Williams, Diane 1946–

views updated

Williams, Diane 1946–

PERSONAL: Born January 16, 1946, in Chicago, IL; daughter of William (a business executive, philanthropist, and conference director) and Mary (Rosen) Swartz; married Paul Williams (an investment banker), 1970 (divorced, 1993); children: Jacob, Alexander. Education: University of Pennsylvania, B.A., 1968. Religion: Jewish.

ADDRESSES: Office—NOON, 1369 Madison Ave., PMB 298, New York, NY 10128. Agent—Kim Witherspoon, Inkwell Management, 521 5th Ave., 26th Fl., New York, NY 10175.

CAREER: Freelance writer and editor. J.G. Ferguson, New York, NY, textbook editor, 1969–71; Scott Foresman, Glenview, IL, textbook editor, 1971–74; Science Research Associates, Chicago, IL, textbook editor, 1974–76; freelance writer and editor, 1976–. Story-Quarterly, fiction editor, 1985–97; NOON, founding editor, 2000–. Syracuse University, visiting assistant professor, 1999; Bard College, visiting assistant professor, 2001, 2004. Bellevue Hospital, worked as dance therapist.

MEMBER: Authors Guild, Authors League of America, PEN American Center.

AWARDS, HONORS: Pushcart Prize, 1991, 1992, 2000.


This Is about the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate: Stories, Grove Weidenfeld (New York, NY), 1990.

(Editor, with Anne Brashler and Melissa Pritchard) The American Story: The Best of "StoryQuarterly," Cane Hill Press (New York, NY), 1990.

Some Sexual Success Stories: Plus Other Stories in Which God Might Choose to Appear, Grove Weidenfeld (New York, NY), 1992.

The Stupefaction: Stories and a Novella, Knopf (New York, NY), 1996.

Excitability: Selected Stories, Dalkey Archive Press (Chicago, IL), 1998.

Romancer Erector: Novella and Stories, Dalkey Archive Press (Chicago, IL), 2001.

Contributor to journals, including Conjunctions, Quarterly, Iowa Review, Epoch, Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, 3rd Bed, Fence, and Bomb.

SIDELIGHTS: Diane Williams came back to fiction later in life than many writers; she wrote in college (Philip Roth was one of her creative writing teachers at the University of Pennsylvania), but her first collection of short stories did not come out until Williams was in her mid-forties and had been an editor at StoryQuarterly for five years.

Her first collection, This Is about the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate: Stories, includes forty-seven stories which, according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer, "produce a disorienting portrait of modern—specifically female—angst." To quote from one somewhat typical story, "Baby," "Nobody was making my mouth fall open by running his finger down my spine … so I could tell him what I keep—what I have been keeping for so long in my bureau drawer underneath my cableknit pink crew—so I could tell him what I count on happening every time I take it out from under there." The Publishers Weekly reviewer said that this passage shows Williams's penchant for "repressed themes." The reviewer continued, "Williams's world is a dark, suburban tract lit by crystalline perceptions."

In the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Irving Malin described Williams's book with similar appreciation: "Williams writes about large themes, but she maintains that they have meaning only through occult details, surprising revelations and perceptions…; hence, the stories are like puzzles, and it is left to the reader to connect things, to find patterns."

Some Sexual Success Stories: Plus Other Stories in Which God Might Choose to Appear evoked similar responses. Matthew Stadler, reviewing it in the New York Times, quoted from the story "The Flesh," which he said exemplifies a gesture "central," in Stadler's opinion, to the "operation of her collection": "Plenty has been missing here all along, in addition to most of the people's names in their entirety, more of what they were saying, also the overtones and undertones of their major statements."

According to Stadler, "Ms. Williams conjures what is missing simply by noting its absence…. It is a reminder that for all their ambitions and conceits, writers can only offer words, and words are inevitably empty; words are makers for what is not there." Stadler referred to Williams as "a double agent in the house of fiction," "both a practitioner and an enemy of her craft." "Beholden and hostile to the conceits of fiction, she takes to rooting around in them, like a clown at a carnival show—a curtain is lifted here, a tent flap there, and all the clever machinations of the sideshow are laid bare." Ultimately, Stadler argued, what Williams's writing produces is the expression of "an edgy, jagged state of mind, a lurching consciousness in a culture of speed and amnesia. It is not a comfortable position to occupy, but one can't expect comfort from a double agent."

