A ‘Fourth Way’ to Tell the Story

Fact and Fiction in Three Novels by Joyce Carol Oates

by Barbara Miceli (Author)
Monographs 168 Pages


This study is an analysis of the novels Black Water (1992), Blonde (2000), and My Sister, My Love (2008) by Joyce Carol Oates. Based on real-life characters (Mary Jo Kopechne, Marilyn Monroe, JonBenét Ramsey), these works blend fact and fiction, historical and poetic truth, and create a new way to recount facts that allow the writer to give a new voice to people who cannot speak for themselves anymore. The present book addresses the stories behind the novels, their genre and stylistic features, but is also an exploration of several aspects of American culture and society and their issues connected to consumerism, the cult of beauty and celebrity, and how they affect American women’s lives and power relations with men.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Index
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • 1. Black Water: The Reconstruction of a Forgotten Character
  • 1.1. The Chappaquiddick Incident
  • 1.2. Genesis and Structure of Black Water
  • 1.3. The genre of Black Water
  • 1.4. The Style of Black Water
  • 1.5. Reconstruction of the Character: Kelly as an Archetype of the Young American Woman
  • 1.6. The Senator: The Man and the Politician
  • 1.7. The Creation of the Historical Setting
  • 1.8. Two “Black Waters” in Comparison: Black Water and Mudwoman
  • 1.9. A Cinematic Reading of the Chappaquiddick Incident
  • 2. Blonde: A Reconstruction of the Self beyond the Myth
  • 2.1. Marilyn Monroe and the Problem of Identity
  • 2.2. Genesis and Structure of Blonde
  • 2.3. The Genres of Blonde
  • 2.4. The Style of Blonde
  • 2.5. The Reconstruction of the “self”
  • 2.6. The Male Characters in Blonde
  • 2.7. The Creation of the Historical Setting
  • 2.8. “Black Dahlia & White Rose:” A ‘Compendiary’ Return to the Figure of Norma Jeane
  • 3. My Sister, My Love: Memory, Forgetting and Social Criticism
  • 3.1. The Ramsey Case
  • 3.2. Genesis and Structure of My Sister, My Love
  • 3.3. The Genre of My Sister, My Love
  • 3.4. The Style of My Sister, My Love
  • 3.5. From Memory to Forgiving: A Ricoeurian Reading of My Sister, My Love
  • 3.6. The Social Criticism in My Sister, My Love
  • 3.6.1. Suburban Life
  • 3.6.2. Womanhood and Motherhood
  • 3.6.3. Ruined Childhoods
  • 3.6.4. Tabloid Hell
  • 3.7. Two Suburbs and Two Memoirs in Comparison: My Sister, My Love and Expensive People
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Names
  • Series Index

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Similes within the semantic field of gestation and motherhood are very common when someone writes a book. Any writer—of any kind—tends to consider his or her book like their child, and I am no different, especially because some of the themes of this book are no foreign to the idea of motherhood, and because this ‘child’ was the product of a very long gestation.

An African proverb claims that it takes a village to raise a child, and in this respect, I was probably a lucky writer/mother, because I had more than one to sustain me and this creature: several villages scattered around the world, whose people gave a significant contribution to my task.

I would like to start by thanking the University of Gdańsk and the Institute of English and American Studies for the huge support given to me and this book. My gratitude goes to our Head, Prof. Mirosława Modrzewska, our lighthouse, guide, and irreplaceable problem-solver; to Prof. Arkadiusz Misztal, exceptional scholar, teacher, and person of immense empathy without whom many things, including this book, would not have been possible; to Prof. Marta Koval for her ability to always having the right words, the right suggestion, and for being a great point of reference; to Prof. Jean Ward, for being the first one reading the manuscript and a provider of precious advice.

My ‘Polish’ village would not be complete if I did not mention Prof. Marek Wilczyński, editor of the series on Transatlantic Studies in British and North American Culture, not only for kindly selecting my book as part of the series, but also for his very uplifting words which, coming from an authority in my field of studies, gave me the necessary confidence to pursue the project.

The second village, the American one, contributed to the first stages of development of this book, as most of the research for it was done at the University of Yale, specifically at the Sterling Memorial Library and the Bass Library. Everything there was made easy and doable by the staff of the libraries, in particular by Mrs. Viviana McHugh, who was tremendously helpful and friendly.

The core of the Yale experience was undoubtedly represented by one single afternoon spent in the office of the late Prof. Harold Bloom discussing my ideas and absorbing all the words and teachings he provided. Every page of this book bears his virtual mark and, in a certain way, is dedicated to his memory and the great and venerable figure he was.

Lastly, my gratitude in the American village goes to Dr. Nicole Leibold. Even if we do not a share a single research interest, talking to her was always a powerful ←7 | 8→intellectual fuel, and probably the lack of all our conversations and adventures would have changed the final outcome of my project.

