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JOYCE CAROL OATES by Joyce Carol Oates


Letters to a Biographer

by Joyce Carol Oates ; edited by Greg Johnson

Pub Date: March 5th, 2024
ISBN: 9781636141169
Publisher: Akashic

A collection of letters invites readers into the prolific author’s life and thoughts.

Oates generously wrote an introduction to Johnson’s selected letters from her, describing a “remarkable collection of prolonged glances into the past, bathed in a sort of warm convivial glow.” Johnson, who’s published multiple books of fiction and nonfiction, including an authorized biography of Oates, first wrote to her from college in 1975. She was supportive of his writing, even offering to write letters of recommendation, and they eventually became good friends. Throughout, Oates displays her witty, humorous, and sly style. In a letter from 1987, she writes about her “adventure” publishing a novel under a pseudonym, desirous of an undetectable “new identity.” Elsewhere, she seeks advice about her work and critiques Johnson’s stories. Oates describes herself as “inward, secretive, and obsessive,” noting later, “I seem always to have loved to write—shamelessly. But at such length!” In addition to novels and short stories, she discusses her “other” career as a playwright. Composing a play about Thoreau “was one of the most fascinating and haunting periods of writing I’ve ever experienced!” She believes John Updike wasted his “brilliant” prose on unworthy characters, and Sense and Sensibility is “slow, dull, didactic, and unsparkling.” Wuthering Heights, on the other hand, is “simply sui generis.” Oates is happy that her Princeton colleague Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize, and she writes at length about pets, book covers, literary gossip, and her love of boxing. On the writing process, she notes, “Anything is easier than the first six weeks or so of a novel!” In the last letter—from December 26, 2006—Oates mentions an upcoming “elegant” New Year’s Eve party at Steve Martin’s apartment in New York City.

An interesting barometer of Oates’ development as a writer over 30 years.