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Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Text and Criticism

On Boxing

On Boxing


Author: Joyce Carol Oates
Year: 1987
Length: 328 pages

Expanded Edition:

Publisher: Ecco Press
Year: 1995
Length: 205 pages

Expanded and Updated Edition:

Publisher: Harper Perennial
Year: 2006
Length: 275 pages
Preview: HarperCollins

Other Editions

On BoxingOn Boxing 06Expanded and Updated EditionExpanded EditionJapaneseUK


Publisher's Blurb

Some of our greatest writers—Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, to name a few—have written some of their finest prose on the rich and endlessly fascinating subject of boxing. Now, this distinguished company is joined by one of our most popular and respected novelists, Joyce Carol Oates.

A longtime aficionado of the sweet science, Oates first became interested in boxing as a child, as an offshoot of her father's interest. (He took her to Golden Gloves matches, subscribed to The Ring magazine, etc.) She has now focused her thoughts and feelings about boxing in an eloquent, erudite, and illuminating essay which examines boxing from every conceivable aspect: boxing as metaphor, spectacle, dance; the history, lore, and allure of boxing; the question of whether boxing should be banned; boxing in literature and film; women and boxing.

ON BOXING is also, in part, a feminist document: an attempt to "understand" the mystique of masculinity by looking at this most quintessentially masculine of contact sports; an examination, from the outside, of the male-dominated culture of our time. "In the brightly lit ring, man is in extremis," writes Oates, "performing an atavistic rite or agon for the mysterious solace of those who can participate only vicariously in such drama: the drama of life in the flesh. Boxing has become America's tragic theater."

This exquisite study from the pen of an extraordinary writer ranges from the metaphysical musings on Time and Death to small, informative details like this one: "A well-aimed punch with a heavyweight's full weight behind it can have the equivalent force of ten thousand pounds."

With the text complemented by John Ranard's poetic and evocative boxing photographs, ON BOXING makes for a unique and stunning reading experience.




New York Times Notable Books of the Year

... Men fighting men to determine worth (i.e., masculinity) excludes women as completely as the female experience of childbirth excludes men. And is there, perhaps, some connection?

In any case, raw aggression is thought to be the peculiar province of men, as nuturing is the peculiar province of women. (The female boxer violates this stereotype and cannot be taken seriously—she is parody, she is cartoon, she is monstrous. Had she an ideology, she is likely to be a feminist.) The psychologist Erik Erikson discovered that, while little girls playing with blocks generally create pleasant interior spaces and attractive entrances, little boys are inclined to pile up the blocks as high as they can and then watch them fall down: "the contemplation of ruins," Erikson observes, "is a masculine specialty." No matter the mesmerizing grace and beauty of a great boxing match, it is the catastrophic finale for which everyone waits, and hopes: the blocks piled as high as they can possibly be piled, then brought spectacularly down. Women, watching a boxing match, are likely to identify with the losing, or hurt, boxer; men are likely to identify with the winning boxer. There is a point at which male spectators are able to identify with the fight itself as, it might be said, a Platonic experience abstracted from its particulars; if they have favored one boxer over the other, and that boxer is losing, they can shift their loyalty to the winner—or , rather, "loyalty" shifts, apart from conscious volition. In that way the ritual of fighting is always honored. The high worth of combat is always affirmed.


  • Library Journal, January 1987, p101
  • Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 1987, p45
  • Publisher's Weekly, January 23, 1987, p56
  • Booklist, February 15, 1987, p867
  • Chicago Tribune Books, March 1, 1987, p1
  • Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 1, 1987, p3
  • New York Times, March 2, 1987, p17
  • Washington Post Book World, March 8, 1987, p4
  • Newsweek, March 9, 1987, p68
  • USA Today, March 12, 1987, p2C
  • New York Times Book Review, March 15, 1987, p8
  • Village Voice, April 14, 1987, p56
  • People, April 20, 1987, p27
  • Quill & Quire, May 1987, p25
  • Books In Canada, June 1987, p25
  • Observer, June 14, 1987, p22
  • Wall Street Journal, June 16, 1987, p28
  • Listener, June 18, 1987, p23
  • Spectator, July 11, 1987, p35
  • Books, November 1987, p5
  • Times Literary Supplement, December 18, 1987, p5
  • New York Review of Books, February 18, 1988, p5
  • Observer, October 16, 1988, p43
  • Guardian Weekly, November 6, 1988, p28
  • Southern Review, Summer 1989, p771

Criticism, etc.

Sheridan, Julie. "'Why Such Discontent?': Race, Ethnicity, and Masculinity in What I Lived For." Studies in the Novel. 38.4 (2006): 494-512. Print.

Rubin, Louis D. "The Manly Art of Modified Mayhem Dempsey and Others." Sewanee Review. 108.3 (2000); 412. Print.

Reynolds, Guy. "What’s Happening in America: Sylvia Plath, Susan Sontag, Joyce Carol Oates." Twentieth-Century American Women’s Fiction: A Critical Introduction. Guy Reynolds. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. 168-194. Print.

Morris, Daniel. "Figuring and disfiguring: Joyce Carol Oates on boxing and the paintings of George Bellows." Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature. 31.4 (1998): 135. Print.