Joyce Carol Oates

“During her long and distinguished career, Joyce Carol Oates never has shied away from the controversy that can come with using celebrities and tabloid news stories as the inspiration for her fiction,” Jon Michaud observes in the Washington Post. “Her novel Black Water (1992) drew on the Chappaquiddick incident; Blonde (2000) gave us Oates’s take on the life of Marilyn Monroe; and My Sister, My Love (2008) reimagined the murder of JonBenét Ramsey. As recently as 2013, Oates prompted outrage for her unflattering portrait of poet Robert Frost” in a short story in Harpers.

Her new novel, The Sacrifice, is based on a notorious episode from 1980’s New York: Tawana Brawley’s false claim that had been kidnapped and raped by several white men, including law enforcement officials, and then covered in racist graffiti and feces.

Oates fictionalizes so many raw detail of this 1987 circus – from the frantic mother’s concerns for her missing daughter, to the racially inflammatory charges fanned by opportunistic advisors [including the Rev. Al Sharpton], to the lives that were shattered before the truth was revealed – The Sacrifice reads like a true crime tale. But it is Oates’ exploration of race, sexual abuse and the criminal justice system, of ambition and fear, that make it something more.

Although The Sacrifice received mixed reviews from the New York Times Book Review and the Washington Post, Alan Cheuse of NPR described it as “raw and earnest” while Rose Tremain offered strong praise in the Guardian, asserting that the novel allows us to “see how, in the hands of a great writer, a gripping story can be torn from the poisonous rubble. Perhaps, at least, there is hope in an act of artistic empathy as powerful as this.”

Joyce Carol Oates’s Top Ten List

1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866).
2. Ulysses by James Joyce (1922).
3. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (1929).
4. The poems of Emily Dickinson (1830–86).
5. The stories of Franz Kafka (1883–1924).
6. The Red and the Black by Stendhal (1830).
7. The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence (1915).
8. Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence (1920).
9. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851).
10. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884).