Few writers come close to matching Joyce Carol Oates: Her deft annals of family strife, broken hearts, illicit affairs, gruesome deaths, and incest may not be the stuff of life (ours, anyway), but they are the fixings for late-night page-turning and book-obsession. It also doesn't hurt her reputation that Oates is as prolific as they come, writing a book or three per year, most of them in the 400-plus-page range.
Oates' singular fix has been human emotion, often explored through the lens of emotionally weak and unstable characters. Her portraits are frequently of people you'd like to knock upside the head, but they're also the tales of bad decisions and worse consequences that make for guilty vicarious pleasure. With such diverse ruminations on human failure, it's easy to imagine the author's torturous life. But we're convinced no one who writes three books a year has time to be tortured by much of anything. It's all in the imagination, we hope.
Oates' most recent work, Blonde, is an experimental reinterpretation of the life of Marilyn Monroe. Gifted with the word and amazingly broad in her subject matter, Oates remains one of our country's most significant writers, though -- as if in a story someone else might write -- she'll probably have to die to be recognized for it.