Another collection of sparkling literary essays from the prolific author of both fiction and nonfiction.
Culled from her literary reviews in the New York Review of Books, the Kenyon Review, and other venues, these short essays probe the reasons we continue to read, both classics and contemporary works, and—despite the torture—write. Titling her collection after a smoldering line by Emily Dickinson, Oates (Humanities/Princeton Univ.; The Man Without a Shadow, 2016, etc.) finds enormous inspiration (and passionate literary obsession) in pursuing the answer to the age-old question, why do I write? In her initial essay, “Is the Uninspired Life Worth Living?” which establishes cohesion to the collection, she finds particular resonance with writers who grasp the essential subversive quality of literature—poets are often seized by a force beyond their control, being not in their “right mind,” and “out of [their] senses,” as Plato elucidates in Ion. (Poets, of course, were banned from the Republic because they could not conform to the authority of the state.) “Inspired” is akin to being “haunted” or “captivated,” and in these far-ranging, occasionally didactic essays, Oates delights in authors who have been selectively obsessed and captivated by their material: Rebecca Mead by Middlemarch; Claire Tomalin by Charles Dickens; Julian Barnes harnessing “catastrophe into art” while writing of the death of his wife of 30 years in Levels of Life. Always eclectic, Oates also includes essays on the visionary detective fiction of Derek Raymond; Wild West fabler Larry McMurtry; Louise Erdrich’s North Dakota novels, which Oates compares to William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County cycle; and, most sensitively, Jeanette Winterson’s memoir of coming out to her North England Pentecostal mother. Oates ends with a strange visit to San Quentin prison with a group of female graduate students—not to teach, however, but to feel shocked by the experience.
As always, Oates is curious, probing, and memorably startling.