There are very few writers as prolific as Joyce Carol Oates, and even fewer who are able to maintain a high level or literary quality like Oates can. Since her first novel in 1963, Oates has published 58 novels, as well as numerous collections of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction. She has won a National Book Award, and is a five-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
What distinguishes Oates from other highly-productive writers like Stephen King and James Patterson is that, along with the quality of her writing, she does not work in a single genre. While best known for her literary fiction, Oates has explored numerous other genres, including being one of our best and most unusual horror writers.
With such a daunting body of work, Oates can be intimidating for a reader to crack into. Below, I suggest three books that serve as an overview of what makes Oates so unique, but are also a good primer on where to begin with her oeuvre.
Oates would kick off what would become the most productive period of her career with the release of Blonde in 2000, and the book would go on to become one of her most critically and commercially successful, and a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
A fictional reimagining of the life of Marilyn Monroe, Oates recontextualizes most of what we publically know about Monroe’s life, but through the eyes of Monroe herself. A radicalizing book capable of shifting the reader’s perception of this American icon, illustrating how a patriarchal society chewed her up and spit her out.
Oates herself regards this, as well as her novel them, as her two best works, and it’s easy to see why. At over 700 pages, Blonde isn’t the most approachable book, but it is Oates at the height of her powers.
A Book of American Martyrs
In the early 2000s, Oates was able to reach a new audience when her book We Were the Mulvaneys was selected for Oprah’s Book Club. That epic family saga would become her most popular novel and make her a well-known master of the sprawling family drama. Over 20 years after We Were the Mulvaneys was released, Oates would deliver another supersized family saga, following two families whose lives are entwined after a violent confrontation early in the novel.
Oates has never shied away from controversial topics, and in A Book of American Martyrs she tackles abortion, maybe the most challenging issue in the modern United States. At its core, it is a tale of fathers and daughters, and illustrates the moral complexities behind the issue, never taking the easy route.
It’s an immersive journey, and it proved that over 50 years into her career, Oates is still a master.
You never forget your first, and for some reason I started my Oates journey with this gothic-historical-horror-fantastical-whackdoodle novel. It is one of her most divisive novels, and while I can’t promise it is for everyone, it enraptured me.
Taking place in Princeton, New Jersey in 1905, The Accursed weaves a tale of race and class, bringing in real historical figures like Upton Sinclair and Woodrow Wilson, as well as a powerful curse that is set upon the entire town. This book stretches the limits of what we expect literary fiction to do, fully embracing the supernatural elements, while maintaining its grasp on the socio-political elements that set the story in motion.
If The Accursed does anything, it serves as a prime example of Oates’ ridiculous mastery of storytelling and craft, a showcase for the immensity of her talent. It’s a wild ride from start to finish, and quickly became one of my favorite books.