Williams, Joy 1944–
Williams, Joy 1944–
Born February 11, 1944, in Chelmsford, MA; daughter of William Lloyd (a minister) and Elisabeth Williams; married Rust Hills (a writer and editor); children: Caitlin. Education: Marietta College, M.A. (magna cum laude), 1963; University of Iowa, M.F.A., 1965. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Protestant.
Home—FL and AZ. Agent—Amanda Urban, International Creative Management, 40 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019-4001.
Author. U.S. Navy, Mate Marine Laboratory, Siesta Key, FL, researcher and data analyst, 1967-69; visiting instructor at University of Houston, 1982; University of Florida, 1983; University of California, Irvine, 1984; University of Iowa, 1984, 2000; University of Arizona, 1987-92; Ithaca College, 2000; University of Montana, 2000; University of Texas at Austin, 2000; and Washington University, St. Louis, MO, 2005.
National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1973; National Book Award finalist, 1973, for State of Grace; Guggenheim fellowship, 1974; National Magazine Award for fiction, 1980, for "The Farm"; literature citation, 1989, and Straus Living Award, 1993-97, both from American Academy of Arts and Letters; Rea Award for the Short Story, 1999, for Taking Care and Escapes; Pulitzer Prize finalist, 2001, for The Quick and the Dead; finalist, National Book Critics Circle Award, 2001, for Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals; Los Angeles Times Book Award nomination for fiction, 2001, for The Quick and the Dead, and 2004, for Honored Guest: Stories.
State of Grace (novel), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1973.
The Changeling (novel), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1978.
Taking Care (short stories), Random House (New York, NY), 1982.
The Florida Keys: A History and Guide, Random House (New York, NY), 1986, tenth edition, 2003.
Breaking and Entering (novel), Vintage (New York, NY), 1988.
Escapes (short stories), Atlantic Monthly Press (Boston, MA), 1990.
Florida (essays), Graphic Arts Center (Portland, ME), 1999.
The Quick and the Dead (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 2000.
Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals (essays) Lyons Press (New York, NY), 2001.
Honored Guest: Stories, Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor of short stories to anthologies, including O. Henry Prize Story Collection, edited by William Abrahams and Richard Poirier, Doubleday, 1966; Secret Lives of Our Time, edited by Gordon Lish, Doubleday, 1973; Bitches and Sad Ladies, Harper Magazine Press (New York, NY), 1974; All Our Secrets Are the Same, edited by Pat Rotter, Norton (New York, NY), 1977; Best American Short Stories, 1978, edited by Theodore Solotaroff, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1978; The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, edited by R.V. Cassell, Norton, 1978; Women on Woman Alone, Dell (New York, NY), 1978; Matters of Life and Death, edited by Tobias Wolff, Ecco Press (New York, NY), 1982; Great Esquire Fiction, Viking (New York, NY), 1983; Story, edited by Litzinger and Oates, Health, 1985; Best American Short Stories, 1985, edited by Gail Godwin and Shannon Ravenel, Houghton, 1985; American Short Stories, 1986, edited by Raymond Carver and Ravenel, Houghton, 1986; Best American Short Stories, 1987, Houghton, 1987; and American Short Story Masterpieces, edited by Carver and Ravenel, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1987. Contributor of short stories and essays to periodicals, including Paris Review, Esquire, Tri-Quarterly, New Yorker, Grand Street, Harper's, and Granta.
"I think Joy Williams may be the most ‘relevant’ woman writing at this time," remarked Anatole Broyard in his New York Times review of Williams's first novel, State of Grace. "I can't tell which moves me more: her historical inevitability or her talent." In her novels and short stories, Williams writes with a surrealistic intensity of how ordinary lives are vulnerable to horror and hopelessness. Although critics have responded somewhat unevenly to her fiction, they nonetheless recognize her unique talent and skill. Gail Godwin observed in the Chicago Tribune Books that "Joy Williams ‘writes like’ nobody but Joy Williams, and that is distinctively sufficient…. She has her own sound. Her writing style is laconic, austere, yet numinously suggestive."
