Since 1963 Joyce Carol Oates has published one or more books annually, including novels, short fiction, poetry, plays, and essays. It is an extended literary performance that has earned her the esteem of her peers and the following of a loyal reading public. The Faith of a Writer is, in a sense, an encore to this performance and includes several previously published essays, an interview, and a statement of Oates’s personal faith as a writer. The works delve into the core ambitions, beliefs, and experiences that motivate and sustain writers, mixing personal experience, biographical illustration, and analysis of particular literary pieces. Oates’s topics include such familiar aspects of the writing life as inspiration and self-criticism. Although analyses and illustrations are sometimes repeated, different emphases emerge as the author explores her subjects from a variety of perspectives.
Oates asserts that the faith of writers upholds their necessary withdrawal from the commonplace, supporting their unwavering focus on creation and affirming their spirit during the solitary act of writing. It is a faith that is often inconstant, however, and periods of doubt and despair are common. Writers may experience a kind of internal dissonance as a result of the separation between their public and personal roles. Far from asserting her own writing practices as firm principles, Oates draws on the lives of a range of exemplary authors to portray the writing life.
Oates’s belief in the power of writing to enrich the lives of readers and to strengthen the fabric of human culture is integral to her statement in “My Faith as a Writer.” In this declaration, she expresses her sense of wonder that writing is capable of creating a literary world free from the barriers of time, place, nationality, and language. Oates defines the act of writing as an art, one that permits humans to transcend the impermanent and participate in their culture, fulfilling a need that is equal to the drive to procreate. She describes an ever-widening spiral in which individual expression gives voice to communal, regional, and universal expression. Oates celebrates the intimacy thus created among people who may otherwise know nothing of one another.
The faith expressed in “My Faith as a Writer” originated very early in Oates’s life, as her opening essay, “District School #7, Niagara County, New York,” illustrates. She was an enthusiastic pupil and vividly recalls the one-room school and her experiences there as she attended the first through fifth grades. Before learning to read, Oates had enjoyed creating books made up of colored drawing and scribbles. From the first grade on, she was fascinated by words, even to the point of prizing a favorite dictionary. She differentiated at an early age between overly simple children’s textbooks and what she believed to be the reality of adult literature. One of the more memorable volumes she read during that period was a collection of American literature which included such classic authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Whitcomb Riley, and Herman Melville. In addition, the beneficial influence of her teacher and the refuge provided by the schoolhouse created a world apart from the abusive behavior of older children and the rough culture of her community. The experiences of childhood also predominate in “First Loves: From ‘Jabberwocky’ to ‘After Apple Picking,’” in which Oates reveals further influences.
The idea that art originates in experimentation is examined in “What Sin to Me Unknown,” whose title is taken from the “Epistle to Dr. Arbutnot” (1735) by English poet Alexander Pope. Oates identifies the origins of art in play, in rebellion, in the desire to honor and record the past, and in the need to overcome personal inadequacy. In response to situations reminiscent of the trials of Lewis Carroll’s heroine in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), writers create their own challenges in imaginary worlds. In making the transition from childhood to professional writer, they reveal themselves as romantics deeply motivated to create. Oates notes that forms such as the fairy tale, the legend, and the ballad predate more rational forms of discourse in human culture.
Oates addresses a darker topic in “Notes on Failure” by weaving commentary and example. Authors of great talent and literary accomplishment have often misapprehended their own abilities or at...
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