writing professor at Princeton University, a position which moved the couple to New Jersey. They created their own independent publishing house in 1980 called Ontario Review Books.

    Joyce Carol Oates continued to produce numerous written works while teaching at Princeton. Some highlights include We Were the Mulvaneys in 1996, Blonde in 2000, and The Gravedigger’s Daughter in 2007. Her works won awards as varied as her writing.

    Joyce Carol Oates has received many award for her writing. Some of her awards are listed here.1

    • The O. Henry Award
    • The National Humanities Medal
    • The Pivano Award
    • The Norman Mailer Prize for Lifetime Achievement
    • The Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award
    • The PEN/Malamud Award
    • The Rae Award for the Short Story
    • The 1970 National Book Award for fiction, for the novel them
    • The Stone Award for Lifetime Literary Achievement
    • The 2019 Jerusalem Prize

    Raymond Smith died in 2008 from pneumonia. Oates was deeply affected by the loss, but happily was able to find love again; in 2009 she married Charles Gross, a Princeton professor. Joyce Carol Oates retired from her job at Princeton University in 2014, but continued publishing more works, including The Book of American Martyrs (2017), Dis mem ber (2017), and Beautiful Days (2018). Gross, her second husband, died in 2019. She continues to write, and currently teaches creative short fiction as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

    Joyce Carol Oates, UC Berkeley campus, StudySmarterFig 2: Today, Joyce Carol Oates works as a visiting professor at UC Berkeley.

    Joyce Carol Oates: Writing Style

    Joyce Carol Oates’s writing is very versatile; she has written in many forms and genres, including poetry, biography, Gothic fiction, and her well-known works that focus on hardships faced by everyday people. Oates’s writing is often ambiguous and violent, creating a realistic view of today’s world and tackling real-world issues like racial tensions.

    Joyce Carol Oates is known to have been inspired by the works of Sylvia Plath. In fact, Oates said that Plath’s book The Bell Jar (1963) is “a near perfect work of art.” Oates herself has been an inspiration for other authors—notably Jonathan Safran Foer. Foer’s interest in writing seriously was sparked when he took a class Oates was teaching at Princeton University. Oates later worked closely with Foer on his creative writing senior thesis. Since then, Foer has published several books, including Everything Is Illuminated (2002), Here I Am (2016), and Eating Animals (2009).

    Another interesting feature of Joyce Carol Oates’s writing career is her use of pen names. After having established herself in the writing community, Oates decided to use a pen name in order to allow some of her new works to be published and read without preconceived ideas of their merit because she was the author. Oates first used the name Rosamond Smith, under which she published several mysteries and suspense novels including Lives of the Twins (1988), Soul/Mate (1989), Snake Eyes (1992), Double Delight (1997). Oates later published three mysteries, Take Me, Take Me with You (2004), The Stolen Heart (2005), Blood Mask, (2006), under the pen name Lauren Kelly.

    Joyce Carol Oates: Books

    With numerous written works to her name, Joyce Carol Oates has several well-known books. Her most famous works include A Garden of Earthly Delight (1967), them (1969), and We Were the Mulvaneys (1996).

    A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967)

    This novel is the story of Clara Walpole, a woman who attempts to get out of the poverty and violence she grew up in. It explores the relationships she has with the various men in her life and the independence she wants to establish.

    them (1969)

    This novel follows three main characters as they reach for their American dream. However, the harsh realities of their lives stand in the way—racial tensions, poverty, and violence. This book was heavily inspired by Oates’s time living and working in Detroit.

    We Were the Mulvaneys (1996)

    This novel relates the story of the Mulvaney family, whose lives seem perfect from the outside. However, the family is torn apart by something that happened—something that was covered up and ignored.

    We Were the Mulvaneys was featured in Oprah’s Book Club in January 2001.

    Other books by Oates include Bellefleur (1980), Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart (1990), Blonde (2000), The Gravedigger’s Daughter (2007), The Book of American Martyrs (2017), Dis mem ber (2017), Beautiful Days (2018), and Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars. (2020).

    Joyce Carol Oates: Poems

    In addition to novels, short stories, and essays, Joyce Carol Oates has written many poems. Her poetry collections include Women In Love and Other Poems (1968), Love and Its Derangements (1970), The Time Traveler (1989), Tenderness (1996), and American Melancholy (2021).

    Joyce Carol Oates: Quotes

    Joyce Carol Oates has written over 70 books during her career, many examining topics like hardship and violence. These themes can be clearly seen in many quotes from her writing.

    And so it became a household of silence as if in the aftermath of a violent detonation.” (We Were the Mulvaneys, ch. 14)

    This quote describes the devastation that begins to befall the Mulvaney family after a hushed-up incident. The novel explores the consequences of the event and keeping it a secret.

    Once you own things you have to be afraid of them. Of losing them.” (A Garden of Earthly Delights, ch. 5)

    This quote is spoken to Clara, who responds that she wouldn’t mind; it illustrates the way that Clara longs to get out of the impoverished life she lives.

    Joyce Carol Oates - Key takeaways

    • Joyce Carol Oates was born in Lockport, New York, on June 16, 1938.
    • Oates is an extremely productive writer, and has produced works in many varied genres including biographies, nonfiction essays, poetry, Gothic fiction, and detective mysteries.
    • One of Joyce Carol Oates’s most famous works is A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967).
    • Oates is noted for her moving depictions of hardships and violence experienced by everyday Americans.
    • Joyce Carol Oates currently teaches creative short fiction as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

    1 “Joyce Carol Oates.” The Kelly Writers House (2010).

    Frequently Asked Questions about Joyce Carol Oates

    What is Joyce Carol Oates known for?

    Joyce Carol Oates is known for being a highly productive and versatile contemporary author, having written popular works in several different genres.

    What happened to Joyce Carol Oates?

    Joyce Carol Oates currently teaches creative short fiction as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

    How old is Joyce Carol Oates?

    Joyce Carol Oates is 83 years old as of 2022.

    Why is Joyce Carol Oates influential?

    Joyce Carol Oates is influential thanks to her extensive and varied contributions to literature. She is especially beloved for her powerful depictions of hardship and violence experienced by everyday people.

    What kind of writer is Joyce Carol Oates?

    Joyce Carol Oates is a very versatile writer; she has produced Gothic fiction, detective mysteries, biographies, nonfiction essays, and more. She is extremely productive, and noted for her depictions of hardship and violence. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following is a famous work by Joyce Carol Oates?

    True or false: Joyce Carol Oates has written only a few works in her lifetime.

    True or false: in addition to writing prolifically, Oates has also taught at several Universities.


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