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Should Joyce Carol Oates have revealed her second marriage?

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a particular experience -- that of the immediate aftermath of widowhood -- in which what happened before or after was superseded by the unrelenting pressure of the now.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

 
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The story of widowhood does not need the happy ending of another marriage to make it complete.

It's a ridiculous issue, particularly for someone her age and stature. People endure the mourning process, get closure, and move on all the time. It's nitpicking to accuse her of disingenuousness, no matter how you may feel about her work as a whole.

Thank you for your insightful comments. As a publisher who has just worked with an author on a memoir dealing with the suicide of a child, I found your comments helpful and I would also agree with Ms. Oates' editor. The book, which I have yet to read, but do plan to in the near future, seems to be about a life-changing event, both specific and acute as well as pervasive, touching nearly every aspect one's life and dividing a good portion of it into "before" and "after."

I especially like the way you put it here: "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."

Be honest about why she neglected to mention the new fellow: because it would undercut sympathy for the tragic main character of her memoir (her) if the reader knew she'd moved on so soon.

Everything said here is true...however, I remember my first reaction when reading about the memoir was how very sad it was for her and how I hoped she would eventually get over it and move on, and then I read in what amounted to a postscript that she had already remarried. That, of course, is her preprogative, but to devote all that time and energy to an entire book about an overwhelming personal crisis and then rather abruptly move on to something else, makes it seem very much of the moment and not much else.


For grief, there are no words. Either I die, or I find another relief. Writing can help, maybe prevent insanity. But at a certain point, there are no words. Her action shows that she needed this.

So I can understand her remarriage.

But for memoir -- I'm not sure that I agree with Mr. Ulin. With memoir, the reader expects the life context. It is not fiction. It is fiction meant to be real.

So maybe Ms. Oates can write the continuation of grief, how she would have died, perhaps, had it not been for a second husband.

A lack of transparency, a selectivity with the facts of one's story, arranging it to heighten sympathy and interest and therefore get more sales. She should have revealed it, this is a growing problem in society and business practices. Cherry-picking the facts of something you are telling others about for your own self-interest. If she was remarried at the time this was published then she was misleading. This was a work of non-fiction, a memoir.

A memoir has to have a beginning point and an end point to be a story. Criticizing Oates -- a book machine whose work I avoid -- seems envy-based or LA petulant at the least. We are taught that anything less than "the whole truth" is a lie -- but the definition of truth changes with time. Adding appendices would put the work in a category with bad screenplays that update us on the whereabouts of characters we don't care about in the first place. Oates is already on her way to the Too Much Information Hall of Fame, but this shot seems particularly cheap.

If the book is about how a woman handles the vacuum that her life becomes when she becomes a widow, who cares if she remarried even before she wrote it? That doesn't make the experience she wrote about any less real and there's no reason to add facts from her life that have nothing to do with the experience the book covers. To claim that it does says to me that a reader's ability to get meaning from the book is partially based on schadenfreude. This is shallow and stupid.

I have not as yet read Ms. Oates's memoir because I feared the story would be too close to home. I lost my spouse of 30 years not quite two years ago. His illness was unexpected and relatively brief. I continue to grieve for my sons and for me. However, I also continue to try to move beyond the grief and that has included beginning to enjoy male company. While I am not married, I have a serious friendship with a wonderful man. He understands my grief is a journey and he has cautioned and acknowledged that I will never fully "get over" the loss. Yet because of him the sharp edges have begun to become blunted, and the deep pain has become less severe. Could I write now of the suffering experienced through the illness and death - with clarity and poignancy? Absolutely, while weeping at every verse. Would that preclude me from feeling love again? I certainly hope not.

It seems obvious nobody posting has read the Julian Barnes review. I'd doubt whether David Ulin has, either, if that didn't seem impossible or unprofessional in view of his column's subject.

For those too lazy, then, the review was 1) positive and generous 2) followed the reviewer's reactions as he made his way through the book 3) raised specific and arguable issues with the book's hyper focus and 4) only then, yes, dared to ask whether the portrait of a marriage Oates had written didn't have a few rather large holes in it. Only then, curiosity piqued, did the reviewer do the math and realize that for a good portion of the widow-in-wrenching-grief section of the book she was also being wooed and, quickly, marrying.

Jane Austen would know what to say about THAT, dear reader. "Mrs Smith suffered her widow's weeds for as long as her interest in the next season's fashions could be repressed..."

No. She shouldn't. Why should she? Second husband wasn't the topic. And I think 47 years of marriage is worth a book of it's own without anything else having to be mentioned. If she wants to do another book later on about rediscovering love during widowhood, then that's a totally different subject worthy of its own treatment. And I feel bad for her that people are treating her and her marvelous and moving book so shabbily.


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