Reviewing Joyce Carol Oates

I recently read Joyce Carol Oates’s new memoir about her husband’s death, A Widow’s Story and liked it very much; it turns out the New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin most emphatically did not. Maslin’s review strikes me as odd; is it helpful at all in one’s review to say things like this?

Although the book flashes back to various stages of the marriage, and to the remarkably treacly addresses of their homes in various cities (their last street address was 9 Honey Brook Drive), it offers few glimpses of how they actually got along.

The tone of the entire thing seems strangely angry. Who cares if their street names were on the sweet side? But one of Maslin’s criticisms is much harder to dismiss: Oates was engaged to be married 11 months after her husband died, and Maslin wonders why she did not mention this in her book. I hadn’t known about the engagement and marriage until I read the review. Oates presents herself one year after her husband’s death as beginning to recover and to return to a more normal life, but as forever scarred by her loss. There is no evidence in the book that another romance is afoot.

I’m not sure what to think about this. On the one hand, I strongly believe that art is what matters most, and if Oates needed to exclude some information in order to make her book a better work of art, then that’s what she should do. I also strongly believe that memoirs are always shaped and molded to meet the writer’s needs; they always have omissions and elisions, and they are very carefully crafted. I suppose it’s never quite as simple as this, but I always want to argue that a writer’s first duty is to the writing, and everything and everybody else will just have to deal with it.

On the other hand, part of what was so powerful to me about Oates’s memoir is that it seemed so very real. I believed every word of it. I know I sound contradictory — if it’s so carefully crafted, then how can it be real? It’s clearly all artifice! — and yet I also believe that artifice can help express truth. And I felt as I read that I was getting a true picture of what suffering is like. I’m now imagining all widows I know as having experienced something like what Oates experienced, and I feel horrible for them.

But if Oates wasn’t telling the whole story about her emotional experience — leaving out a new engagement is kind of a big deal — then what am I left with?

Or, perhaps, everything she wrote about her suffering is absolutely as true as she could make it, and that suffering isn’t diminished by the fact that towards the end of her story when she is beginning to show signs of recovery she doesn’t tell us quite how much that recovery actually meant.

I don’t know. I’m not sure how I would have felt if she had written about her engagement in the book, but I do think it would have made the book less unified and less powerful. It comes down to my purpose in reading, I suppose. The part of me that reads for aesthetic pleasure has no problem with the fact that Oates omitted something major from her memoir. The part of me that reads for emotional truth isn’t quite as sure.

31 Comments

Filed under Books, Nonfiction, Reading

31 responses to “Reviewing Joyce Carol Oates

  1. Edna

    I found her journals from 1973 to 1982 at a used book store and spent last summer reading them. She and her husband were totally devoted to each other. She wrote about how lucky she felt to have such a good marriage. At the end the book in 1982 they had been married for 20 years and she still wrote of their happiness. She wrote as if she never intended for her journals to be read so they were open and sincere.

    I don’t really have an opinion about her engagement, but I think the man she married was a longtime friend and neighbor. I do recommend her journals, however. After reading them I had decided to read this new book and now after your review I am more certain. Thanks.

  2. I saw a positive review of the book in Sunday’s Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/11/AR2011021102701.html

    I am interested in reading it having been on my own grief journey for the past 23 months. I can see why it may be confusing, but I can say from experience that there are places your soul goes in grief that is not visible in everyday life. Or said another way, if you felt that kind of deep grief every hour, you could not survive. This happens for me when I write in my journal or on the blog that was created in honor of my son Josh.

  3. On Valentine’s Day, 2011, a well-known critic at a prominent newspaper performed a hatchet-job on Joyce Carol Oates, questioning the reality of her grief, mocking her friendship with Joan Didion, and trivializing the decades-long editorial work of her deceased husband, Raymond J. Smith.

    Unethical, Immoral. Crude and Cruel and Unconscionable

  4. Well now, this is one of the problem with this notion of truth in non-fiction – there are so many truths. Often contradictory, and often existing simultaneously. I would say that just because Oates met someone else, doesn’t mean she wouldn’t still be scarred by losing her husband. People aren’t interchangeable that way, and a new romance might well be something completely different, taking place in a different part of her heart, as it were. What always strikes me about relationships is how elastic they are, and emotions are such strange, capricious things.

