INVISIBLE WRITER: A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates by Greg Johnson

INVISIBLE WRITER: A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates

Email this review


An authorized portrait of the intensely prolific novelist as an artist and a person. As Oates's literary executor, fiction writer Johnson (Pagan Babies, 1993; I Am Dangerous, 1996; etc.) wisely uses his access to her presumably massive hoard of papers to develop relatively select themes important in her life. He traces her understanding of violence, for example, to incidents from her family's past; to schoolyard brushes with brutality in her rural New York hometown; to her mid-1960s stint in riot-charged Detroit; and also to several eerie, Rothian, and ominous encounters with fans and students. Her compassion for victims also originated, Johnson says, in her childhood, as did her devotion to ""memorializing"" her parents. But the strongest force animating Oates is doubtless her will to produce, displayed for decades in her famous literary profusion, resulting from a routine protected by a ""bourgeois"" lifestyle and stable marriage to the scholar and critic Raymond Smith. Intertwined with the biographical narrative, Johnson provides a blandly respectful overview of of the writer's artistic growth, charted partly through the record offered in her journal entries. Throughout, Johnson heeds Oates's belief that biographies should be ""solidly grounded in fact""; the result is a full characterization of a multilayered, idiosyncratic woman. In fact, the book is so stocked with documentation that it sometimes goes over the top. For non-diehard Oatesians, this excess will be too much, reflecting the main drawback of nearly all biographies written by allies of the portrayed subject: a loyalty that tends to overstep its bounds. A more basic narrative problem is the relatively quiet life Oates has led, tame at least by the standards of literary lions. This life of talent dutifully plied, sustained, and rewarded offers less drama and excitement than any of the tales Oates has concocted in her fiction.

Pub Date: April 2nd, 1998
Page count: 560pp
Publisher: Dutton