“Why do we write?” With this question, Joyce Carol Oates begins an imaginative exploration of the writing life, and all its attendant anxieties, joys, and futilities, in this collection of seminal essays and criticism.
By Joyce Carol Oates
A new collection of critical and personal essays on writing, obsession, and inspiration from National Book Award-winning and New York Times bestselling author Joyce Carol Oates.
“Why do we write?”
With this question, Joyce Carol Oates, in this new collection of seminal essays and criticism, begins an imaginative exploration of the writing life and all its attendant anxieties, joys, and futilities. Leading her quest is a desire to understand the source of the writer’s inspiration—do subjects haunt those that might bring them back to life until the writer submits? Or does something “happen” to us, a sudden ignition of a burning flame? Can the appearance of a muse-like Other bring about a writer’s best work?
In Soul at the White Heat, Oates deploys her keenest critical faculties, conjuring contemporary and past voices whose work she deftly and creatively dissects for clues to these elusive questions. Virginia Woolf, John Updike, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, J. M. Coetzee, Margaret Atwood, Joan Didion, Zadie Smith, and many others appear as predecessors and peers—material through which Oates sifts in acting as literary detective, philosopher, and student. The book is at its most thrilling when watching the writer herself at work, and Oates provides rare insight into her own process, in candid, self-aware dispatches from the author’s own writing room.
Longtime admirers of Joyce Carol Oates’s novels as well as her nonfiction will discover much to be inspired by and obsess upon in this inventive collection from an American master. As the New York Times has said of her essays, “Oates’s writing has always seemed effortless: urgent, unafraid, torrential. She writes like a woman who walks into rough country and doesn’t look back.”
I. THE WRITING LIFE
- Is the Uninspired Life Worth Living?
- This I Believe: Five Motives for Writing
- Anatomy of Story
- The Writing Room
- My Life in Middlemarch: Rebecca Mead
- Charles Dickens: A Life: Claire Tomalin
- “The King of Weird”: H. P. Lovecraft
- My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz
- Two American Prose Masters: Ellison, Updike
- A Visit with Doris Lessing (1973)
- The Childhood of Jesus: J. M. Coetzee
- The Detective as Visionary: Derek Raymond
- “Catastrophe into Art”: Julian Barnes
- “When the Legend Becomes Fact”: Larry McMurtry
- Paper Losses: Lorrie Moore
- Emotions of Man and Animals: Karen Joy Fowler
- Windigoo Justice: Louise Erdrich
- In Other Worlds: Margaret Atwood
- The Storyteller of the “Shattered Personality”: Patrick McGrath
- Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?: Jeanette Winterson
- Diminished Things: Anne Tyler
- Smiling Woman: Margaret Drabble
- The Inventions of Jerome Charyn
- “After Auschwitz”: Martin Amis
- London NW: Zadie Smith
- Joan Didion: Risk and Triumph
- Unflinching about Women: The Short Stories of Lucia Berlin
- Edna O’Brien: The Little Red Chairs
- “Disputed Truth”: Mike Tyson
- The Fighter: A Film by David O. Russell
- The Mystery of Muhammad Ali
IV. REAL LIFE
Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat?
Then crouch within this door—
Red—is the Fire’s common tint—
But when the vivid Ore
Has vanquish’d Flame’s conditions,
It quivers from the Forge
Without a color, but the light
Of unanointed Blaze.
Least Village has its Blacksmith
Whose Anvil’s even ring
Stands symbol for the finer Forge
That soundless tugs—within—
Refining these impatient Ores
With Hammer, and with Blaze
Until the Designated Light
Repudiate the Forge—
Emily Dickinson, 1862 (365)
Joan Frank, San Francisco Chronicle, September 15, 2016
Oates has, it seems, read everything, and her deft, considered wisdom is pure treasure. A description of the “emotionally fragile” Henry James’ “deeply curious, ceaselessly alert and speculative personality” or of innumerable other writers Oates discusses as if they’ve been lifelong friends — which of course they have — will gratify readers to the soles of their feet.
Nathan Smith, Los Angeles Review of Books, January 21, 2017
… Soul at the White Heat calls attention to Oates’s many thematic and cultural obsessions and how these operate in her larger body of writing. Oates’s unguarded and compelling book gives insight into her vulnerabilities and illuminates her vision as a writer. It is as close to a look into her private artistic world as we have had.
Eric K. Anderson, Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies, 2017
Soul at the White Heat is a sustained and fascinating collection of nonfiction chronicling not only her reflections as a writer, but her engagement with a wide range of books …
Betty J. Cotter, Providence Journal, February 16, 2017
…Oates proves to be a refreshing tour guide to distant and recent literature. She is not afraid to tell the truth about the most revered literary icon, while her consideration of today’s literary lights is unfailingly generous and enlightening.
Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 2016
As always, Oates is curious, probing, and memorably startling.
Diane Leach, PopMatters, December 15, 2016
Oates’ prose has achieved a level of polish most writers can only wish for.
Image: “Slow Burn” by Jon Noel