    A friend of mine recently went through a very bad split with her husband, and in the following months was terribly upset. Then she met up with a man who she’d almost had a relationship with before her marriage; they got together and in weeks were very close and very happy. She is very embarrassed about the speed of her turnaround, but it doesn’t negate the sorrow and the anger she felt around her breakup. I don’t know, we expect people to be coherent and for their lives to look like stories – but why should we do that when our own experiences show that only social convention really forces us into recognisable shapes? What we feel inside is always pretty messy and inexplicable – or maybe that’s just me! lol!

  5. This is a really difficult one. Does she mention the new man at all in the memoir, even just to say that she knows him? And how close to the time at which she got engaged does the book take the reader? I’m sure that the grief she felt and expresses is real, but I do feel uneasy that no mention is made of a second relationship – as if she is asking me to see her one way when the ‘truth’ is different. But I haven’t read the book, so may be I shouldn’t judge.

  6. This is a very interesting post indeed. I just took a non-fiction writng course and part of the course was dedicated to memoir. I remember that at a certain point in the discussion the teacher said something that struck me as highly interesting namely that there was a big difference between a memoir and an autobiography. He said that you could expect a certain amount of accuracy in an autobiography but much more literary freedom in a memoir and that memoirs very often focus just on one angle. Seeing that Oates chose to call this memoir A Widow’s Story could very well indicate that she wanted to concentrate solely on that part. Being in a new relationship is possibly not part of her “widow persona”. She is such a prolific writer it could be that she intends to write a sequel.
    I could imagine that having read the book and later the review I would have felt a bit cheated.
    Many people write memors nowadays, when a writer choses to do so, i suppose, we have to expect a blend of the more literay with the facts.

  7. Those are interesting questions, Dorothy. Personally, I started out wondering what you wondered, then felt sad when I read the comment that Oates had been mocked and doubted in a public review. And I agree with Litlove. People are complex and multifaceted. Someone who chooses to focus on one aspect of her experience in writing isn’t hypocritical, but simply writing about that as opposed to other things. I just read an article in Scientific American about resilience. Most people who go through difficult experiences, like the death of a loved one, have a range of feelings that fluctuate and don’t remain in a steady state of pain and suffering throughout. That fluctuation is what keeps people sane and enables them to live through difficulties. It doesn’t diminish the loss or the love.

  8. Grief is a funny thing as is memoir. I don’t think that she left out th ebit about her engagement has to detract from the book at all. As you suggest, it would have not contributed to the book. I don’t think her engagement necessarily means her grief was any less real. Maybe the man she became engaged to provided a solid and safe place that allowed her to explore her feelings in a deeper way? I’m inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt.

  9. Quite a few years ago when I worked in a bookstore, I worked with a lady who was married and she and her husband were (and still are) very, very close and happy. At the time Linda McCartney had just died and not too long after, he remarried–I remember remarking on how they had been married so long, seemed to have such a close and good relationship and how could he ever possibly consider remarrying so quickly? I was a little surprised by their reaction as they were both quick to note to each other that if anything ever happened to the other one that the surviving partner must get married again or not feel as though they couldn’t–it was better to be happy. At the time I thought, but surely that would only mean you didn’t really love the other person as much as it seemed, but now that I am older I am inclined to agree with them–move on and be happy. You really can’t sustain that kind of grief or feeling of loss and still function properly. Now, I have not read the book or Maslin’s review, but it sort of annoys me that Maslin would be so judgemental of another person-even if it is a writer baring her soul, when she has not lived in that woman’s grief. I’m not sure how I would have felt having read the book, but it seems like it was about one particular aspect of her life and I don’t think it lessens her grief one bit that she has decided now to remarry. Emotions can be very messy and complicated, but I think it is entirely possible to move on and get past these painful moments and maybe writing that book was part of her own grieving process.