Williams first attracted popular and critical attention with State of Grace, an impressionistic novel in which "shards of experiences slowly assemble into a powerful portrayal of … a heroine cursed by total recall," according to an Antioch Review contributor. The novel follows the heroine "from her pregnancy to the birth of her child," reported David Bromwich in Commentary, "with generous flashbacks to her religious childhood and her early free-living and free-loving adulthood." Godwin cautioned in the New York Times Book Review that while the "fated heroine of this bleak but beautifully-crafted first novel may well be the final perfected archetype of all the ‘sad ladies’ … [she] is no simple ‘slice-of-despair’ character; her sad story becomes, through the author's skill and intention, transubstantiated into significant myth." Although the Antioch Review contributor believed the book's nonlinear structure causes problems with unity, the critic found a "totally involving immediacy" in the novel and concluded: "All Joy Williams needs is the ability to better organize and control the visions of her extraordinary imagination. She is almost certain to write a novel that will be even finer than this one."
The Changeling, Williams's impressionistic and not easily categorized second novel, did not quite fulfill the expectations several critics held for it. Broyard, for example, acknowledged in the New York Times that State of Grace is a "startlingly good novel, but it pains me to have to say that The Changeling is a startlingly bad one…. Harsh as it may sound, I find that nothing works." Broyard called the story line "an arbitrary muddle about a young woman who is more or less kidnapped by a man who marries her and takes her to live on an island." Strange occurrences on this island prompted a New Yorker contributor to wonder whether this is a "horror story or something more serious? The steady decay of [the heroine's] mental powers, skillfully rendered by Joy Williams, may persuade the reader that the title is a metaphor for a schizophrenic." In the Hudson Review, Patricia Meyer Spacks assessed the novel as an "increasingly surrealistic account …, which retreats altogether from the public realm into a self-indulgent phantasmagoria of privacy." Spacks also suspected that the corresponding stylistic shift from "outer to inner events … reflects unsure novelistic purpose." Similarly, Godwin found the stream-of-consciousness ending disappointing and seemingly evasive because of its unanswered questions. However, Godwin concluded in the Chicago Tribune Books that Williams may be luring the reader to his or her "own solutions—and to await with anticipation her future fictions."
Discussing The Changeling in the New York Times Book Review, Alice Adams appreciated the inherent difficulty in writing about the "borderland between psychosis and reality, the land of private mythology of the ‘grotesque.’" And while she believed Williams is a "talented, skillful writer … [who] evokes the feel and smell of certain moments with an eerie precision," Adams found the novel "unconvincing and ultimately unsatisfactory …, instead of the very good one that I believe Joy Williams could write." Nevertheless, D. Keith Mano wrote favorably in the National Review of the multifarious elements in The Changeling, crediting Williams with a willingness "to stretch and reconnoiter her talent" on what he deemed "a book of risks: primeval myth, enchantment, animal metamorphosis, strange island, symbolism, insanity: more Gothic architecture than Chartres has. Only a daredevil novelist would try to renovate this tenement genre."
Taking Care, Williams's first collection of short stories, generated favorable response from critics, many of whom considered the stories both individually and collectively successful. The "finely made and perfectly matched stories … hold love up to us like a dark, fractured bauble that we should see, reflected and to our astonishment, what moments in our familiar lives it dominates," wrote Richard Ford in Chicago's Tribune Books. David Quammen suggested in the New York Times Book Review that "social disfunction and the discontinuity of relationships" permeate the collection; he added that most of the stories are "focused on the imperfect efforts of husbands and wives trying marriage for the second or third time, and on the children surviving (in various degrees of disability) from earlier attempts." Ford found that "most often and touchingly, Williams' characters live without love, and grow melancholy for wanting it"; he maintained that "Williams writes about such yearnings and their attendant pretensions with a rare, transforming intelligence." Joyce Kornblatt, who detected a similarity in spirit between these stories and those of Flannery O'Connor and Joyce Carol Oates, observed in the Washington Post Book World that "madness, murder, the surrender of hope become commonplace rather than extreme behaviors, and even those characters who sustain the ability to love seem perplexed, even encumbered, by their triumph."
