Doris Betts Betts, Doris (Vol. 3) - Essay

Doris June Waugh

Betts, Doris (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Betts, Doris 1932–

Ms. Betts is an American novelist and short story writer. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16.)

Doris Betts seems an unprepossessing writer; her following is limited mainly to her native North Carolina, and she has gotten little critical attention. Yet she has published a remarkably good collection of short stories, The Astronomer, and her novel The River to Pickle Beach, though overlong and somewhat disjointed, faces one of the new South's central psychological questions: In a region where "place" is vanishing, how does one find the identity and security it offered? She suggests no answer beyond the shared love of the married couple upon whom the novel focuses, but it is the question—the acknowledgment of an irrevocably altered South and the search for ways to come to terms with it—that is important. No Southerner can contemplate the diminution of the region's "few virtues" without a sense of loss and nostalgia, and Mrs. Betts is no exception; her fiction, however, is involved with the realities of the present.

Jonathan Yardley, "The New Old Southern Novel," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1973 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XL, No. 2 (Spring, 1973), p. 291.

[Beasts of the Southern Wild and Other Stories] indisputably is fiction of the first order. But then Doris Betts has been writing remarkable stories for two decades, and the lamentable truth is that attention, by and large, has not been paid….

Beasts of the Southern Wild is the sixth book Doris Betts has published in two decades, and three of the six are novels; the most recent, The River to Pickle Beach, was published a year ago. They are solid, intelligent novels, beautifully written and rich in feeling. But they fall a bit out of focus—not because Doris Betts is incapable of writing long fiction but because her talents and vision are simply most fully realized in the short story. They come to their fullest fruition yet in Beasts of the Southern Wild, an even more satisfying collection than The Astronomer (1965), and that is saying something….

[All] Betts's stories are concerned with affairs of the heart. They occupy familiar terrain, but Betts elevates the familiar into the mysterious and fantastic.

It would be easy enough to pigeonhole her in the school of "Southern grotesque," and indeed her debt to Flannery O'Connor should not be minimized….

[She] writes with love but with toughness as well, and she offers no easy answers. The persistent quest in her stories is for love, and often the searcher is a misfit, a grotesque of sorts; sometimes love comes only in dreams and fantasies, sometimes it does not come at all, sometimes it comes tinged with loss.

Whatever the end of the quest, Doris Betts takes her people there with compassion and a wry comprehension of human fallibility. She is a writer of sophistication and depth; the range of her fiction is entirely remarkable. Each story has layer upon layer of meaning and emotion; like another Southern writer with whom she is justly compared, Eudora Welty, she surprises and sometimes astonishes with the rich complexity of her work. She is a splendid writer, and it is devoutly to be hoped that Beasts of the Southern Wild will bring her the attention she deserves and, one is tempted to say, demands.

Jonathan Yardley, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), October 7, 1973, pp. 4-5.

["Beasts of the Southern Wild and Other Stories"] is deceptively simple and entertaining on the surface. [The stories] resist interpretation the way Wallace Stevens said poems should—almost completely. Although liberally laced with elements of the Southern gothic, the grotesque, black humor, surrealism and fantasy, the writing escapes categorization and remains very much an index of one woman's intriguing mind, and the finest fruit of her imagination falls to the reader in a shower of startling images, metaphors, and similes….

Perhaps it should not come as a surprise that Miss Betts's strengths can undercut a story which isn't equal in substance or structure to her style. Sometimes the best passages peel away from the text, suggesting an imperfect integration; the author's facility overwhelms her material. At such moments the machinery shows—we see Miss Betts shoving characters where they don't want to go. Too often the endings are contrived….

At her best, as in "The Mother-in-Law," Miss Betts is unbeatable. Here her style finds its perfect theme and structure.

Michael Mewshaw, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 28, 1973, pp. 40-1.