Janet (Gay) Burroway Biography
Janet Burroway comments:
Nationality: American. Born: Tucson, Arizona, 1936. Education: The University of Arizona, Tucson, 1954-55; Barnard College, New York, B.A. (cum laude) in English, 1958; Cambridge University, B.A. (honours) in English 1960, M.A. 1965; Yale School of Drama, New Haven, Connecticut, 1960-61. Career: Supply teacher and music director, Binghamton public schools, New York, 1961-63; costume designer, Belgian National Theatre, Ghent, 1965-70, and Gardner Centre for the Arts, University of Sussex, Brighton, 1965-71; lecturer in American Studies, University of Sussex, 1965-72; assistant to the Writing Program, University of Illinois, Urbana, 1972; associate professor, 1972-77, professor of English, 1977—; McKenzie Professor of English Literature and Writing, 1986-95, Florida State University, Tallahassee. Visiting lecturer, Writers Workshop, University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1980. Fiction reviewer, New Statesman, London, 1970-71, 1975, and since 1991, New York Times Book Review. Since 1994, columnist, New Letters (Kansas City). Awards: Amoco award, for teaching, 1974; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1976; Florida Fine Arts Council grant, 1983; FSU Distinguished Teacher award, 1992; Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest fellowship, 1993. Agent: Gail Hochman, Brandt and Brandt Inc., 1501 Broadway, New York, New York 10036.
Descend Again. London, Faber, 1960.
The Dancer from the Dance. London, Faber, 1965; Boston, LittleBrown, 1968.
Eyes. London, Faber, and Boston, Little Brown, 1966.
The Buzzards. Boston, Little Brown, 1969; London, Faber, 1970.
Raw Silk. Boston, Little Brown, and London, Gollancz, 1977.
Opening Nights. New York, Atheneum, and London, Gollancz, 1985.
Cutting Stone. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, and London Gollancz, 1992.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Embalming Mom," in Apalachee Quarterly (Tallahassee, Florida), Spring 1985.
"Winn Dixie," in New Letters (Kansas City), January 1986.
"Growth," in New Virginia Review (Richmond), Spring 1990.
"I'toi," in Prairie Schooner, Spring 1991.
"Dad Scattered," in The Day My Father Died. New York, RunningPress, 1994.
Garden Party (produced New York, 1958).
The Fantasy Level (produced New Haven, Connecticut, 1961; Brighton, Sussex, 1968).
The Beauty Operators (produced Brighton, Sussex, 1968).
Poenulus; or, The Little Carthaginian, adaptation of a play byPlautus, in Five Roman Comedies, edited by Palmer Boive. New York, Dutton, 1970.
Hoddinott Veiling, 1970; Due Care and Attention, 1973.
But to the Season. Weston super Mare, Somerset, Universities'Poetry, 1961.
Material Goods. Tallahassee, University Presses of Florida, 1981.
The Truck on the Track (for children). London, Cape, 1970; Indianapolis, Bobbs Merrill, 1971.
The Giant Ham Sandwich (verse only; for children), with JohnVernon Lord. London, Cape, 1972; Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1973.
Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. Boston, Little Brown, 1982; 3rd edition, New York, HarperCollins, 1991; 4th edition, HarperCollins, 1995; 5th edition, New York, Longman, 2000.
Florida State University, Tallahassee.
Article by Elisabeth Muhlenfeld, in American Novelists since World War II, 2nd series, edited by James E. Kibler, Jr., Detroit, Gale, 1980; "The Play in the Novel: The Nuns in Opening Nights" by Phyllis Zatlin, in Modern Language Studies, Summer 1993.
(1996) I wrote my first novel, Descend Again, with the determination that it would be fiction, and not decorated autobiography. Therefore I set it in a town I knew only slightly, and in 1942, when I had been six years old. It was several years before I realized that it dealt with a heroine who, like myself, was driven by a desire to get out of Arizona and into a world of books.
I continued to choose subjects that seemed to me socially and politically "serious," eschewing concerns merely female, while certain themes chose me in spite of myself: the older-man-younger-woman relationship, near-suicide and the decision to live after all; the abandonment of children—even, recurrently, the image of proliferating garbage. I remember writing a scene in The Buzzards, when my children were toddlers, in which Eleanor walks out on her brood, myself thinking as I wrote: I could never do this. Why do I keep writing about this? Meanwhile my own boys pestered me to play and I kept sending them out of the room—"Can't you see mummy's working?"
After that novel I faced the fact that I had not considered women's lives sufficiently weighty for the content of fiction, and in the next book, Raw Silk, I faced my unchosen themes head on, beginning with the sentence, "This morning I abandoned my only child." The acknowledgement of gender as central to my identity has seemed to me a freeing and integrating change—freeing, even, to adopt a new breadth of attitude toward the global themes. I understand now why I kept fretting about all that garbage.
The greatest change in my work in the past five years has been in the process itself. I have paid deliberate attention to thwarting my linear, critical, perfectionist, left-brain proclivities, in favor of intuitive flow. It works; it makes for faster story, richer prose, more of the unexpected. The motto over my desk as altered, slightly but crucially, from "Don't Dread; Do" to "Writing is Easy. Not Writing is Hard." What's missing is mainly the imperative.