In an interview with John O'Brien in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Williams described her writing process in these words: "I remember an aspect of experience that I have no idea why I would remember, you know, somebody's shoelace rather than what they said that I was there to listen to, and the fact that when I think back on any experience, it's so chaotic and unintelligible that it frightens me as a person who has to perform in the real world, but as an artist it's absolutely liberating because I have less to work with." "Artistry is manipulating elements," the author continued; "the fewer there are, the easier the process of composing them. So I am lucky in that respect to be sort of simple, to have a poor memory, to hold experience in a chaotic way."

Although few of Williams's stories run over two pages, the process of thinking and reflection and word/thought manipulation that goes into them is exhaustive. She described in the interview what experience prompted her story "Pornography," which appears in Some Sexual Success Stories. "Pornography" starts with the words "I just had a terrible experience—I'm sorry." Williams told O'Brien that that combination of phrases came directly out of a conversation Williams had with a friend who was late meeting her for lunch; the friend had witnessed a terrible accident in which an old man driving a car hit a young boy on a bicycle. Williams manipulates that event and its telling, as well as her reaction to it, into an examination of our reactions to terrible news, and the kind of pleasure we receive from the cathartic reaction such terrible stories evoke in us. She related this reaction to an experience when after an argument with her own son, he took off on his bike, and her reaction was numbness. In "Pornography," that experience became "a mother in a rage because she cannot get sexual gratification from the idea that her son might be killed." Williams hopes that by probing these kinds of underlying feelings she can produce a kind of healing: "I am far from the only one who believes that experience teaches us that when you speak a nightmare and speak it to its limit, whatever it is, then that speech has a healing force."

Williams moved into a new form in The Stupefaction: Stories and a Novella. Reviewers were in the main less impressed with this collection. A reviewer in Publishers Weekly referred to Williams as a "one-trick pony," in contrast to "postmodern innovators" John Barth and Donald Barthelme. This reviewer found the forty-nine stories long on "cognitive … complexity" but short on "emotional range." Sally Eckhoff in the New York Times complained that here "word-wrangling edges out plot," and that Williams makes too much use of a "large-scale, uncosmetized sexual imagery" which is so much a part of the "code" of "artistic subversion." Here Eckhoff seems to be agreeing with the Publishers Weekly reviewer that this work could appeal only to devotees of experimental writing; but Eckhoff seems also to be making a larger critique of the "increasingly conventional language of creative risk" of which she sees Williams as an example.

A Kirkus Reviews contributor was more positive than others, noting Williams's "often surprising, amusing, and deft wit." The review gave as an example the plot of the novella of the title, which concerns two people who meet in a romantic tryst in a cabin visited by an extraterrestrial, of whom the speaker says, "Its profile is remarkably like my mother's." Other examples of Williams's wit included this one, from "Speech": "He dragged me along to this refined filth of a hotel, which aroused my truest false feeling." The reviewer concluded, "Only those incapable of laughter will dislike all of this small book, while even the most sympathetic will have to work hard for what they get."



This Is about the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate: Stories, Grove Weidenfeld (New York, NY), 1990.


American Book Review, July-August, 1999, Trevor Dodge, review of Excitability: Selected Stories; July-August, 2002, Stacey Levine, review of Romancer Erector: Novella and Stories.

Bomb, summer, 2002, Matthea Harvey, review of Romancer Erector, p. 22.

Elle, November, 1998, review of Excitability.

Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 1996, review of The Stupefaction: Stories and a Novella, p. 406.

New York Times, July 19, 1992, Matthew Stadler, review of Some Sexual Success Stories: Plus Other Stories in Which God Might Choose to Appear; July 7, 1996, Sally Eckhoff, review of The Stupefaction.

Philadelphia Inquirer, June 9, 1996.

Publishers Weekly, November 24, 1989, review of This Is about the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Date, p. 58; March 25, 1996, review of The Stupefaction, pp. 61-62; September 14, 1998, review of Excitability.

Rain Taxi, winter, 2001–02, Laura Sims, review of Romancer Erector, p. 6.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, summer, 1990, Irving Malin, review of This Is about the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Date, pp. 271-272; spring, 1992, John O'Brien, interview of Williams, pp. 133-141; fall, 2003, Laura Sims, "Diane Williams", critical essay about the author, pp. 7-47.

About this article

Williams, Diane 1946–

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article