Of course, my third and last village is in Italy, my homeland, where the genesis of this work took place. I have expressed my gratitude towards Prof. Maria Cristina Giorcelli more than once, but I will never get tired of saying how she has been a constant source of inspiration, and an example, since my early days as an American Literature student at Roma Tre University, let alone a true embodiment of the word ‘mentor.’

I would also like to thank Dr. Valentina Rapetti, partner in crime and intellectual soulmate, with whom this book has been discussed since its preliminary state of conception, and from whom I have learnt a lot during our years of common joys and sufferings as students, PhD candidates, PhD holders, and friends.

My last (but definitely not least) thank you goes to Giovanni Francesco, for just being there.

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This work stems from a reflection on the relationship between Joyce Carol Oates’s writing and the news. Long before she published the novels that will be analyzed here, her tendency to rework American news stories in a fictional form, especially those concerning criminal or violent acts, had appeared in some short stories1 and in the novella The Triumph of the Spider Monkey (1976).2 Accused more than once of putting too much violence into her work, the author replied: “when people say there is too much violence in Joyce Carol Oates … what they are saying is there is too much reality in life” (Milazzo 89). Elsewhere she declared “I wish the world were a better place, but I wouldn’t be honest as a writer if I ignored the actual conditions around me” (Wagner xii).

An incident that occurred in 1971 and was reported by Oates’s biographer, Greg Johnson, validates these statements by the author. The novel Wonderland, the fourth in the Wonderland Quartet (a tetralogy on the social classes in America) had been published that year. It opens with the escape by the teenager Jesse from the massacre that his father has carried out on the entire family, including his pregnant wife, towards a life that will be devoted to Medicine and the study of the brain. In February of 1972, Oates read an article about an identical slaughter, where one of the children had managed to save himself from the fury of his father. Oates had already been labeled ‘a gothic writer’ and “such coincidences showed that her imagination was simply responding to the violent reality of America” (Johnson 179). Her reaction to this label was reported in a Time interview: Gothicism, whatever it is, is not a literary tradition so much as a fairly realistic assessment of modern life” (Johnson 179).

When Oates began her activity as a writer (her first novel, With Shuddering Fall, was published in 1964), a new trend in journalism was spreading in the United States: the use of the devices and rhetorical instruments of fiction to tell real stories, thus casting off the shackles of traditional journalism. This trend was ←9 | 10→labeled ‘literary journalism,’ ‘new journalism’ and ‘literary nonfiction.’ Thomas B. Connery defined it as “a third way to tell the story” (6). It is a third way, after journalism and fiction, to record, report and interpret the facts. Literary journalism contains all the factual elements of conventional journalism, but focuses more “on presenting impressions, details, and descriptions not central to the typical conventional newspaper report.” It tells not simply the facts, but “the ‘feel’ of the facts” (Connery 6).

A precursor of this new tendency was Stephen Crane (1871–1900) with his New York City Sketches, which recounted trivial episodes presented as interpretations of city life. Another similar approach to facts is evident in the journalism of Lincoln Steffens (1866–1936), who wrote about the city of New York for the Advertiser, “so that New Yorkers might see, not merely read of it, as it was: rich and poor, wicked and good, ugly and beautiful, growing, great” (Steffens 317). He told the stories from the point of view of their protagonists, a technique he defined as “descriptive narrative” (Steffens 242) which consisted in luring the reader into the story with a narrative incipit, without recourse to the classic journalistic ‘who, what, when, where, why, now’ formula (Connery 10).

Hutching Hapgood (1869–1944) produced, instead, “something like the feuilleton: a short article which is a mixture of news and personal reaction put together in a loose literary form” (Hapgood 138). He suggested that interviews should be used to create a sort of autobiography where everyone could identify with the subject of the interview, a practice that today is named ‘saturation’ or ‘immersion reporting’ (Connery 10).

All these types of writing seek a fusion between the role of the observer and that of the creator, which presents a third way of depicting reality, going beyond the facts of journalism (Connery 18).

Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961), who began his career as a journalist and later became a fiction writer, came back to his origins as ‘fact writer’ with Death in the Afternoon (1932) – a work about bullfighting – Green Hills of Africa (1935) and A Moveable Feast (1964). The difference between these works and journalism is that “in writing for a newspaper you [tell] what happened and, with one trick and another, you [communicate] the emotion aided by the element of timeliness which gives a certain emotion to any account of something that has happened on that day” (Hemingway 2). Hemingway’s aim was to create a work that “would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck and if you started it purely enough, always” (2). Recognizing the ephemeral nature of journalism, Hemingway wanted to produce, not only in fiction but also in nonfiction writing, something that lasted, “a permanent record” (Hemingway, Dangerous Summer, 82).

Biographical notes

Barbara Miceli (Author)

Barbara Miceli holds a PhD in Euro-American Studies from Roma Tre University (Italy) and she is Assistant Professor at the University of Gdañsk (Poland) where she teaches American Studies subjects. She specializes in the relationship between fact and fiction in the contemporary American novel.


Title: A ‘Fourth Way’ to Tell the Story