Caroline Thompson wrote in the Los Angeles Times that "gathered together, the stories project a cumulative impression that couldn't be communicated by any single of them." Brina Coplan commended Williams for the subtle yet devastating effect of her collection, and wrote in the Nation: "Taking Care, story by story and incident by incident, withdraws meaning from the lives it represents. In each case, what remains is a gem of despair, worked into the shape of finality by skillful slights of hand." Kornblatt suggested: "Transcending religious and political systems of belief, Williams speaks to us from a plane of pure feeling." She continued: "Like fine music, these stories circumvent the intellect. Williams seems to make the works themselves transparent and we gaze directly into the souls of her characters." Williams wrote the 1988 novel Breaking and Entering before returning to the short-story genre with Escapes two years later. Her skill in short fiction, evidenced by the 1982 and 1990 collections, earned her prestigious Rea Award in the category in 1999.
Williams once worked for the U.S. Navy as a researcher and data analyst at its Mate Marine Laboratory in Siesta Key, Florida. The experience impacted her life and her fiction in a number of ways: she made the Florida Keys her permanent home and developed a strong interest in environmental and ecological issues, which would become a recurring theme in her later work. In 1997, she wrote a long piece for Harper's magazine about the radical animal-rights movement. Her 2000 novel, The Quick and the Dead, touches upon some of these themes through Williams's characterization of the prickly, opinionated heroine, Alice. The Quick and the Dead was selected for the cover of the New York Times Book Review that October, with an illustration of a grimacing blond teenager wearing a "THANK YOU FOR NOT BREEDING" T-shirt.
The Arizona teenager is a caricatured symbol of the radical environmentalist and pro-animal fringe. Alice is politically astute, vegetarian, and well informed on population control, conservancy issues, and the planet's beautifully balanced ecosystem. Alice has difficulty endearing herself to other humans, however. She has a bad experience as a babysitter for two children, whom she disliked: "They cried frequently, indulged themselves in boring, interminable narratives, were sentimental and cruel, and when frustrated would bite," reads one passage of The Quick and the Dead. Alice tries to teach them how to marvel at nature and urges them to question their teacher, but their hairdresser mother accuses her of satanism and refuses to pay her. At the end of the first chapter, the woman leaves Alice stranded in a state park.
Alice returns home, where she lives with her grandparents, and as The Quick and the Dead unfolds readers learn that she and two of her close friends are all motherless. Corvus lost her parents in a bizarre drowning death, while Annabel's spirited mother was struck by a car. All deal with their loss through different means: Corvus is deeply heartbroken—as is her dog—while Annabel seems unfazed. Alice vents her anger on the larger world. A series of events follow to mark the girls' passage into adulthood. Corvus's beloved dog runs afoul of a neighbor who dislikes it; the man kills it, and the girls, at Alice's urging, extract a terrible retribution. The lives of other characters entwine with theirs, but the animal world seems to keep intruding.
Alice moves toward increasing radicalism in the environmental movement, but realizes that this, too, is a form of the conformity and consumerism she so despises. "Like Alice, The Quick and the Dead is odd, intelligent, unsettling and sometimes spectacularly uningratiating," according to New York Times Book Review writer Jennifer Schuessler. The critic nevertheless termed it "beautifully written, and often very funny." Schuessler felt that the author's fourth novel has some structural flaws. "Williams' language runs with virtuosity across a wide range, from dead-on vernacular to the gorgeously, unabashed oracular," stated Schuessler. "But even her perfect pitch can't keep this scattered, jumpy book from falling to pieces at times." Other reviewers commented more favorably on the "episodic, meandering structure," as a Publishers Weekly critic termed it, and the somewhat inconclusive ending. "But these are deliberate choices, made by an artist attentive to real people's psyches," the reviewer concluded. A U.S. News and World Report contributor termed The Quick and the Dead an "unsparingly bleak (yet often beautiful) novel," and even Schuessler concluded that Williams's gifts are evident in the book's flaws. "Sometimes the animals barge in awkwardly on the human stories Williams is telling, trying the reader's sympathies," Schuessler observed. "But the need to disrupt the easy flow of sympathy—to call into question the self-serving sentimentality that tends to get filed under ‘affirmations of the human spirit’—is one of the book's themes, and part of its strange fascination."
