Organized into four sections, these pieces reward a reader with the rich pleasure of Oates’ critical thinking. Wasting nothing, missing nothing, Oates gets down to it; her relish feels infectious ... Oates has, it seems, read everything, and her deft, considered wisdom is pure treasure ... Arguably a kind of almanac, arranged to comfortably accommodate skipping around and rereading, Soul at the White Heat (its title taken from an Emily Dickinson poem) is a reference to keep near. Renowned as well as under-acknowledged names take their turns beneath the Oatesian gaze ... Though there’s not space here to cite countless remarkable passages, I will settle for praising the consistent enlightenment and generous companionship of Oates’ critical vision: never sacrificing complexity, relentless, acute, compassionate.
Oates considers the origins of writing in voluminous detail and via every type of critical approach — review, reconsideration, instructional, public address, introduction — just as her scores of other books range exhaustively over genres and forms ... Oates is precise and thorough, erudite and all-encompassing. A substantial part of Soul at the White Heat comprises book reviews of such contemporaries’ work as Coetzee, Lorrie Moore, McMurtry, Erdrich, Atwood. To their appraisal Oates brings to bear every other book she has read, it seems, and that is a lot: there is little in the western canon that has escaped her omnivoracity ... Oates set out to prove that writing is as personal as it gets.
Oates bounces here between these critical modes. These essays are often carefully undogmatic. But at times a philosophy creeps in ... A high-modernist, Promethean vocabulary — by now its own kind of consensus — is her touchstone of praise: the unsettling, the rebellious, the subversive. Perhaps as a result, Oates is most engaging when thinking about more eccentric, even marginal, writers ... It is a Romantic aesthetic, this restlessness for the open and unfettered. The room or the view? How you answer that question will go some distance toward determining how useful a literary guide you find Oates.