Book Review: The Faith of a Writer, by Joyce Carol Oates

Last week I read The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art by Joyce Carol Oats.  This book is a collection of essays (and one interview) written by Oates between 1973 and 2004.  Although the essays have little to do with faith — the collection would have been better titled The Perseverance of a Writer — they are all very enjoyable.  They provide glimpses into JCO’s writing-life, as well as anecdotes about the attitudes and habits of other authors as well.  When finished with The Faith of a Writer, you’re left with an idea of just how much determination and delusion are necessary to create a great author, and how both have been combined in JCO to make her our generation’s most prolific literary writer.

The essays in The Faith of a Writer cover a range or topics, but these can generally be grouped into three categories.  In “District School #7, Niagara County, New York” and “First Loves: From ‘Jabberwocky’ to ‘After Apple Picking'”, Oates describes those early events and books that helped her develop a writer’s sensibility.  These essays are interesting if for no other reason than their patina of age and nostalgia for an earlier time.  In essays like “To a Young Writer,” “Running and Writing,” “Notes on Failure,” and “Inspiration!” Oates discusses the reality of a writer’s life: its solitude, its ups and downs, the mystery and ephemeral nature of inspiration.  For someone interested in writing, these essays form the meat of her collection.  Finally, in “Reading as a Writer: The Artist as Craftsman” and “The Enigmatic Art of Self-criticism,” Oates discusses the habits of reading and criticism that all writers must develop, including the habit of self-criticism, which is often the worst.

Along the way, Oates gives her advice on writing and rewriting, a few messages of inspiration, and her thoughts on the nature of art.  A few of my favorites include:

The novel is the affliction for which only the novel is the cure. (From “To A Young Writer,” JCO.)

My method is one of continuous revision; while writing a long novel, every day I loop back to earlier sections, to rewrite, in order to maintain a consistent fluid voice; when I write the final two or three chapters of a novel, I write them simultaneously with the rewriting of the opening of the novel, so that, ideally at least, the novel is like a river uniformly flowing, each passage concurrent with all the others. (From “Running and Writing,” JCO.)

In general, fiction of a high quality possesses depth because it involves absorbing narratives and meritorious characters and is at the same time a kind of commentary upon itself. (From “Reading as a Writer,” JCO.)

I would wish to think that serious art is transgressive, upsetting and not consoling, and that the serious artist can’t really expect not to be attacked, ridiculed, dismissed. (From “The Writer’s Studio,” JCO.)

Oates’s essays are enjoyable and — for a writer, at least — educational as well as inspirational.  But I can’t imagine this book will be of much interest to readers that are neither writers nor readers of JCO’s work.  The Faith of a Writer is not a memoir of her life, nor a manual on writing, and it has nothing like a coherent thread.  It is a loose collection of essays published over a 30 year period that are tied together with one introductory essay, “My Faith as a Writer.”  However, if you are a writer or someone who enjoys her work (and how couldn’t you enjoy at least one book by JCO — there are so many!), then the book is well worth your time.

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