Short Fiction Ripped From the Headlines

October 12, 2006 | 8

I wasn’t a big fan of Joyce Carol Oates’ story “Landfill” in last week’s New Yorker. It felt to me a little too obvious, this story about an insecure college student’s drunken and accidental death thanks to the carelessness of the brothers at the fraternity where he was a pledge. It seemed too “ripped from the headlines,” too after school special, and on top of all that it was emotionally cheap – designed to provoke outrage with little complexity. So, it was interesting to discover that Oates’ story was indeed ripped from the headlines. The death of Hector Jr. very closely resembles that of a young man who had attended The College of New Jersey, so much so that Oates was compelled to apologize “for any offense she caused.”

Obviously, quite a lot of fiction is drawn from real life events, but I think in this case, because Oates’ story was so one-note and so geared toward generating disgust, the connection was simply to stark to ignore. (via Jeff)

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.


  1. How else to feed her ceaseless compulsion to write — grab a headline, bang at those keys, send it out the door.

  2. This is an interesting new slant on the classic literary dichotomy, is it not? How acceptable is it to work with real life?

    As upsetting as it is for people close to the student who died to read 'Landfill', shouldn't we welcome this article as a response and critique of the growing frat culture? It could be seen as Oates flagging up the dangers of frat houses and serve as a warning to parents and prospective pledges alike.

  3. That's the problem, though. I find it awfully tiresome that Oates would devote herself to warning people of the dangers of frat houses. What's next? A book about not taking candy from strangers? This story told as a cautionary tale brings nothing new to the table. The world is full of cautionary tales on this subject. That the story is exploitative only makes matters worse.

  4. Agreed the story may not necessarily bring new things to the table as such, but they way it is written is a new dimension in 'frat lit', as it were.

    Tom Woolfe's 'I Am Charlotte Simmons'; it attempted a portrait of frat culture and twenty first century campus life but it utterly spun it out to an overtold tale. Oates' style actually captures the breezy, come-and-go ethic of a frat house. Those 'snatches' of dialogue and testimony are excellent literary methods of showing the dangers of frat houses, whilst also bringing the entire habitat mentality, to the reader.

    To me, that ability and talent legitimise and distinguish her yes, cliche, source of inspiration.

  5. I see your point. Oates certainly has her detractors, but it's hard to ignore her impressive and wide-ranging storytelling ability.

    I suppose my argument is that if 'frat lit' is narrowly focused on the shocking tales of excess and depravity of priviledged young men, then I'm not that interested in reading about it unless somebody can move beyond the agressor vs. victim dynamic to something a little more complex.

    Oates rips her story from the headlines, but – without having read much about the actual events it is based on – I'd argue that she has simplified matters by making Hector Jr. be hellbent on being a victim and by making the aggressors faceless and one note. This oversimplification is likely part of what got her into trouble in the first place.

  6. Actually, to just twist this debate a little, I'm curious: Does frat-lit and academic lit serve as a platform from which to explore modern life in metaphor?

    (Currently reading 'Prep')

    Mwah Mwah Mwel

  7. Sure frat lit and campus novels could serve as metaphor for modern life, but I can't recall having seen it done convincingly. Which isn't to say that I don't enjoy these books. They're often quite entertaining. Lucky Jim anyone?

  8. But in a world where the medium is the message, Landfill works in part because its prose is so good. You care for the Hector Jr. character and even more for his parents. I also admire Joyce Carol Oates ability to shift points of view — generally a no-no with short stories. Ripped from the headlines or not, Landfill is a worthy read.

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