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Joyce Carol Oates criticized over story

New Yorker piece partly drawn from real-life college death
/ Source: The Associated Press

A New Jersey college has criticized author Joyce Carol Oates over her latest short story, influenced in part by a student’s death.

Her story, “Landfill,” published in the Oct. 9 issue of The New Yorker, is partly drawn from the case of John A. Fiocco Jr., 19, who went missing in March from The College of New Jersey. His body was later found in a Pennsylvania landfill.

Matt Golden, a college spokesman, said that Oates has the right to write whatever she wants, but the story has nevertheless caused some pain. “There are also people who were close to John and were loved ones who might have a difficult time with the story,” he said.

Oates, whose many books include “Them” and “We Were the Mulvaneys,” is a famously prolific author often mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel literature prize. In an e-mail sent Wednesday to The Associated Press, she likened the school’s criticism to the reaction of Muslim fundamentalists who issued a fatwa, or religious edict, against Salman Rushdie for his “The Satanic Verses.”

She said it is a case in which a writer draws upon real events to write a fictional story, but is then met with “astonishing hostility on the part of people who do not ’read’ fiction as symbolic or representational, but literal.

“Where I had hoped to evoke sympathy for a young man trapped in a nightmare situation, with symbolic resonance (I had thought) for all of us, I had succeeded, in some quarters at least, in arousing only great anger,” Oates said in the e-mail.

Deborah Treisman, New Yorker fiction editor, said in a statement that the magazine wasn’t aware of the Fiocco case when it agreed to publish “Landfill,” but that Oates, a Princeton University professor, has since acknowledged that she used the case as a point of departure for the story.

“While there is a long history of fiction drawing on factual events, we regret it if the overlap here caused any distress,” Treisman said.

In “Landfill,” 19-year-old Hector Campos Jr., a freshman engineering student, is last seen behind a fraternity house at Michigan State University at Grand Rapids. He lands in the fraternity’s trash bin, and nearly a month later, his body is found in a landfill. Oates character, Campos, had been drinking. Friends of Fiocco said he had been drinking.

In hindsight, Oates said that she wishes some of the details of “Landfill” did not resemble the Fiocco case.