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One of America's most prolific and intellectually challenging contemporary writers, Joyce Carol Oates has produced an outstanding oeuvre comprised of twenty-three novels, ten volumes of poetry, countless scholarly and journalistic articles, four dramas, and fifteen collections of short fiction. To undertake a critical assessment of this impressive opus, an opus of such variety and shifting complexity, would be a task of Herculean proportions and a task—if undertaken—that would prove to be unwieldy and unmanageable.
In Joyce Carol Oates: The Novels of the Middle Years, Joanne V. Creighton has judiciously restricted her critical focus to fifteen carefully selected novels of the period spanning 1977 to 1990. Serving as a companion to her earlier volume on Oates's fiction originally published in 1979, Creighton has chosen to concentrate on Oates's authorial voice in this latest study, integrating critical analyses with commentary from Oates's own essays.
Creighton's study renders a succinct overview of Oates's personal history, a history which Oates herself was reticent to divulge until recently. (In the Preface, Creighton acknowledges that her study profited from Oates's appraisal of the first draft of this work.) Within her discussion of the author's personal and familial history, Creighton has adeptly interwoven the conceptual and aesthetic contexts of Oates's oeuvre with the autobiographical underpinnings of her fiction. Moving on to four very disparate novels of the early middle years, Son of the Morning, Unholy Loves, Cybele, and Angel of the Light, Creighton surveys how each novel, which she has deemed to be a "romantic quest," has been borne out of the Oatesian theme of the yearning to surmount the confines of the human condition through the redemptive capacity of love. The heart of Creighton's study lies, however, in her analysis of three iconoclastic, novels, Bellefleur, A Bloodsmoor Romance, and Mysteries of Winterthurn. In this particular chapter, Creighton furnishes the student or beginning Oatesian scholar with an intelligent investigation of Oates's exploitation of intertextual prospects emanating from a fertile literary and academic heritage. The discussion of Oates's conflation of ontological levels in the romantic parody A Bloodsmoor Romance offers an astute and valuable reading centered on authorial manipulation of generic conventions and what Creighton has identified as "a witty feminist subtext."
Building on her contention that the novels of the middle years evince a strongly feminist subtext, Creighton cogently argues that the subsequent "realistic" [End Page 950] novels (she chooses to limit her discussion to Solstice, Marya: A Life, and You Must Remember This) explore the dualities of the female self and recapitulate the strategies of escape and liberation germinated in the postmodern, parodic exploitation of the aforementioned radically experimental romances. Consequently, Creighton's expansion of Oates's feminist agenda is one of the finer discussions of the same theme that permeates recent Oates scholarship. The inclusion of a good working bibliography (briefly annotated) rounds off a fine introductory study of the difficult works of Oates's mature period.