In Rough Country: Essays and Reviews

Overview

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 ...

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In Rough Country: Essays and Reviews

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

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
The Barnes & Noble Review

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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061963988
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 6/29/2010
  • Pages: 396
  • Product dimensions: 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, and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She has written some of the most enduring fiction of our time, including We Were the Mulvaneys; Blonde, which was nominated for the National Book Award; and the New York Times bestseller The Accursed. 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.

Biography

Joyce Carol Oates is one of the most influential and important storytellers in the literary world. She has often used her supreme narrative skills to examine the dark side of middle-class Americana, and her oeuvre includes some of the finest examples of modern essays, plays, criticism, and fiction from a vast array of genres. She is still publishing with a speed and consistency of quality nearly unheard of in contemporary literature.

A born storyteller, Oates has been spinning yarns since she was a little girl too young to even write. Instead, she would communicate her stories through drawings and paintings. When she received her very first typewriter at the age of 14, her creative floodgates opened with a torrent. She says she wrote "novel after novel" throughout high school and college -- a prolificacy that has continued unabated throughout a professional career that began in 1963 with her first short story collection, By the North Gate.

Oates's breakthrough occurred in 1969 with the publication of them, a National Book Award winner that established her as a force to be reckoned with. Since that auspicious beginning, she has been nominated for nearly every major literary honor -- from the PEN/Faulkner Award to the Pulitzer Prize -- and her fiction turns up with regularity on The New York Times annual list of Notable Books.

On average Oates publishes at least one novel, essay anthology, or story collection a year (during the 1970s, she produced at the astonishing rate of two or three books a year!). And although her fiction often exposes the darker side of America's brightest facades – familial unrest, sexual violence, the death of innocence – she has also made successful forays into Gothic novels, suspense, fantasy, and children's literature. As novelist John Barth once remarked, "Joyce Carol Oates writes all over the aesthetical map."

Where she finds the time for it no one knows, but Oates manages to combine her ambitious, prolific writing career with teaching: first at the University of Windsor in Canada, then (from 1978 on), at Princeton University in New Jersey. For all her success and fame, her daily routine of teaching and writing has changed very little, and her commitment to literature as a transcendent human activity remains steadfast.

Good To Know

When not writing, Oates likes to take in a fight. "Boxing is a celebration of the lost religion of masculinity all the more trenchant for its being lost," she says in highbrow fashion of the lowbrow sport.

Oates's Black Water, which is a thinly veiled account of Ted Kennedy's car crash in Chappaquiddick, was produced as an opera in the 1990s.

In 2001, Oprah Winfrey selected Oates's novel We Were the Mulvaneys for her Book Club.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Rosamond Smith
    2. Hometown:
      Princeton, New Jersey
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 16, 1938
    2. Place of Birth:
      Lockport, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A., Syracuse University, 1960; M.A., University of Wisconsin, 1961

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Preface: In Rough Country xiii

I Classics 1

A Poe Memoir 3

The Woman in White: Emily Dickinson and Friends 13

Cast a Cold Eye: Jean Stafford 29

The Art of Vengeance: Roald Dahl 45

Revisiting Nabokov's Lolita 63

Shirley Jackson's Witchcraft: We Have Always Lived in the Castle 68

"As You Are Grooved, So You Are Grieved": The Art and the Craft of Bernard Malamud 84

"Large and Startling Figures": The Fiction of Flannery O'Connor 94

Boxing: History, Art, Culture 112

II Contemporaries 131

Remembering John Updike 133

Homer & Langley: E. L. Doctorow 135

In Rough Country I: Cormac McCarthy 144

In Rough Country II: Annie Proulx 180

Enchanted! Salman Rushdie 197

Philip Roth's Tragic Jokes 216

A Photographer's Lives: Annie Leibovitz 226

"The Great Heap of Days": James Salter's Fiction 236

Margaret Atwood's Tales 251

In the Emperor's Dream House: Claire Messud 282

After the Apocalypse: Jim Crace 299

The Story of X: Susanna Moore's In the Cut 310

"It Doesn't Feel Personal": The Poetry of Sharon Olds 320

Too Much Happiness: The Stories of Alice Munro 327

III Nostalgias 343

Nostalgia 1970: City on Fire 345

The Myth of the "American Idea": 2007 351

"Why Is Humanism Not the Preeminent Belief of Humankind?" Address upon Receiving the 2007 Humanist of the Year Award 354

In the Absence of Mentors/Monsters: Notes on Writerly Influences 357

Revisiting Lockport, New York 372

Notes 387

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