Tanya Tromble writes on the relationship between fiction and fact in the latest article published in Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies.
Joyce Carol Oates draws extensively on news stories, as well as on elements of her own family’s past, to find inspiration for her works of fiction. She has written about the Chappaquiddick incident involving Ted Kennedy and the JonBenet Ramsay murder case. She has worked the Niagara Falls Love Canal environmental scandal into the framework of The Falls and taken inspiration from sordid events from her own family’s past in the beginning of The Gravedigger’s Daughter. However, in none of these examples does Oates purport to relate the precise real-life “facts” of the historical events. Indeed, for an author who believes in the multiplicity of truths such a task would be superfluous, if it was in fact possible, given what she perceives as the inherently “error-prone” nature of our species. “Language,” she writes in her essay “On Fiction in Fact,” “by its very nature tends to distort experience. With the best of intentions, in recalling the past, if even a dream of the previous night, we are already altering – one might say violating – the original experience, which may have been wordless and was certainly improvised.” In response to what she sees as the problematic nature of language, memory and the artificial nature of writing, Oates has cultivated a self-described “psychological realism” that seeks to depict a greater realm of truth beyond the world of facts, that is to say the truth of emotion and felt experience, “states of mind [which are] real enough – emotions, moods, shifting obsessions, beliefs – though immeasurable.” This article compares both fiction and non-fiction works by Oates – notably, A Widow’s Story, Sourland, The Falls – in a discussion of the fluctuating frontier between the two genres and the notion of psychological Truth that this tenuous relationship reveals.