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In Rough Country: Essays and Reviews
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In Rough Country: Essays and Reviews

by Joyce Carol Oates

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In twenty-nine provocative essays, Joyce Carol Oates maps the "rough country" that is both the treacherous geographical and psychological terrain of the writers she so cogently analyzes-Flannery O'Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth, E.L. Doctorow, and Margaret Atwood, among others-and the emotional terrain of Oates's own life following the unexpected death of her


In twenty-nine provocative essays, Joyce Carol Oates maps the "rough country" that is both the treacherous geographical and psychological terrain of the writers she so cogently analyzes-Flannery O'Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth, E.L. Doctorow, and Margaret Atwood, among others-and the emotional terrain of Oates's own life following the unexpected death of her husband, Raymond Smith, after forty-eight years of marriage.

"As literature is a traditional solace to the bereft, so writing about literature can be a solace, as it was to me when the effort of writing fiction seemed beyond me, as if belonging to another lifetime," Oates writes. "Reading and taking notes, especially late at night when I can't sleep, has been the solace, for me, that saying the Rosary or reading The Book of Common Prayer might be for another." The results of those meditations are the essays of In Rough Country-balanced and illuminating investigations that demonstrate an artist working at the top of her form.

Editorial Reviews

With the unexpected death of her husband, Raymond Smith, in February 2008, Joyce Carol Oates lost not only her companion of forty-eight years, but also, for a time, an entire register of her authorial voice. She couldn't write novels. The author whose prodigious output of fiction is the stuff of literary legend had barely the energy to compose a short story. She took solace in writing about literature, filling the sleepless hours with reading and taking notes.


Thus the double meaning of her collection of previously published literary essays and reviews, In Rough Country. "It refers to both the treacherous geographic/psychological terrains of the writers who are my subjects. And also the emotional terrain of my life," she writes in the preface. It's an especially evocative parallel when you consider a pair of essays in the collection also titled "In Rough Country" (set apart from each other with Roman numerals). In the first, she examines the ecstatic violence of Cormac McCarthy's work, in the second the brutal naturalism of Annie Proulx's fiction. Rough country indeed.


Oates writes movingly in the preface about her dual identity in those months immediately after Smith's death - by day, a pitied widow, by night an avid reader. It's a fascinating chapter, poignant, intimate and frustratingly brief. She concludes it, "Ideas, literature, art remain after much else falters and falls away." In other words - enough about me, let's talk about books.


From there, the collection divides into "Classics," in which she writes about authors including Edgar Allen Poe, Roald Dahl and Emily Dickinson; and "Contemporaries," in which she focuses on her peers. A final, much shorter, section titled "Nostalgias" includes reflections on her own life as a writer, none of which are as revealing as those opening pages. The essays, many of which appeared originally in the New York Review of Books, are an eclectic mix, divergent in both scope and quality.


Oates is at her best when writing about McCarthy and Proulx. She dives into McCarthy's all-male world of psychopaths and savages and comes up gasping in astonishment at his lyricism and emotional range. About the horrifically bleak landscape of his post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, she writes, "This monochromatic vision would be unbearable except for McCarthy's beautifully rendered 'poetic' prose. Here is an incantatory voice that makes of devastation - doom itself - something rich and strange."


Equally passionate about Proulx, Oates lauds her understated precision and flashes of irony. While Proulx's characters have more to fear from harsh weather, unruly beasts and freak accidents than from the type of outlaws and sadists who populate McCarthy's fiction, Oates draws comparisons between the two Western writers, illuminating the brilliance with which they both turn cruelty (of men or of fate) into a kind of beauty.


But Oates's most extravagant praise goes to Sharon Olds, our guide through the rough terrain of family life and erotic love. "Sharon Olds is a natural mythographer - all that falls within her scrutiny, all that she sees with her finely wrought poet-eye is myth, fairy tale, legend even as, for Olds, it is utterly domestic, ordinary."


Considerable space goes to reprinting a letter Olds sent in 2005 to then-first lady Laura Bush declining an invitation to the National Book Festival because of the poet's objection to the Iraq War. Wisely, Oates says little about the missive, letting it stand on its own. It starts out conventionally enough, but by the final lines reads like a prose poem:


"...anguish and shame for the current regime of blood, wounds and fire. I thought of the clean linens at your table, the shining knives and the flames of the candles, and I could not stomach it."


As in any collection, the pieces are uneven. In the weakest, "Revisiting Nabokov's Lolita," Oates points out the obvious - that far more people have an opinion about the book than have actually read it and that, despite its salacious subject matter, it makes lousy porn. Her dissection of Humbert Humbert's sexual obsession doesn't seem wrong, just unsurprising.


