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Should Joyce Carol Oates have revealed her second marriage?

May 15, 2011 |  7:30 am

Joycecaroloates_2000 From the Department of Tempest in a Teapot: In the current issue of the New York Review of Books, Joyce Carol Oates responds, in a letter, to Julian Barnes' April 7 review of her memoir "A Widow's Story." Oates, Barnes suggested, was susceptible to the charge of "breach of narrative promise" -- huh? -- for not having mentioned in her book, which traces her reaction to the death of her husband, Raymond Smith, that she is now remarried. The implication, I suppose, is that her grief was more fleeting than it appeared, and that her book is less than honest -- or, at the very least, incomplete. Here we go again, discussing memoirs as if the form itself, and those who write it, were not allowed the imaginative expression of their art.

Barnes should know better. He's written literary nonfiction, as well as fiction, and he must understand that the memoir, like the novel, is all about shape. It's not a biography, not a life story, not a transcript of events. In a memoir, a writer tells a story, and whatever is extraneous gets left out. In Oates' case, "A Widow's Story" became a close and claustrophobic read on a particular experience -- that of the immediate aftermath of widowhood -- in which what happened before or after was superseded by the unrelenting pressure of the now.

The book is deft and heartbreakingly revealing. (And I say this as someone who's had difficulty with Oates' writing over the years.) It is, as I mentioned when I reviewed it, highly constructed, a book that knows what it's about. For Oates, the point is how a widow survives, when, indeed, even the ability to survive seems futile given the enormity of loss. That such an emotional state is unsustainable goes without saying: One either gives up or figures out how to move ahead.

Oates clearly did the latter; even had she not remarried, she did manage to write the book. And yet, no one seems to think of that as an issue, as something that undercuts the credibility of her memoir. "I can't go on, I'll go on," wrote Samuel Beckett in a line that might have served her as an epigraph. What's true of her work, then, is -- and why shouldn't it be? -- also clearly true of her life.

In her letter to the New York Review, Oates mentions the possibility of including an appendix in subsequent editions of "A Widow's Story," to "remedy" complaints. I, however, agree with her editor, Daniel Halpern, who vehemently dissents. As Halpern told the New York Times: “She wrote a book about what it’s like to be in limbo -- about what it was like to lose the man she had been married to all her life. Why include the next husband? That’s not what the book is about.”

Exactly. For Oates, or any memoirist, the intention is not to produce a deposition but to explore the messy territory of emotional truth. It's not the details that are important so much as how those details add up to a larger story: That's why they call it literature. After all the conversation these last few years about the ethics of the memoir, you'd think we might have figured it out. Yet if this latest mini-controversy has anything to tell us, it's that we still live in a culture that can't, or doesn't want to, see the memoir as the imaginative reconstruction of experience rather than an empty recitation of the facts.

-- David L. Ulin

Photo: Joyce Carol Oates in 2000. Credit: Jeff Zelevansky / Associated Press