Throughout her career, Joyce Carol Oates has resisted the urge of others to label her a feminist writer, insisting that she be considered a writer, independent of biological gender. As America’s “chronicler of the middle class,” she has given voice to countless invisible female character types, but this is only one concern among many. Oates is incredibly active, but rather than to actively incite, she uses her prolific pen to create testimonies to contemporary American life, seeking particularly to give voice to the voiceless among us. In spite of the notions of crime and justice being central to her fiction since her first published story in the late 60s, “In The Old World,” any incarceration alluded to in her writing has tended towards the metaphorical as Oates has often chosen to focus on the detrimental effects of crime on victims. However, two works published in 2014 – a novel, Carthage; and an edited story collection, Prison Noir – combine to create testimonies to prison life in the United States and raise questions about the nature of the system that puts people there. In her introduction to the collection, Oates writes: “hardly to our credit, the United States locks up nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population, while having only 5 percent of the world’s overall population. Or, in other terms, the United States incarcerates more than 2.2 million individuals, a far higher rate per capita than any other nation.” This is at once a statement of fact and a critique seeking to combat feelings of indifference on the part of the general public from a writer who has engaged with prison populations throughout her life by exchanging correspondance with inmates and even teaching a prison writing workshop in 2011. This paper will discuss the depiction of incarceration experiences and prison visits by outsiders in several Oates stories – “How I Contemplated the World,” “San Quentin,” “High,” “Dear Joyce Carol” – to shed light on the way in which her consistent engagement with America’s imperfect prison system has culminated in her work editing a volume of inmates’ fiction.
Tromble, Tanya L.
"Witness: Reflections on Detention in Joyce Carol Oates's Work,"
Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies: Vol. 3
, Article 4.
Available at: http://repository.usfca.edu/jcostudies/vol3/iss1/4