Writers Read, Part III: Introduction to Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”

Craft Restraint and Reader Awareness

Focus: Symbolism, Making the Reader Work, Blurring Literary and Genre

Joyce Carol Oates is a prolific writer. I don’t need to go into her life here. Just search for her, and you’ll get all the information you need.

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? is rife with symbolism. I’ll analyze some of the symbolism without belaboring the point because Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? is dense with it.

In addition, there is a key moment in this story that taught me it’s okay to leave things out of writing—to make the reader work. Therefore, I’m going to take a few posts to go over Oates’s story.

This first post will give an overview of the what it means to make a reader work. The next post will look at Oates’s symbolism. Then I’ll wrap up this string of posts with how Oates makes her readers work and how this was the first time I saw the line between literary and genre blurred.

Summary of Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

Inspired by a string of murders committed in the 60s, Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? follows a young girl who defies her mother and is stalked by group of older men. However, there’s far more to this story.

Making the Reader Work: An Overview

An author’s words create images in a reader’s mind. New writers are sometimes tempted to create a concrete image in the reader’s mind—to make sure the reader sees what the writer sees or wants the reader to see. That’ll never happen. Reading is far too personal. This means the author doesn’t need to nor should they do all the work (i.e. attempt to describe everything) because what the reader imagines is always influenced by the reader’s experiences.

I can’t tell you how many horror novels I’ve read where someone is assaulted, sliced, choked, possessed, or murdered in my grandparent’s kitchen, hallway, or guest bedroom—at least in my imagination. My grandparents have been gone for about 30 years. Someone else has lived in that house for about as many years, but for some reason my mind always goes back to that house as the setting for many of the events I read in novels. Why there? It’s a comfortable and familiar place where I can easily construct images and reduce the work it takes to read. It’s in a secluded, small town in the Midwest.

What’s the point of telling you this somewhat creepy detail? The author’s I’ve read know nothing about my grandparent’s house, and yet it has made its way into their writing. I’ve personalized their story with my own experiences. I’ve filled in the blanks they may have left out. And that’s okay: Let the reader do some of the work. Let the reader complete your description with their own experiences. This makes your story their own—personalizes it—makes it far more intimate and real.

My Next Post

In my next post, I’ll analyze symbolism in Joyce Carol Oate’s Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

Author: Chuck Lang

Chuck Lang is a writer of science fiction and horror. Influenced by his years as a carpenter, four years serving in the US Navy, and his nearly two decades teaching literature, he holds an MFA in Writing (Fiction) from Lindenwood University. After completing his first manuscript, the supernatural horror novel DEAD GODS, in 2019, he has begun work on its two sequels, DEAD GODS: INHERITANCE and DEAD GODS: RESOLUTION. He is currently developing two additional projects, an urban fantasy horror novel and a military science fiction novel. He lives and writes near the frequently flooded Red River in Fargo, ND with his wife and two redhead sons.

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