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Joyce Carol Oates' widowhood with literature

July 21, 2010 |  4:11 pm

Inroughcountry For those who are attempting, however fruitlessly, to read everything written by the prolific Joyce Carol Oates, there's another paperback to add to the to-be-read pile. "In Rough Country," released at the end of June, has 29 essays and book reviews, 13 of which were originally published in the New York Review of Books. The others were scattered among a few modest publications -- the Atlantic, The New Yorker, Vogue.

The essays focus primarily on literature and writing -- not Oates' own (substantial) bibliography but that of other, mostly contemporary, authors. She tackles the "treacherous geographical/psychological terrains" of Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx, Flannery O'Connor and Shirley Jackson. And she went to them, she explains in a preface, after her husband's unexpected death in February 2008. They had been married 48 years.

This is, then, Oates' year of magical thinking, filtered through the ingestion of literature. A lifelong writer, she was thrown off guard by the loss of Raymond Smith in ways she might not have imagined. She writes:

I could compose short stories -- slowly and painstakingly -- with perhaps one-tenth of the efficiency I'd formerly taken for granted....but I have not been able to imagine anything so ambitious as a novel, even a short novel. Like a person whose vision has become blurred following a blow to the head, I can't seem to see beyond the relatively brief span of the short story.

While others might not have been able to write at all, Oates found reading and thinking and writing about  literature "a solace." And as an indication of how much working on the essays in this book helped her process her grief, Oates remarried in 2009.

"Sourland," a collection of her short stories, is due out this September.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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