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William Styron (1925–2006)

Author of Sophie's Choice

42+ Works 14,783 Members 250 Reviews 42 Favorited

About the Author

William Clark Styron was born in Newport News, Virginia on June 11, 1925. He attended Duke University and took courses at the New School for Social Research in New York City, which started him on his writing career. He was a Marine lieutenant during World War II and while serving during the Korean show more War, was recalled from active duty because of faulty eyesight. After leaving the service, he helped start a magazine called the Paris Review and remained as an advisory editor. His first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, was published in 1951. His other books include The Long March and Set This House on Fire. He won several awards including the Pulitzer Prize for The Confessions of Nat Turner and the American Book Award for Sophie's Choice, which was made into a movie in 1982. His short story, A Tidewater Morning, was the basis for the movie Shadrach, which Styron wrote the screenplay for with his daughter. He also wrote several nonfiction books including The Quiet Dust and Other Writings and Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. He died on November 1, 2006 at the age of 81. (Bowker Author Biography) show less
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Works by William Styron

Sophie's Choice (1979) 6,029 copies
The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) 2,744 copies
Lie Down in Darkness (1951) 947 copies
Set This House on Fire (1960) 413 copies
The Long March (1962) 256 copies
Sophie's Choice, Volume 1 (1984) 34 copies

Associated Works

Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression (2001) — Contributor — 494 copies
The Best American Essays 1996 (1996) — Contributor — 135 copies
The Literature of the American South: A Norton Anthology (1997) — Contributor — 99 copies
The Granta Book of the American Long Story (1998) — Contributor — 99 copies
William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond (1968) — Original novel — 74 copies
Great Esquire Fiction (1983) — Contributor — 70 copies
The Vintage Anthology of Science Fantasy. (1966) — Contributor — 66 copies
A Death in Canaan (1976) — Introduction, some editions — 54 copies
Fathers and Daughters: In Their Own Words (1994) — Introduction — 52 copies
Mark Twain [2001 TV movie] (2001) — Self — 49 copies
Partisan Review (1998) — Contributor, some editions — 37 copies
The Good Parts: The Best Erotic Writing in Modern Fiction (2000) — Contributor — 34 copies
The Best American Short Stories 1979 (1979) — Contributor — 25 copies
A Portrait of Southern Writers: Photographs (2000) — Contributor — 13 copies
The Big Love (1986) — Introduction — 10 copies
Short Fiction: Shape and Substance (1971) — Contributor — 3 copies

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Reviews

William Styron's novel Sophie's Choice takes us to post-WWII Brooklyn. It's not the poverty-ridden borough of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, but neither is it modern-day wealthy hipster Brooklyn. It's in-between, an "ethnic" (read: mostly Jewish) working-class neighborhood. It's in a boarding house there that our narrator, aspiring writer and native Southerner Stingo, finds himself after he quits his dead-end publishing house job and can't afford Manhattan any longer. His first day in his new room, he's treated to the sound of noisy, athletic sex in the room right above his...and not too long after, he meets the lovers, Sophie and Nathan, in the midst of an awful, emotionally and physically violent public fight.

The pair are soon reconciled, though, and Stingo is quickly drawn into their orbit. Beautiful Sophie is a Polish survivor of Auschwitz who does secretarial work for a chiropractor, and the mercurial Nathan is an American Jewish medical researcher, and Stingo falls a little bit in love with both of them as he begins to write a novel based in his experiences of the South. But another messy fight and breakup between Sophie and Nathan ultimately reveals that neither of them is exactly who they seem to be and makes their tragic end seem inevitable.

This took me unusually long to get through: not because the subject matter is tough, even though it is, but because the book is just dense. Styron's prose tends towards the purple, and while usually I'm down with books that are on the overwritten side, it's a lot, you guys. It feels like the writing is struggling against the story, almost, trying to keep it from sweeping over the reader. There are plenty of remarkable passages, but the ratio of those to portions that drag isn't nearly high enough.

The story of Sophie and Nathan, when it manages to take off, is sweeping and powerful and dramatic (if a bit on the Freudian side...there's a lot of eros/thanatos stuff going on). But what grinds it to a halt is the character of Stingo. He's an obvious writer-insert character, and Styron badly overestimates how interesting the portion of the book that's devoted to his sexual frustration is. It's not only boring, it's cringe-worthy, especially the section where he jerks himself off while sharing a hotel room with his father and makes so much noise when he finishes that he wakes his dad up. I'm not going to say that no one wants to read about that because maybe someone does, but it's tonally discordant with a book that's mostly about the evils humans inflict on themselves and each other and the way we tell our own stories to try to shape the world into a way we can better cope with it. There's greatness here, but it desperately needed a better editor to cut it and make it shine like it should have. As is, it's worth reading but not something I'd honestly recommend.
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ghneumann | 87 other reviews | Jun 14, 2024 |
Written in 1967 this book was and remains controversial. I found the book very well-written, timely and thought provoking.
 
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Chrissylou62 | 37 other reviews | Apr 11, 2024 |
A well known book in the literature of mental illness, when it came across my desk I decided to give it a read. A slim book, it is a one-sitting or one-day read. Styron, I found, does indeed give an account that will ring familiar to many people.
I felt myself entering the afternoon shadows with their encroaching anxiety and dread... my brain had begun to endure its familiar siege: panic and dislocation, and a sense that my thought processes were being engulfed by a toxic and unnameable tide that obliterated any enjoyable response to the living world.
And then later:
I had now reached that phase of the disorder where all sense of hope had vanished, along with the idea of a futurity; my brain, in thrall to its outlaw hormones, had become less an organ of thought than an instrument registering, minute by minute, varying degrees of its own suffering.
How much of this will be truly comprehensible to people who have never experienced it, I don't know, because as he states several times it seems impossible to describe it to someone without that direct experience. But it is a valiant attempt. He also emphasizes that there is no one approach to recovery that works for everyone. Unfortunately for Styron he was one of those for whom no medications, each with their 4-6 week waiting periods before an effect can be felt, worked, and he came perilously close to suicide before checking himself into a hospital, which for him proved the salvation.

The book seems useful for those in the midst of the "madness", offering proof that the veil will eventually lift, and for those who want to understand it. For those who have already passed through and emerged, it must be similar to how I imagine a recovering alcoholic might feel about reading an account of someone else's drinking problem: a personal sense of understanding, and an uncomfortable dread of slipping back there.
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lelandleslie | 81 other reviews | Feb 24, 2024 |
A must read. Styron would not be able to publish this today, not without the help of James Baldwin and he's no longer with us.
 
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ben_r47 | 37 other reviews | Feb 22, 2024 |

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