Doris Betts 1932–-
(Born Doris Waugh Betts) American short story writer, novelist, and journalist.
Betts's writing inspires some critics to define her as a regional or Southern writer because of her realistic descriptions of small-town life in the American South, and also for her emphasis on familial relationships. However, her themes of love and responsibility and her thoughtful characterizations have a more universal appeal. Although Betts receives substantial critical attention, her work has yet to gain the public acknowledgment some contend she deserves.
Betts was born on June 4, 1932 in Statesville, North Carolina. Her parents were devoted members of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, and her strict religious background is a significant theme in her work. While in high school, Betts began her writing career working as a journalist for the Statesville Daily Record. After graduating from high school, Betts worked for various newspapers and UPI. In 1950 Betts attended the Women's College (now the University of North Carolina, Greensboro), where she began writing short stories. She published her first collection of short fiction, The Gentle Insurrection, in 1954 to critical acclaim. Betts continued to write fiction, also working as a journalist, typing teacher, and office manager. In 1958 Betts won a Guggenheim Fellowship, which enabled her to work on The Scarlet Thread, a novel published in 1964. In 1966 Betts accepted a lecturer position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; in 1978 she became the first female full professor in the English Department; and in 1980 she was appointed Alumni Distinguished Professor of English.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Betts's short fiction is characterized by her humanistic studies of love, pain, loneliness, and death, as well as her use of realistic dialogue. The title story of her second collection, The Astronomer and Other Stories (1965), narrates the tale of a recently retired widower whose sole interest is studying astronomy. His solitary existence is interrupted when he boards a young couple who involve him in their troubled relationship. Betts's use of the cosmos as a guide to the actions of the characters in this story is an significant motif in her fiction. Another defining characteristic of Betts's work is her interest in spirituality and the role of religion in people's lives. In “Mr. Shawn and Father Scott,” the main character, Father Scott, has fallen into a sense of complacency; as a result, he fails to inspire and help his parishioners. When confronted by an enigmatic drifter, Mr. Shawn, Father Scott examines his life and begins to question his religious beliefs and personal relationships.
Many critics consider Betts's short story collections to be her most powerful prose work. These stories are highly praised for their sensitive narrative style and realistic dialogue. Regarded by some commentators as a regionalist writer, Betts is noted for her complex portrayals of race relations and class stratification in the American South. These unflinching depictions often garner comparisons between her work and that of other Southern authors, especially Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner. Other critics maintain that Betts's work transcends geographical labeling, as her stories touch on universal themes such as alienation, the role of religion, and the power of love. Reviewers also note the importance of humor in Betts's writing, particularly as it reflects her keen sensitivity for the human condition.