  10. Sorry–the ‘he’ being her husband Paul, of course.

  11. I haven’t read the book, but it’s been added to my TBR list. However, I’ve read the USA Today piece on Oates, the NYT review and now your take on the book and I find myself less questioning Oate’s ommission of a new relationship and what that means to her story and sadness, but rather I question my own view on such a situation. Would I be able to marry so shortly after such a loss? Would my wife? What if a friend of mine remarried less than 2 years after their spouse passed away? Would I treat them the same? To me, this is exactly what art is meant to do, question ourselves, question society, question our morals. It sounds like a great story regardless of the author’s ‘real life’. I know there a number of authors that I would have to stop reading if I examined their lives with any sort of scrutiny.

  12. Oates’s book is near the top of my TBR pile now, and I’m looking forward to it. Maslin’s review, though, seems unnecessarily mean-spirited, almost a review of Oates the person or perhaps Oates the widow, rather than of the book. Not having read the book, I’m not sure how I feel about her leaving out her second marriage, but it’s not as if it’s a great secret. Surely she knew someone would mention it eventually? And I can imagine how bringing it up in a memoir about grief might make it feel too much like a “happily ever after” ending, as if marrying someone else brought her grief to an end or invalidated it. That might have been reason enough to leave it out.

  13. I couldn’t help but think about Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking while I was reading your review. I haven’t read the Oates book, but her witholding the engagement/budding romance does make it seem as if she’s exploiting her husband’s death, which is nothing if not distasteful.

  14. Joyce Carol Oates is a favorite of mine – thanks for sharing this and for the great review :}. You might also enjoy Jin Kyu Robertson Ph.D.’s gripping memoir, Major Dream: From Immigrant Housemaid to Harvard PhD. I just finished it and was completely inspired. Robertson has overcome domestic abuse and worked her way up from a factory worker to a U.S. Army major to a Harvard graduate. I love her message of achieving the American dream and not giving up.

  15. zhiv

    Pretty lively topic. You write really well about your questions, just as Oates wrote well and satisfyingly about her marriage and grief. The nature of the genre–and I’m not sure about the distinction between autobiography and memoir made up above, although it’s intriguing–is that it’s personal and subjective, and that she’s making her own book, and she can do it any way that she likes, any way that works for her. The fact that she is a public and well-known literary figure gives Maslin her own license to add an important fact that Oates left out, but it doesn’t mean that Oates wrote a bad book or that it is untrue.
    I’ve just been reading WWI autobiography, and the books were fantastic and truly stunning. But now that I’ve read them I’m curious about the way that they shape and choose to remember the truth. And there are some big things that they leave out, especially about the end of the story, the way that things were resolved and how they moved on from the core experience. That may be the tricky part, what Maslin isn’t simply acknowledging, that a book and the story within it will have a beginning, middle, and end, but the writer-character goes on living.

  16. Litlove completely took the words of my mouth. I wonder if she left the information about her engagement out because she feared it might undermine the emotional truth of her book in the mind of her readers, while in reality the existence of a new romance did not in any way make what she was going through less devastating. It’s what litlove was saying about contradictory and simultaneous truths – they exist in reality, but they can be hard to get across in a book. Or rather, they CAN be conveyed in a book, but not without the book becoming more about the apparent contradiction than about the emotional experience of grief and loss she wanted to focus on.

  17. Such an interesting review, thank you! I want to read this even more after this, and reading Maslin’s review. I think it’s really intriguing that Oates remarried without mentioning it–fascinating. Maybe she was saving it for her next book (lol) ? Also interesting that Maslin seems so angry about the whole thing–maybe she felt it wasn’t the emotional truth, and anger was what came out in her review.
    Did you read Joan Didion’s memoir of widowhood, The Year of Magical Thinking? I felt there was a lot of emotional truth there–painful but fascinating read.

  18. what is nonfiction

    Nonfiction became more liberal/liberated in the 1970′s-90′s (Mailer, Wolff, Eggers) but more recently went through a straitening after the James Frey debacle. Everybody was quick to pile on Frey, but it’s interesting to note that Janet Maslin went against the crowd to celebrate Frey’s following book (a novel, wisely.) So where’s nonfiction now? Who knows? But surely Ms. Maslin was thinking about it when she decided not to give Ms. Oates a pass. I find consensus creepy, and I also find it a little creepy that Ms. Oates seems to have assumed no major critics would go against her. Ms. Oates merely needed to trim the timeline so that the long black veil didn’t get tangled up with the wedding dress. Writing beyond the period of the engagement, without mentioning it, was not an option. Ms. Maslin was right to cry foul.

