Joyce Carol Oates: Artist in Residence is an astute, sympathetic, and thought-provoking study of Oates's novels from her first, With Shuddering Fall (1964), through Marya (1986). Oates is presented as "an artist in residence" at home within the "community of discourse" of the university: "Her work is marked by a hospitality to a multiplicity of disciplinary perspectives and philosophical ideas which she finds around her in her academic residence." At once traditional and innovative, artist and critic, Oates is seen to be "embracing the ambiguities and paradoxes of a complex literary inheritance." Bender finds Oates's work to be demanding, open-ended, revisionist, assimilative, and allusive: it is "part of a larger statement about contemporary American life and letters."
Frequently misread, ignored, underestimated, and castigated, Joyce Carol Oates deserves this penetrating and appreciative reading of her intentions and achievements. Bender shows Oates to be an enormously learned and serious artist of impressive range, subtlety, and achievement, who "provides a new angle of vision about our intellectual heritage and our contemporary cultural disarray." Bender traces Oates's own search for form through various literary mentorships—in which she often infuses "exhausted" conventions with serious intent—to her emerging "feminist" aesthetic akin to the stylistic and mythic tendencies of contemporary women's art. Like other feminist works, some of Oates's more recent novels—A Bloodsmoor Romance, Mysteries of Winterthurn, Solstice, and Marya —can be characterized as "web-like," "inclusive," "antiminimalist, it has the profusion of collage." They are Oates's insightful and often disturbing representations of "women's place" within patriarchal society and within repressed and self-victimized "communities of women." Her work appears to be opening out to "the terrifying but tantalizing revisionary challenges posed by a woman's unfinished text."
This book makes a considerable contribution to the scholarship of this important and surprisingly understudied writer. It is, in fact, the first book to be published on Oates since the spate of critical studies during 1978-80 (Grant, Waller, Creighton, Friedman, Wagner), and thus the only extended study of nine of the later novels, including some of Oates's most innovative and complex works. Bender's most significant contributions, I think, are to place Oates within two important contextual residencies: the academic and the feminist, and to accept her work on her own terms: "a kind of massive, joyful experiment done with words . . . submitted to one's peers for judgment." Bender does not do what so many others have done: judge harshly. The one weakness of the book—perhaps unavoidable given the scope of material to be covered—is that the analysis is suggestive, impressionistic, and rushed. Bender is more concerned with broadly placing Oates than she is with extended literary analysis. Her ability to place Oates [End Page 254] is sure, however, and thus her groundbreaking study offers some credible hypotheses to be tested in the undeveloped canon of serious scholarship on the work of Joyce Carol Oates.
Sanford Pinsker's The Uncompromising Fictions of Cynthia Ozick places a much different kind of writer in residence. Cynthia Ozick for Pinsker is above all a Jewish-American writer who "has radically changed the way we define Jewish-American writing and more important, the way Jewish-American writing defines itself." Seeing Ozick as an uncompromising, self-confessed "autodidact," he argues that she "forces her readers to become something of the same thing, lest they miss the enormous cultural forces that bubble just beneath the surface of even her most 'realistic' fictions." She does not shy away from the Holocaust, "as moral imperative, as Burden-of-History, as a confrontation between survivor and American Jew"; she is able to see ultra-Orthodox Jewry in realistic rather than in symbolic configurations. And whereas this insistence on Jewish-American residency "ought" to make her a writer of limited appeal, the opposite has occurred: her influence and reputation are considerable for a writer who has published just two novels...