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Mar. 6, 2013

Vol. 113, No. 8

Campus Notebook

Acclaimed author Oates to retire from University

By Jennifer Altmann
Published in the March 6, 2013, issue

Oates says her new novel explores “a ­completely ­oblivious, blind, self-satisfied and self-congratulatory, white, Protestant, affluent society and community, which was ­Princeton at that time [1905].”
Oates says her new novel explores “a ­completely ­oblivious, blind, self-satisfied and self-congratulatory, white, Protestant, affluent society and community, which was ­Princeton at that time [1905].”

This is a corrected version of an article published in the March 6, 2013, issue. The correction appears at the end of the story.

Joyce Carol Oates, one of the country’s most famous ­living novelists, will retire after 36 years as a professor in Princeton’s creative writing program, teaching her final writing seminar in the fall of 2014.

Oates, 74, the Roger Berlind ’52 Professor of the Humanities, said she reluctantly accepted a retirement package that encourages senior faculty to phase out their teaching with three years of half-time work before leaving. She is teaching this semester at the University of California, Berkeley. Before she departs, she is publishing a novel set at Princeton — a supernatural journey through the ivory tower, called The Accursed, which comes out in March.

The novel is the latest installment in Oates’ astounding volume of work — more than 50 novels; 36 collections of short stories; three dozen children’s books, plays, volumes of poetry, and nonfiction books; and even the libretto for an opera. She also is a legend in the classroom, with many of Princeton’s young writers clamoring to study with her.

Elise Backman ’15 got in line outside New South at 5 a.m. one day last spring to land one of the 10 spots in Oates’ creative writing seminar. Students say her feedback can be blunt. Alex Gansa ’84, co-creator of the TV show Homeland, told The Daily Princetonian he recalled Oates reading the first 11 pages of his thesis project, a novel, and telling him, “Well, this isn’t very good, is it?” She also can be devoted, reading drafts of Jonathan Safran Foer ’99’s thesis project every two weeks until the novel — later published as Everything is Illuminated — was finished, Foer told The Guardian of London.

In class, Oates is funny and inquisitive about her students’ lives, a contrast to her sometimes-frosty demeanor at the many talks and book signings she does. She can be freewheeling, recently launching a Twitter account from which she sends out witty observations several times a day.

Her 19th-century work ethic, as many have dubbed it, may come from her hardscrabble childhood on a farm in upstate New York, where Oates attended a one-room schoolhouse and went to Syracuse University on a scholarship. Starting in high school, she began “consciously training myself by writing novel after novel and always throwing them out when I completed them,” she told PAW in 1979. Her first novel, With Shuddering Fall, was published when she was 26, and a National Book Award for them came just six years later. In the following decades, the response to her work often seesawed between high praise and disdain.

The Accursed is an anomaly, a book 30 years in the making. Oates wrote the original manuscript in the early 1980s and has been revising it ever since. It required extensive research on the era of Woodrow Wilson 1879, which she did herself. “I’ve never had a research assistant,” she noted.

The novel begins in the summer of 1905, when strange things are happening. A girls’ school is overrun by snakes, and a Princeton student is found dead with bite marks on his throat, his body drained of blood. A curse is afflicting the town’s most prominent citizens: Wilson, the University president, who resorts to a Ouija board to learn the future; Grover Cleveland, retired to Princeton from the White House, who collapses after seeing a ghost; and a philosophy professor who is urged by Sherlock Holmes to murder his infant son because he is the demon’s spawn.

Oates in 1978, the year she began teaching at Princeton.
Oates in 1978, the year she began teaching at Princeton.

During her 50-year writing career, Oates has embraced a range of styles and subjects, from sweeping family sagas to fictional treatments of historical figures to gothic novels such as The Accursed, which Publishers Weekly called a stew of “vampires, demons, angels, murder, lynching, beatings, rape, sex, parallel worlds, Antarctic voyages, socialism, sexism, racism, paranoia, ­gossip, spiritualism, and escalating insanity.” Though considered a literary novelist — and frequently mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in ­literature — Oates has produced many works in the suspense and horror ­genres and received the Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Horror Writers Association.