  19. Edna — interesting information about the journals. I got the sense from her memoir that her marriage was very strong, even if it wasn’t the case that they shared absolutely everything with each other. I suspect I’d find the journals very interesting, even though I haven’t read her fiction and don’t know much about her. I’m more likely to prefer journals over novels sometimes.

    Josh’s Mom — thanks for the link to the review; it captures well what I liked about Oates’s book so much. I’m very sorry to hear about Josh. What you say about not being able to live with such deep grief every hour of the day makes a lot of sense.

    Randy — thanks for the link.

    Litlove — your thoughts make perfect sense, and I agree completely about how complicated people are. I can see how the new relationship might happen in “a different place in her heart,” as you say. And then trying to get all that complexity down on paper! No wonder she had to leave parts of it out.

    Annie — I’m not sure if she mentions his name or not. If I’d known, I would have looked for it — and perhaps that’s a reason to leave it out, so the reader doesn’t focus on that. She takes the book up through the end of the first year, although the vast majority of it comes in the earlier part of the year, and she was engaged within that time. It’s impossible to get the full truth down, of course, and then I guess it’s a matter of choosing which version of the truth you decide to record. But as a reader, it’s hard not to think that what we’re getting is the full truth.

    Caroline — interesting point about the difference between memoir and autobiography; the distinction makes sense to me, although I wonder how many people accept such a distinction or know about it. Definitions like that are only useful if they are commonly known, I think. I have heard that autobiographies tend to cover a whole life, and memoirs only a part, which is pretty close to what you are saying, I guess. I think you are right about the “widow persona.”

    Lilian — that review was really strange, and it makes me wonder if the reviewer had some kind of personal vendetta. It’s a good reminder to be careful about reviews, because who knows what motivations lie behind them! Interesting article about resilience. It makes sense that people’s emotions would vary so much, which would make it even harder to capture them in a book. No wonder she had to simplify things a bit.

    Stefanie — I’m glad to hear that! I agree completely that her engagement doesn’t make her grief any less real. We have no idea what was going on in the new relationship and the degree to which is changed her experience of grief or not.

    Danielle — your point about moving on and being happy strikes me as right. I think it’s common when we’re younger to be more “romantic” about it (and I would have agreed with you), but to change our minds when we get older. The Maslin review was really, really weird. She even said that Joan Didion’s pain was worse than Oates’s, which is bizarre, because how can you compare such a thing? Maslin was hugely judgmental, and it was definitely annoying.

  20. Mike B. — I hope you enjoy the book when you get there. I think you’re right about the questions the situation raises, and who knows how we would react if we lost a spouse like she did? I think no one knows what they would do until they are in the situation themselves.

    Teresa — I think you are right about the “happy ever after” ending and wanting to avoid it. As I approached the end of the book, I was dreading the possibility of too much happiness and optimism at the end that would feel false to me, and I was happy she avoided it. The memoir is so relentlessly focused on how she felt about her late husband that introducing someone new just wouldn’t have fit the mood.

    JaneGS — I haven’t read the Didion book either, although people are making comparisons all over the place. Perhaps I should read it now, although I want to stay away from grief memoirs for a while, because they are so sad! I didn’t really feel as though she were exploiting her husband’s death, only a little that she wasn’t telling the full story.

    Audrey — thanks for the information about the memoir! It sounds very interesting.

    Zhiv — I agree with you about the author’s absolute ownership of her book, and yes, she can do whatever she likes with it. I’m definitely not one to jump all over people who fabricate in memoirs, even people like James Frey, although with Oates, she does have to expect some interest in the parts she leaves out, just as you say. The stuff on the WWI autobiographies sounds really interesting, and I like your point about needing a beginning, middle, and end. That’s why Emily Fox Gordon’s comparison of the memoir and personal essay genres made so much sense to me. The personal essay doesn’t have to have the nice shape a memoir should have and therefore may be an easier genre to capture “truth” in.

