Fact or Fiction: Oates story hits a nerve

— UPDATED 12:00 p.m. OCT. 11

“Tioga County landfill is where Hector, Jr., is found. Or his ‘remains’ – battered and badly decomposed, his mouth filled with trash.”

Thus begins the fictional short story “Landfill,” written by Princeton University author Joyce Carol Oates, that appeared in the Oct. 9 issue of The New Yorker magazine. The story has stirred up controversy with some readers, particularly those at the College, for its resemblance to the disappearance of freshman John Fiocco Jr. in March.

The story centers on Hector Campos Jr., a freshman at Michigan State University at Grand Rapids, whose remains are found by police in a landfill after he falls down a trash chute at a fraternity party. In the story, Campos is reported missing by his roommates on the afternoon of Monday, March 27, and was last seen around 2 a.m. on Saturday, March 25.

In an Oct. 11 issue of the Trenton Times, Oates apologized for the story, saying, “I certainly regret the whole thing, that’s for sure.”

According to the article, both Oates and the fiction editor of The New Yorker offered an apology to those affected by the Fiocco case.

“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 the article.

According to reports in The Signal, Fiocco was last seen around 3 a.m. on Saturday, March 25, and was reported missing by his roommate on Sunday afternoon.

Oates, a Princeton resident, has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and is rumored to be a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature. She appeared at the College on March 20, 2006 as part of the Thornton Wilder celebration.

While some students and faculty at the College have yet to read the story, those who have have expressed strong opinions questioning the appropriateness of Oates’ story.

“I don’t intend to read it,” Chris Stewart, sophomore biology major and former floormate of Fiocco, said. “(Oates) has every right to publish it, but the graphic nature (of the story) just makes it far too disgusting to read.”

“I have some reservations about the timing and approach (of the story),” Jess Row, assistant professor of English, said. Row’s writing has been featured in “The Kyoto Journal,” “The Harvard Review” and “Slate Magazine.”

Row said, “(Oates’ story) raises a lot of questions about the writer’s responsibility to (her) audience and (the) community.” He said that the story was a “risky choice” for both her and the magazine to publish.

In an interview with The Times of Trenton, Oates said she could not understand why people would be offended by the story.

“Why would they object to a fiction story, set in Michigan, about fictional people?” Oates asked in an interview with the newspaper.

Oates declined The Signal’s request for an interview, and the fiction editor of The New Yorker, Deborah Treisman, was unavailable for comment.

According to the Times article, Oates meant the story to be a “symbolic commentary on the dark side of the college experience,” including excessive drinking and fraternity hazing.

In the Times article, Oates acknowledged that Fiocco’s case was “among the influences for her story” but says the story is was not meant as a “literal translation of any actual event.”

Matt Golden, director of Communications and Media Relations for the College, said, “I feel there are some significant and clear similarities (between the story and the actual event.”

While Golden said there are some dissimilarities between the Fiocco tragedy and Oates’ story, he said, “I don’t think you can deny that there are striking similarities.”

In the Times article, Oates says she received an e-mail from College President R. Barbara Gitenstein which was written “with some emotion.”

Golden said in a telephone interview that no such e-mail had been sent from the College. Rather, Regina Kenin, a professor emeritus at the College, sent the e-mail. Along with Gitenstein, Elizabeth Paul, interim provost, and Susan Albertine, dean of the school of culture and society, were e-mailed carbon copies of the note.

“I am writing to express my disillusionment at your (Oates’) lack of compassion and humanity in writing the story Landfill,” Kenin says in the e-mail. “You so flimsily disguised the true . story upon which your fictionalized account is based … that it can only add to the overwhelming pain the family has already suffered.”

Kenin goes on to say, “While I support freedom of speech, I also believe that writers have choices about what they write and a responsibility for exercising those choices in an ethical manner.”

In the story, Campos is a pledge for a fraternity and gets into fights with many of the brothers at a party. Eventually, he is “lifted, pushed into an opening in the wall – the trash chute,” by one of the people at the party.

Bryan Vale, president of the Inter-Greek Council, had no comment specifically regarding the story but said that there “is a regrettable stereotype that exists (about Greek life), and we do not appreciate it.”

Some members of the campus community were not as offended after reading Oates’ fictional piece.

“I’m not terribly upset about the story but I would understand why some people are,” Glenn Steinberg, associate professor of English, said. However, he added that it was “cheating” to use so much fact in creating a piece of fiction.

The article can be read at: newyorker.com/fiction/content/articles/061009fi_fiction.