I enjoy reading Joyce Carol Oates. JCO is very prolific, both in titles and in pages which sometimes makes it difficult to pick out a JCO novel to read. The other problem interfering with a consistent and detailed study of JCO’s writing is that despite being highly entertaining, it tends to lack any lasting substance.
But not being the new Dostoevsky or Proust perhaps misses the point of JCO’s writing. Let’s face it, Joyce Carol Oates is an excellent story teller and a master of narrative fiction.
My most recent Oates’ novel was an older one: We Are the Mulvaneys. This is the story of a solid rural family with an older son winning trophies in football, a highly intellectual middle son steeped in science, a sweet young daughter, and a youngest son who for the most part narrates the family story. Mom is a wonderful homemaker and Dad owns a successful business.
Like most narratives of this kind, the tragic destruction of the family is built up rapidly with a rape, alcoholism , violence, and bankruptcy. Yet at the end, all of the tragedy is behind them and at a party the mother is reunited with her various children. The children are all successful, but not in the ways they expected to be when they were young. The final message, I guess is: You’ve gotta go through stuff like this to get to where you are now. Or perhaps: It’ll all work out for the better.
Despite enjoying reading We Are the Mulvaneys, I began to see a version of the old creative writing school checklist for the successful novel. One by one the recommended conflicts are worked into the narrative.
As an way of seeing this, I go all the way back to writing my early theme papers in High School (earlier?). We were taught to do research in the library, writing down salient points on 3 by 5 cards and then turning the cards into an outline; fleshing out the sentences and paragraphs; and letting the paper pretty much write itself. Although this method did stir up the mushy brain-cells the average High School scholar, but it also tacitly encouraged a shadow form of plagiarism..
Some writers who generate fiction from 3 by 5 cards or today’s computerized outlines also maintain files of prose describing people, events, or places. Then it is simple to paste them into the outline of their next novel. I know of authors that apparently do this. Some hack writers have been exposed writing the same novel over and over, changing the names here and there to fit the narrative into a different place at a different time. I’m sure you have seen computer programs that expedite this process.
Is Joyce Carol Oates’ fiction formulaic?
I doubt it, despite getting just that impression from We Are the Mulvaneys. It’s far more likely that Oates carries a wealth of observations and thoughts around in her brain and she is able to quickly structure and develop even a very complex narrative without too much effort. If you consider the vast array of short stories Oates has published, you can see how her mind might generate imaginative narratives that at times stand alone as a short story and at other times fits into the structure of a more demanding novel.
All in all, Joyce Carol Oates is an impressive and entertaining author.