Tensions between public image and private self are engagingly acknowledged and analyzed in illuminating excerpts from journals begun during the second decade of this prolific author’s remarkable career.
Their emphases are predictable: the flood of writing Oates produced then and now (The Museum of Dr. Moses: Tales of Mystery and Suspense, 2007, etc.); speculations about the nature of the artistic process and the ways in which art has shaped her character and personality; family, friends and colleagues whose empathy and affection anchor her in a vividly experienced, evidently cherished everyday world. Readers who perceive Oates as a workaholic automaton may be surprised to encounter an author who, though formidably successful even this early in her career, felt unworthy of the acclaim lavished on her. Oates waxes rhapsodic about the sustaining pleasures of marriage (to her colleague and soul mate Raymond Smith), domestic routine (she’s a conscientious if unadventurous cook and hostess), her teaching duties and burgeoning friendships with such notable contemporaries as John Updike, Gail Godwin, the late John Gardner and Susan Sontag, Anne Tyler, even the eternally prickly Norman Mailer. It’s nice to know that she derives so much pleasure from teaching Alice in Wonderland to her Princeton students and from the experience of playing the piano and listening to her beloved Chopin. Naturally, she also chronicles her work: stories, poems, essays and reviews completed almost daily (or so it seems); wearying searches for appropriate form and rhetoric for the ambitious novels (The Assassins, Son of the Morning and Angel of Light) that many critics consider her weakest work; and a somewhat surprising commitment to reviving traditional narrative genres in her Gothic Quintet, which includes Bellefleur, A Bloodsmoor Romance and The Crosswicks Horror, the last-named long since completed but as yet unpublished.
“Love. Friendship. Art. Work. These are my values,” Oates says. Watching her juggle them in these replete pages is a stimulating experience.