Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 848
Jayne Anne Phillips is recognized as one of the most gifted writers of her generation. She was born in Buckhannon, West Virginia, on July 19, 1952, the daughter of Russell R. Phillips, a contractor, and Martha Jane Thornhill, a teacher. She received a B.A. degree from West Virginia University in 1974, graduating magna cum laude. She then entered the famed writing program at the University of Iowa and by 1978 had earned an M.F.A. degree. Her first two books were chapbooks rather than full-length books and were issued by small presses: Sweethearts by Truck Press and Counting by Vehicle Editions. Her stories did not go unnoticed; in 1977 Sweethearts won for Phillips the Pushcart Prize awarded by Pushcart Press, the first of many literary honors. She won the prize again in 1979 for the short stories “Home” and “Lechery” and for the third time in 1983, for her story “How Mickey Made It.” Sweethearts also won for Phillips the 1978 Fels Award in fiction from the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, and Counting won the St. Lawrence Award for fiction in 1979. Phillips received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1978 and received a second in 1985.
Black Tickets, Phillips’s first full-length book, which gathered stories from the chapbooks along with some new material, was published by Delacorte in 1979. The next year, the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters gave Phillips its Sue Kaufman Award for first fiction. Also in 1980 her short story “Snow” won the O. Henry Award. In 1981 Radcliffe College awarded her a Bunting Institute Fellowship for the body of her work. She continued to accumulate honors in 1984 when Machine Dreams received a National Book Critics Circle Award nomination, an American Library Association Notable Book citation, and a New York Times Best Books of 1984 citation. In 1987 she published an expanded version of Fast Lanes. This collection contains seven stories, two of which are spin-offs from Machine Dreams.
Phillips became an adjunct associate professor of English at Boston University in 1982. On May 26, 1985, she married Mark Brian Stockman, a physician. She is the mother of a son and two stepsons. During the 1986-1987 academic year, she occupied the Fanny Howe Chair of Letters at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. As her many literary honors attest, Phillips’s critical reception has been favorable from the beginning. Critics disagree, however, as to which are her best stories. Some prefer her tales of the dark, lonely, desperate side of life, while others favor her more conventional stories of middle-class life. Among the twenty-seven stories in Black Tickets, sixteen are quite short. Still, most critics—among them the novelist John Irving—believe that she does her best work in the longer, more complex stories. In the mid-1970’s, Phillips spent a rootless period on the road, wandering from West Virginia to California and back again. Her observations during this odyssey form the basis of her tales of misfits, of the dispossessed and the alienated. Even in stories they do not find convincing, critics usually praise Phillips’s impressive use of language and her often dazzling stylistics. She began as a poet, and an emphasis upon compression continues to mark her work.
Machine Dreams expands on the stories of families in Black Tickets. The novel chronicles, through multiple points of view, the disintegration of the Hampson family—Mitch, Jean, their son Billy, and their daughter Danner—over a period of some thirty years, especially contrasting the time of World War II with that of the Vietnam War. Some critics suggest that the Hampsons are America in microcosm, evolving from the 1930’s (an era of privation but also of certitude) through the 1970’s (an era of affluence but marked by loss of conviction and direction). The titleMachine Dreams may hint at the spiritual failures of a technological age.
In Shelter, Phillips dramatizes a confrontation between good and evil. Set in an idyllic summer camp in West Virginia, Phillips’s narrative portrays the loss of childhood innocence when four Girl Guide campers come into violent contact with a former convict and his young son. Phillips’s sensitive and lyrical rendering of her characters’ thoughts, impressions, and vulnerability earned praise from critics and reviewers.
MotherKind balances life and death in the story of Kate, who is pregnant with her first child at the same time that her mother, Katherine, is dying of cancer. The novel was praised for avoiding sentimentality and cliché.
Phillips is sometimes called a regional writer, probably because she has written about the conflicts of family life, because she is from the upper South, and because she has listed Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and William Faulkner among those writers who have influenced her. She strongly rejects this epithet, however, considering it inherently limiting in its connotations. Her work is also often associated with the school of dirty realism and such writers as Bobbie Ann Mason. The principal adverse criticism of Phillips’s work is that her technical brilliance and evocative use of language sometimes overshadow her narrative—mild criticism indeed, suggesting as it does that her fiction is occasionally a surfeit of riches.
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