Williams's 2000 book of environmental essays, Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals, was hailed as "sharp, sarcastic and uncompromising" by a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Her collection of nineteen essays, including "Safari-land," "The Case against Babies," and "Save the Whales, Screw the Shrimp," deals with animal rights and the abuse and overuse of the natural world by the human population. "As a whole the work is effective and will likely leave the reader angry, frustrated, distressed, or depressed, which is, after all, her intent," wrote Maureen J. Delaney-Lehman in Library Journal. Booklist reviewer Donna Seaman concluded: "These howls, protests and pleas for sanity are lacerating, brilliant, and necessary."
Honored Guest: Stories, which Williams published in 2004, is a collection of twelve short stories that all focus in some way on death and the loss of reality. Yet, as with all of Williams's work, the theme of hope, whether for survival or sanity or remembrance, is strong as well.
A reviewer for Publishers Weekly said of Williams: "Her characters speak like poets or philosophers, … and her prose is imaginative and dynamic." In a review for the Atlantic Monthly, Benjamin Schwartz noted that, as others have remarked, Williams is "the heir to Flannery O'Connor—but she's also among the most original fiction writers at work today." Sara Miller, writing for Books & Culture, summed up Williams's writing as expressing the balance between hope and loss, life and death: "Williams is also a brilliant ironist, perhaps peerless, and much admired by other writers for her consummate craft. Of the many qualities of her prose—clarity, economy, intelligence, complete mastery of the sentence—the most conspicuous is authority. Writing for Williams is a truth-telling enterprise, an act of witness, a form of prayer."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 31, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1985.
Antioch Review, November, 1973, review of State of Grace.
Atlantic Monthly, December, 2004, Benjamin Schwartz, review of Honored Guest: Stories, p. 124.
Booklist, February 15, 2001, Donna Seaman, review of Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals, p. 1110.
Books & Culture, May-June, 2005, Sara Miller, "Holy Animals" review of Honored Guest, p. 14.
Boston Globe, October 19, 1997, Tim Gautreaux, "Behind the Great Stories There Are Great Sentences," p. P4.
Commentary, September, 1973, David Bromwich, review of State of Grace, pp. 85-86.
Hudson Review, winter, 1978-79, Patricia Meyer Spacks, review of The Changeling, pp. 663-676.
Library Journal, February 1, 2001, Maureen J. Delaney-Lehman, review of Ill Nature, p. 123.
Los Angeles Times, April 22, 1982, Caroline Thompson, review of Taking Care.
Nation, April 24, 1982, Brina Coplan, review of Taking Care, pp. 500-502.
National Review, August 4, 1978, D. Keith Mano, review of The Changeling.
New Yorker, September 25, 1978, review of The Changeling.
New York Times, November 7, 1973, Anatole Broyard, review of State of Grace; June 3, 1978, Anatole Broyard, review of The Changeling.
New York Times Book Review, April 22, 1973, Gail Godwin, review of State of Grace, pp. 2-3; July 2, 1978, Alice Adams, review of The Changeling, pp. 6, 17; February 14, 1982, David Quammen, review of Taking Care, pp. 11, 34; October 22, 2000, Jennifer Schuessler, "Virtue Is Its Own Punishment," review of The Quick and the Dead.
New York Times Magazine, February 18, 2001, David Rakoff, "Up a Tree," p. 13.
Publishers Weekly, May 31, 1999, "Joy Williams Wins $30,000 Rea Prize," p. 25; September 18, 2000, review of The Quick and the Dead, p. 88; January 15, 2001, review of Ill Nature, p. 63; August 30, 2004, review of Honored Guest, p. 30.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), June 18, 1978, Gail Godwin, review of The Changeling; May 2, 1982, Richard Ford, review of Taking Care.
U.S. News and World Report, October 30, 2000, review of The Quick and the Dead, p. 66.
Washington Post Book World, March 21, 1982, Joyce Kornblatt, review of Taking Care, p. 4.