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Soul at the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life
By Joyce Carol Oates
Ecco, 2016
soul-coverSince the publication of her first novel With Shuddering Fall in 1964, Joyce Carol Oates has published at least one book a year – at present her bibliography amounts to nearly two hundred titles – and there is no indication that, at 78, she is planning on slowing down. Having published an essay collection, a collection of short stories and The Man Without A Shadow this year, her next novel A Book of American Martyrs will appear in the spring of 2017. (In addition, Oates tweeted over 28,000 times in the four years since she joined twitter in 2012, which makes one wonder: does she ever sleep?)

Being not only a prolific author, but an equally prolific reader, Oates regularly engages in writing literary essays and book reviews – most notably in the New York Review of Books – and Soul at the White Heat is, for the most part, a compilation of her reflections on the written word. The essays chosen for the collection range from texts on “The Writing Life” (four essays on Oates’ own writing as well as on “The Anatomy of Story”), texts on “Classics” (for example “Two American Masters: Ellison, Updike” and “A Visit with Doris Lessing”) to reviews of “Contemporaries” (J.M. Coetzee, Paul Auster, Edna O’Brien, Zadie Smith, and Karen Jay Fowles , to name a few).

Oates carefully and intelligently dissects each book she writes about, and she can be candid with her criticism; about Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal?:

The concluding chapters of Winterson’s memoir have an air of the improvised and hastily written as if after the death of Mrs. Winterson, the intransigent and unknowable soul of the text has vanished.

But, still, her critique is always guided by interest and curiosity, never by spite or disrespect, particularly regarding the work of her contemporaries. Oates seems to side with Virginia Woolf (in her 1927 essay on the novels of E.M. Forster): “There are many reasons which should prevent one from criticizing the work of contemporaries. Besides the obvious uneasiness–the fear of hurting feelings–there is too the difficulty of being just. Coming out one by one, their books seem like parts of a design which is slowly uncovered.”

The best example of Oates’ almost gentle approach to reviewing the work of her contemporaries is her essay on Mike Tyson’s autobiography, Undisputed Truth. Although Oates makes some less favorable remarks about the “celebrity memoir of indefatigable name-dropping and endless accounts of partying”, and the fact that “apart from generating income (…), the principal intention of Undisputed Truth would seem to be settling scores with indivuiduals Tyson dislikes”, she doesn’t dismiss the book out of hand:

The strongest and most moving chapters of Undisputed Truth are those that deal with Tyson’s background. Made familiar to many readers through countless retellings since his ascendency to fame in 1986, burnished with retrospective insight of a kind the young Tyson couldn’t have had as a boy, these recollections of his childhood in Brooklyn with his biological family and his boyhood in Catskill, New York, with his “white” family – (Cus D’Amato and D’Amato’s longtime companion Camille Ewald with whom he lived intermittently until D’Amato’s death in 1985) – are touched with nostalgia and a bittersweet sort of regret.

jcoThe overarching theme, binding the collection together, is the quest to uncover the writer’s burning soul, his source of inspiration, aptly reflected in the Emily Dickinson-quote that gave the book its title: “Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat?”. (Given this premise it doesn’t surprise that the collection favors Oates’ texts on memoirs and biographies).

Oates is aware, however, that inspiration is, as she puts it, “an elusive term.” And yet, each writer craves it, and is lost without it:

We all want to be “inspired” if the consequence is something original and worthwhile; we would even consent to be “haunted” – “obsessed” – if the consequences were significant. For all writers dread what Emily Dickinson calls “Zero at the Bone” – the dead zone from which inspiration has fled.

And Oates firmly believes that inspiration is, more often than not, “taken from life”, as she illustrates by exploring the role chance played in the creation of Middlemarch. George Eliot, having put aside the first draft of the novel for more than a year, had lunch with the Rector of Lincoln College and his beautiful, much younger wife. So impressed, Oates tells us, was Eliot with this unlikely couple, this “marriage of unequals,” that she began Middlemarch anew, this time with “beautiful, intelligent, and idealistic” Dorothea Brooke and her husband the “pedantic, self-pitying” Edward Casaubon as central characters.

Not all incidents which inspire the artist are as charming and casual as Eliot’s Oxford-encounter. But even the most devastating experience, the death of a loved one, can – should? – be a source of inspiration. Turning catastrophe into art is certainly something Oates is familiar with herself. After the sudden and unexpected death of Raymond Smith, her husband of 46 years, in February 2008, Oates dealt with her grief by writing about it. An honest and often painful account, A Widow’s Story (published in 2011) exemplifies that for Oates writing is the central tool to engage with the external world and to analyze and understand one’s own life. Not surprisingly, Oates has an abiding interest in memoirs, fueled by grief.

In her essay on Levels of Life, Julian Barnes’ 2013-memoir, written after the death of his wife of thirty years, Oates concludes that “… here it would seem that catastrophe does result in art – the death of Barnes’ wife is the genesis of the book, which would not have been written otherwise.” And:

[t]he resulting memoir, a precisely composed, often deeply moving hybrid of nonfiction, ‘fabulation,’ and straightforward reminiscence and contemplation, is a gifted writer’s response to the incomprehensible in a secular culture in which we are ‘bad at dealing with death, that banal, unique thing; we can no longer make it part of a wider pattern.’

