[Reading Room] Heat by Joyce Carol Oates

I hated this story.

Not that there was anything really wrong with it.

It painted vivid pictures of the setting that are seared into my brain.

It created realistic portraits of the twin girls around whom the story turns — fun, selfish, nice-nasty, typical preteen girls — and of the protagonist who is both a girl with the twins and an older woman looking back on things.

It wove the story really well through non-linear story-telling. It has suspense, and emotion and is terribly well written.


It’s part of that school of literary stories from the second half of the twentieth century that are unrelentingly grim. Everyone’s a pervert or being hurt by someone or cheating on their spouse or living a life without hope. People are murdered, raped, declared bankrupt, abused, tortured, depressed… It’s fine, I suppose, and good that people can write about these things. I don’t want people to pretend these things don’t happen or isolate victims by not allowing them to share their experiences. But there seems to have been a sense that you couldn’t be a literary (for ‘literary’ read: good) writer unless your world was devoid of hope, humor or heroes.

And I hate that. It’s why I fly to cozy mysteries and space opera and anything where I can find a hero and a bit of relief. [updated: And I totally respect that you might find this kind of writing challenging, rewarding, comforting, or sublimely moving, and may hate my kind of humor-laced frippery-faves. I think I mostly get annoyed by the seeming ubiquity of grimness in “literary” fiction.]

So, I’m glad I read this story because I will come back to it to see just how Ms Oates created that indelible sense of place; and how she made her characters so realistic; and how she wove that story so well. But I’ll never like it. And I never want to write this kind of thing.

What about you? Do you rage against a particular style of writing? Harlequin Romances? Happy endings? What gets you so angry that you feel moved to write something just to prove that stories can be better than that? Let me know in the comments: