The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories by Joy Williams, Knopf, 490 pages, $30. No, this Joy Williams bears no relation to a musical performer of the same name. Nor is this the 21st-century equivalent of that extraordinary red-and-gold volume of John Cheever’s stories in its massively swooping upward placement of its author. This is still, unquestionably, the short story collection of this year.
And thereby obviously hangs a tale. In last week’s profile in the New York Times Magazine (no longer, really, “the graveyard of American prose” that Gore Vidal once called it), Williams is aptly called not just a “writer’s writer” but a “writer’s writer’s writer.” That is how much she is, at 70, lionized in America’s innermost literary classes.
Once celebrated as being among the minimalists and “Kmart realists” who took the Grace Paley–Raymond Carver–Flannery O’Connor route through American short fiction rather than the Donald Barthelme route, Joy Williams, in 2008, told interviewer Tao Lin “minimalism as a productive style can be very affective, alarming and satisfying, but I don’t think there was ever a pure strain of it. For a time, it was just a kettle into which many strange fish were flung.” The paradox of the “Kmart realists” is that while the work itself sprang from a new kind of class struggle among American writers, it didn’t appeal directly to readers in the class from which it sprang.
Williams has been one of the great living individualists and masters of the short story since then. Her work can be stark, brutal, creepy, tragic and hilarious, but has always been insufficiently read. She told Lin that, for instance, “the late ’70s were a tough time for women novelists. We were supposed to be feminist, angry and engaged. It was really, weirdly, a very conformist time.” There is nothing remotely conformist about her 46 stories here, all of which are magnificently written and concern everything from hospital visitations (the title story) to death in the electric chair to road kills to tourist trap bars across the pond. “None of this is what I long to say. I long to say other things. I write stories in my attempt to say them.” Now, finally, the’re more likely to be read as they always should have been. – Jeff Simon