    Nymeth — yes, I think you’re right that she just didn’t want to distract from the grief story and sticking to that story at the expense of other things doesn’t make it less real. I think discussing the engagement WOULD have undermined the emotional truth she was writing about, although it does make me wonder what the nature of that “truth” was. But yes, people are so complicated, and the book is already long enough as it is — to tell more of the story would have taken much more space.

    Gentle reader — I haven’t read the Didion yet, although I have a copy. I’m a little maxed out on grief memoirs right now! I wonder what Maslin’s motivation was — it sounded angry and strangely jealous, as though Oates shouldn’t be able to “get away with it.”

    What is nonfiction — I’m not sure Maslin was right to review the book in the way she did, but you are right that it would have been possible to cover less time in Oates’s book and stop before the engagement. I do wonder what Oates thought about the reaction she would get when people knew about the engagement.

  21. Fascinating post! It immediately made me think of Marguerite Duras’ fact-or-fiction book: La Douleur. She presents herself as mad with grief and despair over her husband being sent to die to a concentration camp in Nazi Germany (this is 1945) and then when he miraculously survives, wham, from nowhere you learn that she asks for divorce. (the biography confirms those facts, but can’t tell the genuine feelings at the time). I felt really outraged at reading this part in the book, perhaps it explains Maslin’s reaction? (not excuse it though). I kind of agree with Litlove that people’s life is always more complicated than a linear story in a book.

  22. I think this is one of the most interesting (and frustrating) aspects of non-fiction and memoirs. There’s a fine line between truth and fiction, if only because fiction is often slightly altered or misremembered truth.

    The moment even a shadow of doubt is cast upon a memoir, it immediately loses some of its truth. Even if it makes perfect sense that Oates might choose to focus on the grief, and not the romance that may have followed, it feels like an omission. Which could, in turn, mean that other things have been omitted, altered or amended to serve the memoir’s needs.

    Fascinating post.

  23. Smithereens — interesting story about Duras! That sounds like an excellent example of the way people’s emotions are extremely complicated and hard to capture in a book!

    Biblibio — you’re right that it feels like an omission once you’ve become aware of the fact. And yet at the same time I want to defend the author’s right to make the text work as well as possible. It’s really a matter of the kind of truth you’re looking for, I suppose — absolute fidelity to what actually happened or another kind of emotional truth.

  24. Having just finished Oates’s book, I have a couple of observations to add, since I couldn’t help but read with Maslin’s review in my mind.

    Although the last sentence of the book refers to the anniversary of her husband’s death, this bit reads like an addendum. The core of the book ends on August 30, just over 6 months after his death. (And there is what seems to be an oblique reference to her meeting her second husband right at that time.) There are a couple of mentions of events that occurred later, scattered throughout the book, but these are passing references.

    I also read some sections completely differently from the way Maslin did, the reference to Didion in particular. I’m not sure if I’m going to get into that much in my own review as I don’t want my review to be a reaction to Maslin, but having read the book I’m rather appalled at what seem to be to be blatant misreadings on Maslin’s part. I’m going to study those passages more carefully, in case I’m the wrong-headed one. It could happen :)

  25. Hilary Donovan

    I just finished A Widow’s Story and my mind is reeling with this new information. I’d been telling friends about how much I enjoyed the story and about how devastated Oates was by the death of her husband. And now this! I’ll admit that I feel a trace of a sense of betrayal. But nevertheless I’m happy for her because she is in love again. What could be better. I’m a little envious! My husband died in January 2009. Unlike Oates, I have a deep religious faith and wouldn’t be happy if I didn’t believe that my husband is so very happy now. I didn’t experience the devastation that she did possibly because my husband had many health problems. I felt that the Lord knew what was best. Almost immediately I felt as though I could fall in love again. But it hasn’t happened. I haven’t actively searched for another partner because I am enjoying life alone. But still I know that loving someone is a great thing and I can’t help feeling a trace of envy when I think about happy couples. I say “Good for her” for not wallowing in despair and for learning to love again. Perhaps an engagement announcement at the very end of the book would have been appropriate. I myself was longing for something positive after all that grief. I didn’t experience the deep grief that she did. I was longing for a sense of peace, joy, love by the end and was left with a found earring on a pile of trash! I wanted more. But I realize that she probably felt that many people would have discounted her grief after hearing about the engagement. Not I, though. Much happiness to you Joyce Carol Oates! You deserve it!

