“Miss Oates Loves to Splash Blood On Us” sniffed the headline of Geoffrey Wolfe’s New York Times review of Joyce Carol Oates’ 1971 novel Wonderland. It’s hard to imagine so curt yet quailing a dismissal atop a Times consideration of the other major novelists of her day, something like “Mr. Updike Lives to Compare Vulvae to Flowers.” But there it is, one of the earliest instances of book critics giving Oates the shaking-their-damn-heads treatment, a response best exemplified by “Stop Me Before I Write Again,” James Wolcott’s 1982 Harper’s attack. The question such pieces ask, year after year: Why does this woman believe that her splashing of blood is literature?
That headline was pulled from the text of Wolfe’s piece, which is often admiring of Oates. “We may expect more brilliant work from her,” Wolfe concludes. “Wonderland is merely a bad, a very bad, single performance.” He was wrong in one key way: The book was no one-off. Wonderland is a brutal, transitional work, a case study of murder and madness told through squalling interiority. In it Oates situates you inside the most troubled minds that she can imagine, the stream of consciousness a gusher along the lines of those elevators in The Shining. In the years since, this has become something of her signature mode, especially in her novels, which often howl with the thoughts of women and men either building toward acts of violence or attempting to live after surviving such acts.
Critics have been right to point out that some of the books feel the same, that her preoccupations are horrific, that her characters can appear like re-named versions of previous crack-ups and grotesques. But time has proven her interests prescient. It’s not Oates who splashes blood on us, it’s America.
Read more at Chicago Review of Books.