Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 599

Williams began her writing career with strength on her side: her first novel, State of Grace received a glowing review from New York Times critic Gail Godwin. Godwin hails Williams as a “first-rate new novelist.” Alice Adams, in the New York Times Book Review, praises Williams as “talented” and “skillful,”...

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Williams began her writing career with strength on her side: her first novel, State of Grace received a glowing review from New York Times critic Gail Godwin. Godwin hails Williams as a “first-rate new novelist.” Alice Adams, in the New York Times Book Review, praises Williams as “talented” and “skillful,” but her review of The Changeling is thoroughly negative. Adams is completely turned off by Williams’s wild tale of animals as people and vice versa. Anatole Broyard’s June 3, 1978, review of the novel for the New York Times is similarly proportioned: he is a fan of Williams’s work in general but despises this book in particular. Both critics acknowledge that Williams took risks with her novel, pushing the boundaries of character and delving into the avant-garde.

Williams’s first collection of short stories, Taking Care, received modest but positive attention. Her third novel, Breaking and Entering, was the subject of another good review in the New York Times. Reviewer Bret Easton Ellis, not a fan of Williams’s first novel, found this book to be a better representation of her potential: “She’s a stronger writer when she’s less of a poet.” Rand Richards Cooper, in reviewing Williams’s third short story collection, Escapes, for the New York Times Book Review calls her landscapes, “both quirky and ominous,” a description echoed by other critics, such as Michiko Kakutani.

Williams’s fourth novel, The Quick and the Dead, was a finalist for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize. An anonymous reviewer of that novel for Publishers Weekly describes Williams as “an artist attentive to real people’s psyches.” A critic for the Economist gives the novel a mixed review, claiming that its edginess can make the reader weary, but overall celebrating the author as “original, energetic, and viscously funny.” Williams’s foray into nonfiction, Ill Nature, a book about environmental degradation, was a cautious success. Stephanie Flack, writing in Antioch Review in the Fall 2002 issue, was impressed with her effort and scholarship but a little taken aback by the tone.

Williams’s third collection of short stories, Honored Guests, was received coolly by the anonymous reviewer for Kirkus Reviews, who found the stories “seldom involving.” A reviewer for Publishers Weekly was more impressed, describing the collection as “rich, darkly humorous and provocative.” Benjamin Schwarz, reviewing for the Atlantic Monthly also praises Williams’s collection of quirky tales and points to a legacy many critics observe: “Williams is . . . the heir to Flannery O’Connor—but she’s also among the most original fiction writers at work today.” David Gates, for Newsweek International, is charmed by restraint that “seems almost classical” and compares Williams, as others have, to writer Raymond Carver. But Stephen Metcalf, writing for the New York Times Book Review, gives a cool review. He is underwhelmed by her “terse, dread-filled writing style.” Books & Culture critic Sara Miller also ends on a chilly note, observing that the stories “stop shy of redemption.”

“The Girls” has not been collected in a book by Williams but was honored by Michael Chabon by inclusion in The Best American Short Stories 2005. Reviews of this collection make note of Williams’s short story as one of the stronger ones in the collection. Kakutani’s words from a review of Escapes also serve as a good summation of Williams’s writing career:

At her best . . . Ms. Williams demonstrates an intuitive ability to delineate the complexities of an individual character in a few brief pages, a gift for finding those significant moments that reveal the somber verities lurking beneath the flash and clamor of daily life.

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Essays and Criticism