But taken as a whole, this collection is a rich gathering of insights from a mind consecrated to books - both as a writer, and as a reader. Oates admits that her natural inclination is, "to wish not to publicly criticize any work of art" out of respect for the difficulty of the creative process. When she must say something negative, she clearly doesn't enjoy it. In an overall uncomplimentary review of Susanna Moore's In the Cut, she finds praise-worthy details, such as a "flair for witty, understated irony," and invests a great deal of ink reminding us of Moore's better work.


Oates has no taste for attacking other writers. The terrain is already rough enough.

--Karen Holt

Publishers Weekly
A bad joke says writing is easy if you don't know how to do it. This collection is a personal appreciation and piercing analysis of those who do it sublimely: Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Jean Stafford, Roald Dahl (considered in his adult work), Shirley Jackson, Flannery O'Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth, Claire Messud, and others. Oates is drawn to writers and themes that inform her own work, such as the gothic, the satiric, feminist theory, and a humanist bent that seems to have gone out of fashion. Readers of the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, or TLS will be familiar with these essays (though sometimes in different form or with different titles), divided into three parts—“Classics,” “Contemporaries,” and “Nostalgias.” Some essays—on the smothered brothers, Homer and Langley Collyer; on boxing; on Annie Leibovitz—are not strictly literary. In the Nostalgias section, Oates skewers American jingoism, notes the influence of Lewis Carroll on childhood, and returns to her source, Lockport, N.Y. Oates attributes the book's existence to the death of her husband of 48 years (reading gave shape to her “uncharted life as a widow”), but it is inspired as much by the subjects Oates so astutely describes. (June 29)
New York Times Book Review
“Oates writes like a woman who walks into rough country and doesn’t look back...long sentences unfold with great beauty, and [Oates’s] line of argument follows not an artificial arc but the natural course of thought.”
Kirkus Reviews
A poignant, nostalgic collection of literary criticism by one of America's premier authors, gathered in the aftermath of her husband's recent death. After 48 years of marriage, the author's husband, Ontario Review founder and editor Raymond Smith, died unexpectedly in February 2008. In a remarkably forthright and moving preface, Oates (A Fair Maiden, 2010, etc.) explains the emotionally fraught "rough terrain" from which many of these essays derived. For example, because she was working on "Boxing: History, Art, Culture" when her husband passed away, she could return to the essay "only sporadically, with a residual sort of excitement, as there might be observed, in the waning light of the iris of the eye of a decapitated beast." In these selections, divided into "Classics" (e.g., Poe, Dickinson, Malamud), "Contemporaries" (Updike, Doctorow, Rushdie, Atwood) and "Nostalgias" ("Nostalgia 1970: City on Fire"), the author effectively combines her highly tuned sensibilities, sharp research and concise, vivid prose. As a fiction writer of the highest order, Oates shares her subjects' writerly obsessions with mortality, loss and death. She recalls, for example, the oeuvre of Poe and its effect on her own early work, and of Emily Dickinson, who offered a "fusion of female stoicism and pragmatism." The author writes that Annie Leibovitz's recent book of photographs containing excruciating shots of her dying friend Susan Sontag has the "heft and intransigence of a grave marker." She admires the work of James Salter, whose heroines are "women in extremis, for whom all pretense has vanished," and the poetry of Sharon Olds for that "something subversive, even mutinous in the poet's unflinching child-eye." Always a teacher, Oates imbues each essay with a careful sifting of the evidence and consistently acute observations. A top-notch literary talent invites readers to find new inspiration in these works, and in her own.
Louisa Thomas
Oates's prose can be demanding, with her proclivity for slashes ("public/professional"; "celebrated/controversial"), long block quotes and list-making…Yet her writing is often exquisite. Long sentences unfold with great beauty, and her lines of argument follow not an artificial arc but the natural course of thought…Oates seems to take special, even unusual, pains not to bend her subjects into her own narrative. She is, instead, intensely focused on the books at hand, marking highlights, supplying context, guiding the reader through passage after passage. Her attention, even in a critic's mode, is unfailingly generous.
—The New York Times

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HarperCollins Publishers
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5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)

Meet the Author

Joyce Carol Oates is a recipient of the National Medal of Humanities, the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Book Award, and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction. She is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978.

Brief Biography

Princeton, New Jersey
Date of Birth:
June 16, 1938
Place of Birth:
Lockport, New York
B.A., Syracuse University, 1960; M.A., University of Wisconsin, 1961

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