Invisible Writer

Joyce Carol Oates’s first novel was published in 1964, and since then she has become the most prolific major author in America. Not only has she published dozens of novels and hundreds of short stories, she has had a respectable career as a playwright, screenwriter, poet, critic, and professor. Greg Johnson, the author of two previous studies of Oates’s work—and a scholar, novelist, and poet as well—is ably situated to provide the first biography of this protean writer.

INVISIBLE WRITER: A BIOGRAPHY OF JOYCE CAROL OATES might be viewed with some initial skepticism. It is published by Dutton, Oates’s publisher, and was guided to press by her editor, William Abrahams. Oates has dedicated one of her books to Johnson. Can such a biographer be candid? Undoubtedly, he has probably had to be discreet, yet there is plenty of evidence to show that he has considered negative evaluations of both Oates’s character and her work, including her strengths and weaknesses as a teacher.

Johnson is a surefooted guide to her fiction, centering her best work in her Detroit novel, THEM (1969), which won the National Book Award, but also paying careful attention to later novels—some of them nearly as good—which certain critics have ignored because she has been so productive. To charges that she has been hasty, Johnson rebuts with ample evidence of her careful revisions, close working relationships with editors, and long, long hours of notetaking and planning.

Johnson’s narrative suggests that posterity will judge Oates more kindly than her contemporaries and value an enormous body of work that comments insightfully on virtually every American institution.