Joyce Carol Oates, In Rough Country

American novelist and critic reflects on grief, loss and literature
Joyce Carol Oates

Karen Halt reviews a collection of Joyce Carol Oates' reviews and criticism, In Rough Country, which tackles both classic and contemporary authors:
With the unexpected death of her husband, Raymond Smith, in February 2008, Joyce Carol Oates lost not only her companion of 48 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. [Read the article]

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