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‘Joyce Carol Oates: Letters to a Biographer’ Review: Understanding The Dark Lady of American Letters

4 Stars

Cover of Greg Johnson's "Joyce Carol Oates: Letters to a Biographer."
Cover of Greg Johnson's "Joyce Carol Oates: Letters to a Biographer." By Courtesy of Akashic Books
By Laura B. Martens, Contributing Writer

“Joyce Carol Oates: Letters to a Biographer” is an unconventional work due to its epistolary nature. Rather than writing about Oates’s life himself, editor Greg Johnson — her longtime friend and fellow writer — presents a selection of her letters accompanied by a series of brief contextual explanations. The biography gives readers a glimpse into various aspects of Oates’s professional life, from the writing process to publishing, book reviews, theater and film adaptations, and TV interviews.

The correspondence between Oates and Johnson is full of minute particulars, from the premier of a new play to discussions of fat housecats and tenured university positions. It is the sensitivity and warmth of her letters, and the unexpected and acute moments of insight into the human experience, that transforms the mundane details of Oates’s life into a textured and heartfelt portrait of an extraordinary thinker.

“The writer’s life … is so inward, secretive, and obsessive, the ‘surface’ is largely irrelevant,” observed Oates in her July 7, 1991 letter to Johnson.

Going beyond the external elements of her life, Oates also shares many fascinating insights into the authorial intention behind her work, as she does in the passage about “Family,” a short story written in 1989:

“Reviewers don’t seem to take note, or to be much concerned, that a story like ‘Family’ is about our environmental tragedy; not a morbid-minded individual family, or a writer with an unusually dark imagination.”

Avid admirers of Oates’s fiction would particularly enjoy this facet of “Letters to a Biographer,” as it’s not often that readers are given access to an author’s unfiltered thoughts about the meaning of her own work.

Oates references a time “when letter writing was an integral part of our emotional lives,” reflecting the best part of the text: the moments of deep emotional resonance when Oates offers wisdom or comfort to Johnson that remains applicable to readers today.

Johnson’s written commentary is concise and minimalistic, offering the context that Oates’s letters need to achieve their fullest potential. Before the first letter of the collection, Johnson explains that their correspondence first began when he wrote to Oates about the suicide of his creative writing professor in the summer of 1975. Oates’s sensitive and kind response includes the follow observation:

“The suicide acts, perhaps, according to an inner pattern or life-story which no one else can comprehend. Nor can we judge others, though it is always a temptation. In the end, we each do what we wish, what we will. The exterior world cannot understand.”

Thoughts like these are at the heart of “Letters to a Biographer.” Prompted by personal struggles — or those of friends — Oates writes in a way that is both beautiful and deeply, terrifyingly honest. Her uncensored observations to Johnson elevate the text from a collection of letters between friends to a moving and impactful reflection on empathy, love, death, and the many other facets of this writer’s life.

Oates is deeply interested in the plight of others and extraordinarily empathetic; much of her work is motivated by a desire to understand the struggles of others and capture the human dimension of loss and grief. Her work, while deeply personal, also responds to political and cultural controversies of the day. “Black Water” was published in 1992 after U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy crashed a car resulting in the death of passenger Mary Jo Kopechne. Oates expressed her feelings in a letter to Johnson:

“[I became] so emotionally tense that I could hardly sleep, and have been preoccupied for weeks as if a part of me was trapped in a submerged car, trying to survive until help comes; and help is never going to come.”

The visceral sense of terror evoked by Oates’s masterful imagery draws the reader into her innermost thoughts, while the details of her inability to sleep and preoccupation with the young woman’s death enable one to understand the mind behind “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”

It must be acknowledged that “Letters to a Biographer” can be monotonous at times, anchored as it is in the mundane details of life. Sometimes Johnson chooses to include details of his own career that are irrelevant to readers interested in Oates alone. There is no clear plot structure and no sense of urgency. However, the sudden moments of insight and depth scattered throughout Johnson’s chosen excerpts illuminate the brilliance of Oates and reinforce her role as one of the most influential American authors of the 20th century.

The great strength of “Letters to a Biographer” lies in Oates’s implicit control of the narrative through her letters. Although curated and framed by Johnson’s explanations, Oates’ words are the main body of the text. In this way, the book allows its readers to come to their own conclusions about Oates. Her subtleties as a writer and person, her day-to-day worries and joys, are all laid out through the wide-ranging and well-curated selection of letters. 31 years of correspondence are diluted to a mere 337 pages of text, following Oates’s belief in “how far fewer words we need to tell our stories than we imagine we do.”

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