I Am Sorry to Inform You

In 2008 Joyce Carol Oates lost the husband—Raymond Smith—to whom she’d been married for 48 years. Her recollections of those harrowing early days of widowhood provide a glimpse of Oates as a teacher of writers and as caretaker of the literary magazine she and her husband kept in print for so long.

How poignant it is to consider that Hemingway would kill himself several decades later, with a shotgun, at the age of 62.

Suicide, a taboo subject. In 1925, when “Indian Camp” was first published, in Hemingway’s first book, In Our Time, how much more of a taboo subject than now.

Suicide is an issue that fascinates undergraduates. Suicide is the subject of a good number of their stories. Sometimes, the suicidal element so saturates the story, it’s difficult to discuss the story as a text without considering frankly the subject, and its meaning to the writer.

Not that most of these young writers would “consider” suicide—I’m sure—but all of them have known someone who has killed himself.

Sometimes, these suicides have been friends of theirs, contemporaries from high school or college.

These personal issues, I am not likely to bring into workshop discussions, as I never discuss anything personal about myself, or even my writing. Though I came of age in the 1960s when the borderline between “teacher” and “student” became perilously porous, I am not that kind of teacher.

My intention as a teacher is to refine my own personality out of existence, or nearly—my own “self” is never a factor in my teaching, still less my career; I like to think that most of my students haven’t read my writing.

(Visiting writers/instructors at Princeton—I’m thinking of Peter Carey, for instance, and seeing the look of quizzical hurt on Peter’s face—are invariably astonished/crestfallen to discover that their students are not exactly familiar with their oeuvre; but I’m more likely to feel relief.)

It isn’t an exaggeration to say that, this semester of Ray’s death, my students will be my lifeline. Teaching will be my lifeline.

Along with my friends, a small circle of friends—this will “keep me going.” I am sure that my students have no idea of the circumstances of my life, and that they are not curious about it; nor will I ever hint to them what I am feeling, at any time; how I dread the conclusion of the teaching-day, and the return to my diminished life.

It’s a matter of pride—or, almost!—that, this afternoon in the workshop, I behaved no differently, or seemed no different, than ever in the past. In my exchanges with my students, I have given them no reason to suspect that anything is amiss in my life.

In the doorway of my office stand two of my writing students from last semester. One of them, who’d been a soldier in the Israeli army, slightly older than most Princeton undergraduates, says awkwardly, “Professor Oates? We heard about your husband and want to say how sorry we are… If there’s anything we can do…”

I am utterly surprised—I had not expected this. Quickly I tell the young men that I’m fine, this is very kind of them but I am fine…

When they leave, I shut my office door. I am shaking, I am so deeply moved. But mostly shocked. Thinking They must have known all along today. They must all know.

Thank you for your submission.

I am sorry to inform you that, due to the unexpected death of editor Raymond Smith, Ontario Review will cease publication after its May 2008 issue.

Several hundred of these little blue slips I had printed up, a few days after Ray’s death.

It’s a measure of my fractured concentration at the time—my reputation for prolificacy notwithstanding—that numerous drafts were required to compose this melancholy rejection slip.

Originally, I’d written unexpected death but then, rereading what I’d written, I thought that it sounded too—melodramatic, or self-pitying. Or subjective.

For, for whom was the death of Raymond Smith unexpected; and why should total strangers care? Why should total strangers be informed?

Unexpected was therefore removed, but later, how many hours and drafts later I would be embarrassed to say, unexpected was reinserted.

Sorry to inform you of the unexpected death of Raymond Smith.

Like a mildly deranged, large flying insect trapped in a small space, these words careened and blundered about inside my skull for an inordinate amount of time.

For I knew—common sense dictated—that I had no choice: I would have to discontinue Ontario Review, which Ray and I had edited together since 1974. This was heartrending but I saw no alternative—90 percent of the editorial work on the magazine and 100 percent of the publishing/financial work had been my husband’s province.

We’d begun the biannual Ontario Review: A North American Journal of the Arts while we were living in Windsor, Ontario, and teaching together in the English Department at the University of Windsor. I’d had the idea that since “small magazines” had been so integral a part of my writing career, I should help finance one of our own; also, both Ray and I were interested in promoting the work of excellent writers whom we knew in both Canada and the United States. Our intention was to publish Canadian and American writers and to make no distinction between the two, which was the special agenda of Ontario Review.

Our first issue, Fall 1974, was greeted with much interest in literary Canada—not because it was an extraordinary gathering of first-rate North American talent (which we believed it was) but because there were, at the time, many more writers and poets than there were reputable outlets for their work in Canada. We were fortunate to publish an interview with Philip Roth—which I’d “conducted”—as well as fiction by Bill Henderson, soon to become the founder of the legendary Pushcart Prize: The Best of the Small Presses, and by Lynne Sharon Schwartz before she’d published her first book of fiction. Like most beginning editors, we’d called upon our friends to write for us, and our “briefly noted” reviews—of new books by Paul Theroux, Alice Munro, and Beth Harvor, all at the time virtually unknown—were signed “JCO.”

Starting a literary magazine is an adventure not for the faint-hearted or the easily discouraged. Neither Ray nor I knew what to expect. Ray’s first experience with a printer was a near disaster—the printer had never printed anything more ambitious than a menu for a local Chinese restaurant—the page proofs were riddled with errors that required hours of Ray’s time and patience to correct; and when the copies were finally printed, for some reason we never understood, a number were smeared with bloody fingerprints.

Presented by

Joyce Carol Oates is on the faculty at Princeton University and is the 2010 recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature. The Siege: A Widow’s Story will be published in February 2011.

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