Creative writing professor and noted author Joyce Carol Oates publicly apologized Tuesday to those upset by her recent New Yorker short story, "Landfill," a work of fiction that set off a small storm of controversy this week for its resemblance to fact.
"I'm certainly feeling very apologetic and deeply sorry that I inadvertently ... hurt the feelings of these people and just feel sorry about that," Oates said in an interview with The Times of Trenton.
"Landfill," which was published in the Oct. 9 issue of The New Yorker, tells the story of Michigan State University student Hector Campos, Jr., who goes missing for weeks before his remains are found in a Michigan landfill.
The controversy arose after a retired professor at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) noticed similarities between Oates' story and an incident that rocked the Ewing campus last spring, in which TCNJ freshman John Fiocco, Jr., went missing and was found dead weeks later in a landfill in Bucks County, Pa.
A few professors and students at TCNJ condemned Oates' use of the incident as inspiration for her fictional piece.
Regina Kenen, the professor who ignited the controversy, was so angered by the story that she wrote Oates an email and copied it to her dean and the college's president and provost.
"It was basically that it was so close to the truth and that the family and the college and the students had gone through such trauma," Kenen, who teaches a seminar at TCNJ, said in an interview with The Daily Princetonian. "It was the only case that I know about that someone went through the garbage chute. It could not do anything but bring back horrible memories."
In her email to Oates, Kenen said, "You so flimsily disguised the true College of New Jersey story upon which your fictionalized account is based, and used your imagination so cruelly, that it can only add to the overwhelming pain the [Fiocco] family has already suffered."
Kenen also wrote that Oates "felt no compunction in reawakening the sorrow felt by students and faculty at another college so close to Princeton."
While Oates did not respond directly to Kenen, she did apologize for any offense she caused.
"In the matter of fiction and 'reality,' we must honor the emotions, raw and anguished at times, of 'reality,' " Oates said in an email to the 'Prince.'
"A literary principle is not a justification for upsetting anyone, even unintentionally," she added.
Oates, a National Book Award winner who is often considered a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature, said that it was not the story itself that caused such an uproar, but rather its placement in a widely-read magazine.
"Most of my short fiction appears in literary magazines like Virginia Quarterly Review, Yale Review, Conjunctions, etc., which are read by a small and exclusively literary audience," she said. "If the story had appeared in one of these, it would have passed unnoticed."
Though Oates has claimed that "Landfill" was influenced by multiple news events — not just the Fiocco case — similarities between her story and the TCNJ incident are striking.
Both Fiocco and the fictional Campos went missing on March 25, were 19 years old, disappeared after a night of drinking, presumably had been discarded down a trash chute and were found dead in landfills near their colleges.
Oates has said that she did not know the exact details of Fiocco's death and had been only somewhat familiar with the case from the ensuing press coverage.
When the author was first asked about the controversy earlier this week, her reaction was one more of bewilderment than contrition.
"Why would they object to a fiction story, set in Michigan, about fictional people?" she asked The Times of Trenton.
"Only people in this area, who know about the young man, would think the story is about him," she added.
New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman said that the magazine's editors were in the dark about likenesses between Oates' work and the incident last March.
"At the time of publication, we were unaware of the case of John Fiocco, Jr.," Treisman told The Times of Trenton. "Joyce Carol Oates has confirmed that she used that case as a point of departure for her story."
"While there is a long history of fiction drawing on factual events, we regret it if the overlap here caused any distress," she added.
Matthew Golden, director of communications and public relations at TCNJ, said that while the college recognizes Oates' right to use the Fiocco tragedy to inspire fiction, many people in the community are still grieving over the unsolved death.
"Reading a fictionalized version could potentially cause [Fiocco's] family and loved ones further sorrow," Golden said in an interview with The Daily Princetonian. "We want to show compassion for the members of our community."
Oates also said that she wrote a letter of apology that she hopes will be published in the TCNJ newspaper.
Though "Landfill" has thrust Oates and some faculty members into the headlines, many TCNJ students remain unaware of the situation.
TCNJ junior Ryan Godleski said he was unaware of the controversy surrounding the story.
"I haven't heard about the article," Godleski said. "But as far as feelings go about the investigation, things have been stagnant for a while. There were a lot of mixed feelings on campus, and the whole incident has affected how the campus operates."
Golden said he has heard students make individual comments about "Landfill," but that the campus remains calm about the matter.
"I'm not aware of any organized student protest or public statement," Golden said. "Some students expressed disappointment because the incident is so recent."
"[Oates' apology] was appropriate," he added, "and it should end there."
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