  26. Rebecca Burdett

    She didn’t leave out the mention of her new love. On the last page of her memoir, she writes a beautiful description of meeting her new husband at a dinner party: “…there were only six people, including me’ and one of these guests was a stranger to me, a neuroscientist at Princeton University invited by Ebet; and I could not have guessed how, another time so purely by chance, as years ago in Madison, Wisconsin, it was purely chance that Ray had come to sit beside me, my life would be altered–You must not forget it is a gift freely given you could not deserve.” The man was Charlie Gross, a fellow professor at Princeton. Just a few pages before, she describes her first meeting with Ray Smith, so it’s clear that she’s had a similar, who could plan this, kind of encounter with a new man.

  27. Rebecca Burdett

    She didn’t leave out the mention of her new love. On the last page of her memoir, she writes a beautiful description of meeting her new husband at a dinner party: “…there were only six people, including me, and one of these guests was a stranger to me, a neuroscientist at Princeton University invited by Ebet; and I could not have guessed how, another time so purely by chance, as years ago in Madison, Wisconsin, it was purely chance that Ray had come to sit beside me, my life would be altered–You must not forget it is a gift freely given you could not deserve.” The man was Charlie Gross, a fellow professor at Princeton. Just a few pages before, she describes her first meeting with Ray Smith, so it’s clear that she’s had a similar, who could plan this, kind of encounter with a new man.

  28. Hilary

    Yes, Oates mentioned her new man but in such a subtle way that the reference could have been missed, choosing to end her narrative with a pile of trash and a found earring. She gave us the final impression that life was offering small joys–not the all-encompassing joy of a new love. But as it’s been said, she was focusing on art. She didn’t want us to leave her widow’s story with the idea that a love can be replaced so quickly even if it’s true! To me, truth is more important than art but to each his own. I realize that a novelist has a different perspective.

  29. I haven’t read “A Widow’s Tale” yet I have my own since coming home from work 4 years ago to find my husband of 20 years – 2 weeks shy of our anniversary – had died of a heart attack. So I know grief in a very visceral way and I believe Joyce Carol Oates experienced her grief as she describes it, and speaks of it as I heard her speak last night in one of her book tour presentations. The fact she fell in love 11 months later does not detract from her experience of grief but I’m sorry to hear she does not include that as a documentation that life is for the living and love is a transitional miracle. My story is very different, as all experiences are unique to the individual, but I was lucky to discover a loving relationship a little over 2 years following my husband’s death. And even during the initial bliss of the relationship, I experienced deep feelings of loss of the life I knew. I’m sorry she did not explore this…

  30. Barbara June Dodge

    I just finished reading the memoir. Joyce does mention the neuroscientist, and if one is reading carefully, one will understand that she means to say that this encounter with him is life-changing. I took it to be a discreet message about life after life with the love of your life. The really honest thing – the personal thing -about this writing, is that she is presenting herself in her grief, as someone who must have a companion in life: it is very particular to her that she has “lost” Raymond and is lost without the intimacy, the friendship and the safety that the relationship afforded. I find that her portrait of the widow is very generous in its specificity: this was only her experience – not every widow’s – and in it’s specificity it has a universal appeal for those of us who are always fascinated by what it is to be human.
    I would also add that though I sometimes want to edit her fiction, I would not change a word of this beautiful tone poem/journal on the subject of widowhood and survival.

  31. Hilary

    I thought it was very gracious of Joyce Carol Oates to issue a statement regarding this issue. She seemed concerned about some of her readers feeling shortchanged because she didn’t state outright that she’d fallen in love again. I must say that I was heartened by her statement as many authors wouldn’t necessarily have shown the concern that she did.

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