Oates said her new novel is an exploration of “a completely oblivious, blind, self-satisfied and self-congratulatory, white, Protestant, affluent society and community, which was Princeton at that time.” Wilson congratulates himself for inviting Booker T. Washington to lunch at Prospect House, and deems it audacious of Paul Robeson’s father to ask that Wilson admit his son to the University (which he refuses to do). He laughs at the “ridiculous notion” that blacks and women ever will attend Princeton. (It is true that Wilson invited Washington to his inaugural in 1902. As for Robeson, he was 7 years old in 1905, the year The Accursed takes place.)

Supernatural forces unleashed on the rich, white Princetonians are retribution for their bigotry. “I hope it’s an entertaining novel, and that these deeper themes will come up in a subtle way,” Oates said.

Princeton has not figured prominently in Oates’ work, though she has lived there since 1978. She and her first husband, Raymond Smith, together ran the literary magazine Ontario Review until his death in 2008, which she chronicled in her memoir A Widow’s Story. A year later, she ­married Charles Gross, a Princeton ­professor of psychology.

If there is a silver lining to her retirement, it may be that she will have even more time for her writing.

“She lives to write,” said Daniel Halpern, a longtime friend who has been her editor at Ecco Press since 1999. Halpern can’t envision that Oates ever would retire from writing in the manner of Philip Roth, who recently announced that he had stopped practicing his craft at 77. “If you took that away, she’d be lost. She would never stop.”

For the record

Professor Joyce Carol Oates will teach her last class at Princeton in the fall of 2014 and retire the following July. A March 6 Campus Notebook story included an incorrect date that was provided to PAW.

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11 Responses to Acclaimed author Oates to retire from University

Eliz Lippincott '82 Says:

2013-02-25 13:10:52

Loved it.

Joyce Carol Oates Says:

2013-02-27 12:13:11

Like a shard of glass hidden in innocent-appearing food, the insulting and (I think) altogether inaccurate "sometimes-frosty demeanor" quite spoiled this article for me. Unlike other authors whom I know, I make it a point to personalize books, and I am genuinely interested in talking with people. I feel both misrepresented and betrayed by Jennifer Altmann, and am quite baffled why she couldn't resist this gratuitous little dig in an otherwise straightforward and non-judgmental article.

Charles Gross Says:

2013-02-27 12:13:58

I often hang out when Joyce signs books and she spends time warmly engaging each person, talking about their interests and background and how they would like the book or books inscribed; certainly never “frosty.”

Susan Wolfson Says:

2013-02-27 12:15:09

I've written separately to the editor. Here is my letter: I hope you noticed the word "reluctantly" in the first sentence of J.A.'s news item on the retirement of my colleague and friend of thirty years, Joyce Carol Oates, from her cherished position in the Creative Writing Program. Cherished, yes, by the program itself, but most especially cherished by Professor Oates, an internationally admired novelist who has cherished her students here, and is famous for her amity and lack of the kind of attitude that many of her celebrity-status frequently demonstrate. So I was shocked by a report of "her sometimes-frosty demeanor at the many talks and book signings she does." I've seen and enjoyed Joyce Carol Oates at many a campus reading, including ones beyond Princeton, and she is notable for exactly the opposite of J.A.'s peculiar report. She has been unfailingly warm, often in good-humored (sometimes wry) conversation with the audience long after many others of her fame would have left the stage -- an affability that continues in the more casual mixers after. She is even this way when we've been out in public together, and people approach our dinner table, or a movie line, to say hello and offer appreciation for her work. She is always polite and friendly. When she was a celebrity guest at Rutgers, everyone remembered her not only for this congeniality, but also for meeting separately with Rutgers undergraduates who wanted to converse with her about the process of writing. She often (often!) has given free readings for nonprofit groups, in which she is just as friendly and conversible. It may be that J.A. has her own contrary evidence, but to report this as a recognizable persona is so unfair and uncharacteristic of Joyce Carol Oates; it seems even gratuitously hurtful of someone who has been nothing but generous in her three and a half decades at Princeton -- not just to the lucky students in her seminar, but to the Princeton community, and to New Jersey communities beyond. This is also someone who is so ethically and professionally available to civic groups and reading clubs in very remote, often bleak locations around the country, that she takes more than a few trips for such visits each year --a nd those audiences have been thrilled by her accessibility, as many a local newspaper account can demonstrate. I hope that J.A.'s insult does not compromise "reluctantly" as Joyce Carol Oates' wistful mood of departure (surely those with agency in the matter might note this and do something about it), but it would be understandable if J.A.'s widely published remark made her less reluctant after all. Some thanks for 30 years! I think both J.A. and the editor of PAW owe Joyce Carol Oates, and more to the point, the Princeton University alumnae/alumni community, an apology for this remark.