Oates returns to the theme of the “crisis-oriented memoir” in her essay discussing Paul Auster’s memoir, written after the unexpected death of his father in 1981 (“The Invention of Paul Auster”), and again she does so with high praise:

(…) Paul Auster has become known primarily for his highly stylized, quirkily riddlesome postmodern fiction, in which narrators are rarely other than unreliable and the bedrock of plot is continually shifting. The Invention of Solitude, however, is notable for its frank, candid, understated evocation of filial loss followed not by grief – at least not conventional grief – but by the numbness of the inability to grieve and the stoic determination to know the elusive, unloved father Samuel Auster – the ‘invisible man’.

But even though inspiration, obsession even, is at the heart of a writer’s work Oates by no means implies that, once inspiration is found, a book writes itself. On the contrary, as she asserts in the “The Writing Room”:

How stunned I would have been to imagine, at the outset of my writing life, that in time I would write so many books! – when each day’s work, each hour’s work, feels so anxiously wrought and hard won.

awidowsstoryAnd we can find ample proof for the “hard won” work in The Journals of Joyce Carol Oates 1973-1982 (published in 2007), when she recounts “voluptuous hours of work” ( 4 March 1982). She is “working, working” (7 June 1979), “hour upon hour” (20 June 1979), often crying out in frustration when she hasn’t “been able to write a sentence” (14 June 1979), or when her work advances “with painful slowness” (2. April 1981).

If Inspiration is elusive and often accidental, and every book is “hard won,” then why, Oates asks, do we write at all, “out of what need – or hunger does inspiration spring? That is what is the motive for metaphor?” Oates finds that there is a deep human need to commemorate the lived experience, to turn memories into stories:

Much of literature is commemorative. Home, homeland, family, ancestors. Mythology, legend. That certain slant of light in a place deeply imprinted in childhood, as in the oldest, most prevailing region of the brain.

Commemoration, for Oates is “identical with setting,” it’s a sense of place from which the plot and the voices of the characters spring forth. She acknowledges, though, that the sense of place is not an easy concept. In the essay on Zadie Smith’s novel NW, Oates ponders this difficulty at length:

How to present in language, the shimmering, ever-shifting life of a place? The most obvious means, the documentary film, has its limitations: the filmmaker can record hours of visual imagery, he can interview subjects, and we can overhear subjects speaking, but we cannot hear their inner voices, and we cannot see the world inside their heads. A kaleidoscope of fascinating and “authentic” images can pass before our eyes as viewers, but we can’t interpret these images through the prism of consciousness, with its myriad histories, which is the soul of a place. We are forever viewers, voyeurs. Only an assiduously calibrated work of art, of the ambition and artistry of James Joyce’s Ulysses, for instance, can take us beyond the dazzling and distracting surface, into the mysterious region in which place and personality bond; that region in which those born to a place, are irremediably defined by it, and might be said to be its offspring.

Another guiding principle or motive Oates finds in “bearing witness” (“Is the Uninspired Life Worth Living”):

Social injustice as inspiration. The wish ‘to bear witness’ to those unable to speak for themselves, as a consequence of poverty, or illness, or political circumstances, which includes gender and ethnic identity. The wish to conjoin narrative fiction with the didactic and the preacherly. Above all to move others to a course of action – the basis of political propaganda-art. Here we have such works as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

Although Oates’ motive for wanting “to bear witness” is understandable, laudable even, her claim that it’s the writer’s obligation “to give voice to those who lack voices of their own” (“This I Believe – Five Motives for Writing”) is controversial. Giving voice to those who can’t express themselves is often frowned upon as cultural appropriation and the necessity of expressing one’s ‘own voice’ is stressed by many. The most recent example is the heated controversy surrounding Lionel Shriver’s speech at the 2016 Brisbane Writer’s Festival in which Shriver expressed her hope “that cultural appropriation is a passing fad.” And even though one can certainly question manwithoutashadowShriver’s sense of good taste when stressing her point by appearing on stage with a Mexican sombrero, she sparked an important debate. A debate that Oates unfortunately fails to address.

The collection concludes with a journey back to “Real Life,” in an essay in which Oates gives a vivid account of her visit to San Quentin in April 2011. And even though this was not Oates’ first visit to a maximum security prison – she had been to Trenton in the 1980s – she feels “discomfort,” followed by “a haze of panic,” and “a the surge of relief and joy” when she is outside again. “Never again,” she vows.

Her dismay might seem strange when thinking about Oates, the writer, who often explores the darkest, most unpleasant sides of life. From the psychotic mind of a serial killer in Zombie to a man with no mind in The Man without a Shadow, Oates’ fiction delves into the gruesome aspects of “real life.” It seems even stranger, given Oates’ firm belief that inspiration must be “taken from life.” And yet, the final essay displays an odd sense of naivety. A naivety – and Oates is aware of this – that comes from living a “sheltered” life.

Maybe it’s easier, sometimes at least, to keep reality at bay, to imagine and to write about it rather than to experience it. Still, Soul at the White Heat is the testament of a glittering mind, fascinated by and devoted to the written word, be it as a reader or as a writer.

Britta Böhler teaches legal ethics at the University of Amsterdam and is the author of the novel The Decision.