Joyce Carol Oates is one of the most celebrated and debated living American writers. Over the course of seven decades, Oates has published nearly 60 novels, a slew of short stories, plays, essays, and poetry. What’s most remarkable about her work is how she embraces the dramatic and the embarrassing. Her characters are never cool. They never sit back and observe with a wry comment–they dive in with pounding hearts and singing blood. She explores and celebrates disaster as not just an inciting incident but as a fundamental aspect of existence. If you’re looking to explore her extensive bibliography, we’re here to suggest the 10 best Joyce Carol Oates books.
Oates’ 1969 novel them won the National Book Award. It’s part of her unofficial Wonderland Quartet of novels. Based on a real family, this multi-generational story of struggle, ambition, and the hard limits of class and money in America remains one of her most popular books. Beginning in the 1930s, the story tracks Loretta Wendall and her children through their lives until the late 1960s. A slow-motion tragedy, the novel combines keen observation with realistic language to create a world that feels real and consequential. At the same time, the depiction of the struggles of the working class forces the reader to question the truth of the American Dream.
This collection of short stories taken from every stage of Oates’ career contains the all-time classic Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been. Unsettling and open to interpretation, that story of a teenage girl and the subtly menacing, eternally patient older man who slowly wears her down is worth the price of admission by itself. But many of the other stories in High Lonesome are short masterpieces. Oates explores the violence inherent in love and relationships, the appeal of religion and worship, and the tangled webs of sibling relationships among many other themes in stories that cross genres.
Oates’s supernatural ability to X-ray modern American life is on vibrant display in her 1996 novel. In the mid-1970s, Michael and Corinne Mulvaney, their sons Mike Jr., Patrick, and Judd and their popular daughter Marianne, are wealthy and happy. Obsessed with their social status, their lives seem idyllic and their futures assured. When Marianne is sexually assaulted, the violent moment pulls on the thread holding the Mulvaneys together, and a downward spiral ensues. In We Were The Mulvaneys, Oates picks away the pretensions of wealth and status, revealing them to be meaningless superficialities that do nothing to insulate the family from grief and their own flaws.
Oates’ second novel, the first in her unofficial Wonderland Quartet, is widely regarded as a classic. A Garden of Earthly Delights is the story of the beautiful, dirt-poor Clara Walpole as she struggles for a better, more independent life but continuously finds herself bound to lesser men. Even at this early stage of her career, Oates was a master of the human condition. Her characters pulse with energy and self-destructive desires that make them compellingly readable even when you can clearly see where their paths are taking them. This is in some ways like two books in one; Oates revised the novel heavily in 2003, and the resulting edition has a distinctive feel even as it tells the same story, making it worthwhile to read both and compare.
As Oates matured as a writer, she expanded her themes beyond just the struggles of the poor and excluded in our society. The main characters in Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart, talented Black athlete Jinx and beautiful, blonde-haired Iris are as trapped by their circumstances as every Oates character seems to be. But there’s more subtlety as to the forces that slowly constrict and choke them than in Oates’s early work. When a corpse is fished out of the river in their upstate New York town, Iris and Jinx’s already-forbidden love draws them into racial violence. Slowly, inexorably, they are both pushed down dark and twisting paths.
Much of Joyce Carol Oates’ work exists in a timeless, mid-century bubble as she explores the ways the American Dream has soured. Her short story collection Lovely, Dark, Deep (a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction) looks to death, ruminating on mortality across 12 stories and a novella. These stories feature characters whose existences unravel in different ways. The best is the novella, an instant classic featuring an aging Nobel Prize-winning writer whose daughter attends to his every whim. When the aging literary lion meets a much younger woman, Oates’ dark, sardonic sense of humor leaps off the page like electricity.
7. The Falls
Oates’ 2004 novel once again traces the seemingly inevitable ruin of just about everyone involved. Aside from the terrific, exciting prose, what sets this novel apart is the non-inevitability of that ruin. When Ariah’s new husband commits suicide on their wedding night, she believes she’s cursed. When life brings her a second chance at happiness in the form of cheerful, wealthy Dirk Burnaby, she is initially ecstatic. But she can’t trust her good fortune. Over time, her conviction that she’s doomed poisons everything around her, and her well-meaning husband does his own part to assist. Brisk and clever, The Falls is one of her most readable and most fun novels despite its darkness.
Hands down, the opening of this novel is the best writing Oates has ever done. Even if the rest of Wonderland (the fourth and final entry in her unofficial Wonderland Quartet) was a disappointment, it would be worth reading for the sequence where young Jesse Vogel flees into the woods as his father is busy killing the rest of his family—and then himself. Oates then follows Jesse as he grows up during the 1930s and 1940s as an adopted refugee from horror. He’s always fleeing from his father on that terrible night, and the event soaks into everything Jesse does. This is a dark and beautiful investigation into the power of trauma.
Part biography, part fiction, Oates tells the story of Marilyn Monroe with no concern for reality in Blonde. What she is concerned with, as always, is the inevitability of a character’s destruction. That makes Monroe an ideal subject for her, and she fully inhabits a version of the famous actress that is frustratingly mercurial and totally fascinating. Using initials and euphemisms for some of the other celebrities in the story might seem like a cheap trick at first, but the decision heightens the sense of paranoid terror that animates Marilyn. Abused and gaslighted almost from birth, not even her fame and wealth can save her. The result is some of Oates’ best work.
10. Black Water
The theme of mid-century decline is always pulsing through Oates’ work. In Black Water, she retells the tragedy and scandal of Chappaquiddick through a fictional lens. Elizabeth “Kelly” Kelleher is pretty, smart, and tentative. When she meets a charismatic, middle-aged senator at a party, she convinces herself her political hero has chosen her. She allows herself to be seduced, imagining she is finally being marked out as special. When the tragic end comes, Oates’s fierce prose makes you feel the unfairness of it almost viscerally. Kelly is a woman who trusts someone she shouldn’t, a woman whose passivity is punished, and a character you will remember.