cover image Soul at the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life

Soul at the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life

Joyce Carol Oates. Ecco, $27.99 (416p) ISBN 978-0-06-256450-4

This collection of essays, reviews, and lectures from a reigning doyenne of American letters is a bit of a hodgepodge, but taken as a whole provides an eclectic survey of contemporary American literature. Oates is likely most familiar to readers as a novelist (The Man Without a Shadow) and short story writer. But the author is also one of the U.S.'s keenest literary critics, as the works collected here demonstrate in abundance. The book's first section, "The Writing Life," contains a lecture and a trio of essays. These are generous and engaging, though Oates's Cassandra-ish warnings about the threat social media poses to literary culture may chafe more tech-savvy audiences. In the second section, "Classics," a standout is her invigorating dive into H.P. Lovecraft's contributions to genre and literary fiction. The third section, "Contemporaries," is the largest and most cohesive. Reading these selected reviews, one develops an acute sense of Oates's literary philosophy as she lovingly yet rigorously critiques works by a diverse set of authors, including Derek Raymond and Jeanette Winterson. The final section, "Real Life," contains just one essay and thus feels a bit tacked on, but the piece is a harrowing and thought-provoking work of reportage on a visit to San Quentin Prison, and is well worth readers' time. (Sept.)