Doris (Waugh) Betts 1932–
American novelist, short story writer, and journalist.
Betts's work has inspired some critics to define her as a regional or Southern writer because of her realistic descriptions of small-town life in the South and her emphasis on familial relationships. However, Betts's themes of love and responsibility and her thoughtful characterizations have a universal appeal. Although Betts has received substantial critical attention, her work has not gained the public acknowledgment some critics feel she deserves.
Many critics consider Betts's short story collections to be her most powerful work. These stories are highly praised for their sensitive prose style and realistic dialogue. The humanistic studies of love, pain, loneliness, and death found in The Gentle Insurrection (1954) are particularly noteworthy. The Astronomer and Other Stories (1966) has also gained favorable critical attention. The title story, which some critics maintain is Betts's finest work, tells of a recently retired widower whose sole interest in life is studying astronomy. His solitary existence is interrupted when he boards a young couple who involve him in their troubled relationship. Betts's inventive use of the cosmos as a guide to the actions of her characters in this story is an important motif.
Betts has also written four novels. Tall Houses in Winter (1957) is a poignant depiction of a man struggling to decide whether to undergo surgery that could possibly save his life. Although some critics find the book sentimental, others cite Betts's well-crafted characterizations and skillful use of recollections through which the protagonist confronts his past mistakes and is better able to assess his future.
Betts's third novel, The River to Pickle Beach (1972), is a story of the power of bigotry and ignorance. Set in a coastal North Carolina town in the summer of 1968, following the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., a prejudiced man directs his hatred and anxiety toward a retarded woman and her son and instills fear and violence into the rest of the community. The use of the Kennedy and King assassinations as an omnipresent element serves as an indirect influence on the tragic events in the novel and typifies the national malaise of the time.
Literary authorities generally acknowledge that Betts emerges as a powerful and sensitive novelist in Heading West (1981). Considered by some to be her most ambitious novel, it introduces into her work a setting outside the South, the theme of the value of independence, and a more complex plot structure. The book is a psychological drama about a passive woman whose life is controlled by her family until she is kidnapped. Her physical imprisonment while being taken across the country results in the gradual realization both of her need to live as an independent person and her potential for further growth.
(See also CLC, Vols. 3, 6; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 9; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1982.)