In response to Joyce Carol Oates’ short story “Landfill,” which was published in the New Yorker magazine, Tim Hinton, senior English major, wrote a letter to the New Yorker. Hinton said part of the reason he wrote the letter was because he “felt that a writer should be bound by some sense of responsibility to their community.”
A copy of Hinton’s letter follows:
Dear New Yorker,
Having just read Oates’ “Landfill,” I feel obligated to express my disgust. The quality of the story and Oates’ talents as a writer aside, the subject matter is absolutely appalling.
Last spring, our campus faced the tragic ordeal of losing a student. . The case is currently still open.
The similarities between Fiocco and Hector Campos Jr. are clear. The differences are negligible. . The creative liberties (Oates) has taken do less to distinguish her story as fictional than they do to imply a commentary on the possible character of the young man who died and reinforce the popular suspicion that foul play was involved. For her to claim that the story is fictional is not enough. These events were a major news story for weeks; living in Princeton, approximately 10 minutes from (the College), the story was a major point of concern in her community. She would have to be aware that no one who lived in the area would somehow fail to realize her source of inspiration, and that her comments on “Hector’s” character would be insulting to anyone who was affected by this tragedy.
I did not personally know Fiocco. Nevertheless, I felt his family’s loss. I was affected by his death, as were all the students on this campus. . Oates was familiar with our college; she spoke here only five days before (Fiocco) disappeared. Did she think no one here would read this story? Did she think it would not cause upset? Did she think that no one would take offense to her describing this character, so transparently based off our departed fellow student, as “a loser” who we “don’t miss”? .
For Oates to publish this story so soon after, to base a character off of (Fiocco) and portray that character as not only being murdered, but as a wholly unlikable individual who will not be missed and may be somewhat responsible for his own demise, is in extremely poor taste. To do so in light of the fact that the investigation into his death is still ongoing, that the exact time and manner of his death has not been conclusively determined, and that these events took place not 10 minutes from her town and are still a source of grief for members of her community (not to mention the Fiocco family), is irresponsible and distasteful.
Thank you for your time,
Hinton received the following response from Oates:
Dear Tim Hinton,
. Truly, I am sorry for this inadvertent but obviously disturbing intrusive into the private lives of individuals unknown to me. I had read just two brief news articles in The New York Times on the tragic accident . and did no further research. The image was haunting to me of a young man trapped in debris and over a period of weeks I imagined a scenario that would be the story of Hector Campos Jr. . This story, as it grew upon me, became a story of fraternity drinking and hazing, the exploitation of a young man of an ordinary sort (not “heroic”) who was, in a sense, being used as “landfill” by a fraternity wishing to keep its enrollment up and by a large university eager to swell its freshman enrollment. Quite quickly the story became for me a Michigan story (I taught briefly at the U of Michigan, once) . It would be a story about an ordinary young man perceived as a “loser” in the eyes of the world, yet beloved by his mother. There would be a subtle Darwinian evolutionary theory theme to frame the young man’s experience. . I could “see” Hector Campos Jr., and in this process, which is typical of a writer/poet, the original stimulus, or point of departure, was utterly forgotten. I must further confess that I had not researched the incident beyond the one or two fairly superficial articles in the Times. I do admit to not reading local, New Jersey newspapers, rather more for the reason that I am so pressed for time and the Times requires so much attention than any feeling of indifference to my local surroundings. . My wish to evoke sympathy for a relatively “ordinary” individual was predominant, but I see, to my dismay, that I have succeeded only in provoking, in some quarters, many angry sentiments. As a writer who is by nature a formalist, I spend a good deal of time, perhaps too much time, calibrating sentences and paragraphs. (The original format of “Landfill” was one long paragraph . so that the reader might feel some of the suffocation/entrapment of the protagonist.) I am sending this to you not in the hope of exonerating myself but simply to explain. Above all, I am deeply sorry that the family, friends, classmates of (Fiocco) . have been upset by a work intended to be entirely fiction, with a thematic purpose that is entirely fictional and symbolic.
Should you wish to print this letter in your school newspaper, that is fine with me. It is written spontaneously and with no attempt to revise.
Very best wishes,
Joyce Carol Oates