Barry V. Qualls Says:

2013-02-27 12:22:03

Joyce Carol Oates: "her sometimes-frosty demeanor at the many talks and book signings she does"? Can you have actually seen Joyce Oates at readings and book signings? I have seen her in talks from Shrewsbury, N.J., to Santa Fe, N.M., and at Rutgers (at least twice). I marveled at the generosity of attention she gave to those in the audience who had come -- many from long distances -- to hear and meet her. Her genuine warmth was always in evidence -- and especially in the interest she takes in younger members of the audience. Whatever characterizations apply to Joyce Carol Oates, "sometimes-frosty demeanor" toward the public will never be one of them. Princeton and New Jersey, not to mention the nation, are in her debt for novels that have chronicled the ways we live.

Joyce Carol Oates Says:

2013-03-11 17:08:36

Please note another small error here: I am scheduled to retire in July 2015, not earlier as this article suggests.

Leanne Bateman Says:

2013-03-28 12:44:19

I had the great privilege to meet Joyce Carol Oates last night in Boston, who I have been reading since my mother first introduced her to me 30 years ago. She has been my favorite author since the very first book. Now 48, it has been a dream of mine to meet this woman, whose influence on me has been profound throughout my adult life and my own writing. And while I had no idea what she would be like in person (how could one guess given the immense variety of her work?), I was astonished at how warm and accessible she is, and how personable to her readers. I actually had tears in my eyes walking away after she signed my book with a "Happy Birthday" to my beloved mother, who is the same age as Ms. Oates and possesses the same impeccable artistry, just in painting instead of writing. I know "frosty" and Ms. Oates does not have a frosty cell in her body, not a one. I only hope that she returns to the Boston area more often, perhaps even to teach a semester here. (Please!) It has also been a dream of mine to take a course with her, so I would be the first to enroll. Until then, I hope Jennifer Altmann gets to know Ms. Oates a bit better, so as to not so blatently confuse her for someone else again.

Jim Kenny Says:

2013-04-26 10:44:26

Oh boy! Give us and the poor author of the great little piece on J.C.O. a break! I've never had the good fortune of seeing or hearing her live, but I would say she comes off just a teeny, weeny, tiny bit frosty in an interview on, say, NPR. Loosen up, y'all! And to dear J.C.O.: That kind of prickly reaction can lead to bizarre feelings of accursedness ...

Sarah Bice Says:

2014-04-08 10:38:39

In 2012, I listened to Joyce Carol Oates at an interview talk at the Portland Art Museum in Portland, Ore., where I sat in the third row from the stage. She was incredible down-to-earth, witty, and warm. A well-adjusted genius with a wonderful personality, from what I've gathered. Princeton has been lucky to have her all these years. Too bad the article misstated a couple facts about her.

Barbara Wright Says:

2014-06-25 12:50:10

I hope to have the opportunity in the future to meet Ms. Oates and go to one of her readings/lectures. She is an amazing writer. I just finished "Widow" and felt like she and I shared the same experience. My admiration for her is heartfelt. The students of Princeton will be losing a fabulous teacher in 2015!

Kathryn Newsome-Herr p'17 Says:

2014-11-10 10:57:32

I just attended the four-hour homage to Joyce Carol Oates on campus this past Friday; I had to leave briefly and when I returned was disappointed to find that she was on her way out and I had just missed the book signing. Much to my delight, she stopped in her tracks at my faltering request to sign "The Accursed," despite the fact that she was on the way to the dinner in her honor and had been in a panel format for the better part of the afternoon. She personalized my book and took the time to engage me in conversation before she was pulled away; I was struck by the generosity of spirit she demonstrated at the end of a long day.
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