* * *
Janet Burroway depicts contemporary social issues through multiple points-of-view to convey strong, and sometimes nebulous, moral messages. Complicated relationships are neatly interconnected within sharply defined domestic and urban settings, as contrasting characters try to work out crises of conscience. The author's penchant for epigrams and symbols further unifies her narratives, but at the cost of excessive, self-conscious rhetoric. Likewise, while her abrupt and usually ambiguous endings avoid blatant didacticism, they also seriously mar the proportions of her careful structures. Stories do not seem to conclude so much as merely come to a halt. She also favors theatrical surprises which do not proceed necessarily from exigencies of plot but facilely exploit the sensational. These linguistic artifices and narrative ploys intrude more than they enlighten, weakening her otherwise admirable craftsmanship. Burroway's novels are well-paced, however, and she further enhances their popular appeal by providing plenty of practical information.
Eyes views the problems of race prejudice and of ethics in medicine and journalism through the individual perspectives of the four principal characters. Set in the South, the novel examines one day in the life of Dr. Rugg, an eye surgeon; his wife Maeve, who is pregnant at 40; their somewhat estranged son Hilary, a liberal reporter on a conservative paper; and Hilary's fiancée Jadeen, a junior high school teacher. Skillfully Burroway evokes the southern atmosphere and delineates the elaborate rituals of black-white relations as enacted by her sensitive protagonists. As a newly liberal and insecure daughter of an old Southern family, Jadeen's dilemma becomes acute: to refuse to teach an outrageously biased textbook and thus lose her job and alienate her genteel but bigotted mother, or to cave in and betray her recent convictions and lose her fiancée. Dr. Rugg, awkward in his charity and family relations and preoccupied in his profession, unwittingly destroys his career by casually mentioning his war-time experiments. Hilary, frustrated in his job and resentful of his famous father, carelessly misses the major scandal his father's seemingly innocuous lecture turns out to be—ironically, sent out on the national wires by Dodds, Rugg's soon-to-be-blind patient—which costs him and his mentor their positions. No totally satisfactory solution to these complications is possible. But Rugg heroically refuses to recant to save face for the State Department, and he serenely awaits his final heart-attack. Hilary, given a last chance, refuses to compromise his principles, or betray his father. Jadeen, however, is not strong enough for the sacrifice and buckles under to the "system;" she resigns herself (somewhat illogically) to being a subservient, dull teacher, without Hilary. Only Maeve, always understanding if inarticulate, and calm, maintains stability amid the domestic chaos. At the end, Jadeen points a moral of sorts: "Thoughts are complex. Actions are not. That is the subject of tragedy." Burroway's vignettes are telling, especially when she describes racial tension in a black bar or the techniques of surgery, reporting, teaching. But that's the rub: she prefers to tell more than to show. Dialogue is often wooden, and despite the neat plotting, the separate thematic strands don't quite mesh. The melodrama ends slightly out of focus.
The Dancer from the Dance is an ambitious and often subtle attempt at a novel of manners, in which the young, strangely innocent yet wise Prytania naively brings about the destruction and near-collapse of the older and more sophisticated people irresistibly drawn to her. 60-year-old Powers, the sensitive but detached narrator, gives the hapless girl a job in his UNICEF office in Paris and entrée into his elegant world. Soon Prytania holds all in thrall. Stoddard, a young and unimaginative medical student, she leads on but finally cannot marry. Old Riebenstahl, a primitive sculptor and curious sage, finally commits suicide, because he has acted as go-between for her illicit affair with the talented mime Jean-Claude. Even the worldly wise Mme. de Verbois, with whom she stays, and finally Powers himself are cruelly touched by her strange power. The nuances of social behavior, the curious transformations of character, and the complex emotional entanglements are deftly portrayed in several delicately drawn scenes. Yet, for all that, Prytania remains a shadowy figure, and the narrative barely escapes incredibility. Further, although the pages are cluttered with more witticisms and aphorisms than a Restoration comedy, the general tone is more that of a middling French film about yet another blighted romance. The several ironies and crises come off as contrived and formulaic, and ultimately the novel sadly disappoints: such an anticlimax after so much art.
In The Buzzards Burroway turns to the political realm, employing, yet again, several narrators. But as we follow the campaign trail of Alex, the conservative but likeable Senator from Arizona, the multiple perspectives—interior monologues, set speeches, newspaper articles, letters—soon become redundant and tedious. Especially so are the fatuous epigrams which clog the journal of the sententious and most implausible manager, Galcher (he calls them Axioms of God; e.g., "We are not subtle enough to contrive a machine in which disintegration contributes to maintenance and manufacture"). Alex's cold, brittle, and marvelously inept wife, his disaffected son, and neurotic daughter Eleanor (whose near-suicide and Mexican abortion pose serious threats to his chances), like the "allegorical" Galcher, are definite liabilities—not only for Alex but for the reader, who has little reason to be interested in them, let alone to like them. Younger daughter Evie, a vivacious, all-American, plastic pom-pom girl, is equally off-putting, though depicted as an asset in Alex's uphill struggle for re-election. Nonetheless, Burroway still has incisive power to reveal the moral ambiguities, contradictions, and rationalizations of her characters, especially the women. But beyond showing the hectic pace and many stratagems of modern politicking, the novel's rationale is not quite clear. And when Evie is precipitously assassinated in the last few pages, the event seems not tragic but merely expedient in terminating a journey that has no real destination. That a writer of Janet Burroway's obvious talents in use of detail and perspective should ultimately be defeated by a lack of control or malfunction of these very elements is an unfortunate irony of her otherwise impressive work.