Oates is famously one of the most prolific writers working today, having authored more than 40 novels in the past five decades and an enormous number of short stories, essays, and reviews, as well as sharing her diaries, correspondence, and other writing ephemera. Critics are quick to note the futility of the hope that one can examine her latest novel against all of her previous efforts.
But Oates is unrepentant about her output. She regularly writes while teaching classes at Princeton and also maintains an active social media presence, which seems to have only increased with the recent US presidential election. (Notably, Oates refers to Donald Trump as “T***p,” suggesting his name is a kind of unutterable swear word.) Indeed, Oates examines social media in her new book, arguing it is “insatiable in its fleeting interests” and may threaten the creation of more “permanent art” in our culture today. Oates’s use of social media was recently the subject of a Lit Hub essay, which claimed Oates actually used Twitter “ironically,” “trolling” us by writing “what she wants until she can’t say anything any longer.”
Soul at the White Heat proves itself to be a kind of roadmap to the capacious, mercurial Oates. The collection compiles previously published cultural criticism, reviews, and personal essays, forming a nuanced portrait of Oates as both author and critic. It explores the subjects that provoke her, and why she chooses to write across varied genres and forms (fiction, poetry, criticism). Although also pitched as a kind of survey of the contemporary state of American letters, this compilation provides a far more fascinating insight into Oates’s own writing world.
The collection is divided into four parts: “The Writing Life,” perhaps the most revealing section; “Classics,” in which Oates revels in the pleasures of the Western canon; “Contemporaries,” consisting largely of reviews from The New York Review of Books and other literary journals, in which Oates assesses the work of writers ranging from Joan Didion to Zadie Smith; and a brief section titled “Real Life,” a tacked-on but nevertheless fascinating account of Oates’s trip to San Quentin.
In some ways, the best way to read the book is to start — as I did — at the end, with “A Visit to San Quentin.” For those hungry for a more private glimpse into Oates’s world — one seemingly fortressed by the library of her publications — “A Visit” is deeply satisfying. This personal piece of journalism not only details the author’s search for her writing subject, but also chronicles a disarming, difficult shock she encounters in the process, one that affects her readers as much as it did her.
In the narrative, Oates and a group of young women go on a guided tour of San Quentin — one of the few tours the prison allows each year. Oates writes it was an experience in which “you are not quite the person emerging whom you’d believe yourself to be, entering.” As she and the group tour the San Quentin grounds, sitting in the bowels of the Death Row execution chambers and surveying the prison’s empty cafeteria, Oates feels she is experiencing imprisonment. The reason the essay is so rich and so probing is that it is ultimately about Oates, the writer and the thinker, augmenting our understanding of her attempts to discover and interrogate subjects for her fiction. Even at 78, Oates seeks out difficult subjects for her writing, choosing complex — perhaps even dangerous — situations and exposing her own vulnerability in order to challenge herself.
Perhaps because Oates is so associated with her productivity, one might assume she is a kind of passive writer, absorbed in the pleasures of reading, thinking, and crafting words. But this piece demonstrates that her desire for experience is as voracious as her appetite for writing. Here Oates hungers for close encounters with the stuff of life and refuses to let age or other impediments stand in the way.
In the more literary pieces, Oates examines the motivation to write, exploring the inspirations that drove the likes of Virginia Woolf to Emily Dickinson. The opening essay, “Is the Uninspired Life Worth Living?,” argues that inspiration — often experienced as a “haunting” or obsession — can be a “ravishing, irresistible doubled-edged sword.” The essay offers a rich history of authors haunted by their subjects, including a thoughtful portrait of John Updike.
But the essay takes an unexpected turn when Oates begins to discuss social media — a subject that may very well be haunting her. As one of several well-known authors who regularly engage with Twitter — others include Margaret Atwood and Stephen King — Oates is an unlikely figure to discourage readers from actively embracing the use of social media, but that is exactly what she does here.
Oates stresses the importance of the “thoughtfulness and depths of art,” comparing works of “permanent” art with social media, an outlet “insatiable in its fleeting interests,” which can foster a culture of “no meaning [… a] succession of fleeting impressions.” The irony, of course, is that Oates is herself a prolific and even notorious user of social media; she has recently attracted controversies for tweets on ISIS and Donald Trump. Twitter is a platform where she pairs comments on art and literature with big, often contentious statements about politics or news stories, regularly retweeting, for example, coverage of the recent presidential election alongside the poetry of Emily Dickinson or critical appraisals of new books, including her own.
How does this contradictory stance — a suspicion of social media but also an obsessive use of it — inform her identity as a creator of “permanent art”? Oates ends the essay by arguing that we need to continue pausing, looking for inspiration, and feeding our obsessions, and then directing these energies to depths of art in order to continue fostering a “shared culture.” Oates’s forays onto Twitter reveal her to be moving into the future of writing and publishing, although she does bemoan our digital culture and decline in print publishing; she is trying to adjust to technological changes, and to further her own “permanent art.” In Twitter, she sees an opportunity to marry everyday speech with critical thought and to reach a new audience. She indulges in short, crisp, aphoristic thoughts on anything ranging from art to pop culture to cats, and playfully creates an online persona distinct from her authorial one.
Unlike her previous collection of essays on writing, The Faith of a Writer, which dealt more with the mechanics of her craft, Soul at the White Heat calls attention to Oates’s many thematic and cultural obsessions and how these operate in her larger body of writing. Oates’s unguarded and compelling book gives insight into her vulnerabilities and illuminates her vision as a writer. It is as close to a look into her private artistic world as we have had.
Nathan Smith is an arts and culture writer based in Australia. His writing has appeared in The Economist, The Atlantic, and the Washington Post.