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.

I wish that I could recall Ray’s exact words, when he eagerly opened the box from the printer, and saw the mysterious stains on the covers. I want to think that he’d said something appropriately witty but probably what emerged from his throat more resembled a sob.

And very likely I said uselessly Oh honey! How on earth did this happen!

Carefully we examined each of the copies to weed out the soiled ones—another effort that required hours. Exactly how many copies of this premier issue Ray had had printed up, I can’t remember: maybe 1,000?

(If 1,000, most of these were never sold. No doubt, we gave them away. And we paid our contributors partly with three-year subscriptions. It would be years before OR had a circulation of 1,000.)

Our second issue went far more smoothly than the first. Through a bit of good luck—I’d written to Saul Bellow, whom I scarcely knew, requesting something from him—we had a “self-interview” by Bellow, at about the time of Humboldt’s Gift. (When Bellow’s literary agent discovered that Saul had sent us this little gem, the agent tried to take it back; but too late, we told her—we’d already gone to press.) We published work by the Canadian writer Marian Engel, and poetry by Wendell Berry, David Ignatow, Cesar Vallejo (in translation), and Theodore Weiss (destined to become our close friend after we moved to Princeton in 1978).

In 1984, when we’d been in Princeton for several years, and Ray had resigned from teaching in order to be a full-time editor/publisher, we decided to expand our small-press enterprise to include book publishing. (Why? Out of some “reckless commingling of idealism and masochism” was Ray’s droll explanation.) Though neither the magazine nor the press ever made any profit, we were, resolutely, “nonprofit”; our projects were funded privately, by my Princeton University salary and other more random spurts of income.

The 1980s was a time when libraries were still subscribing to literary magazines and buying poetry books, a situation that would change drastically in the late 1990s. In Canadian publishing circles Ontario Review soon ascended to the sort of small-press literary eminence belonging, in the States, to Paris Review, Kenyon Review, Quarterly Review of Literature, and Ray Smith was a “major” editor/publisher in these quarters.

Ray’s Jesuit training in adolescence had instilled in him a predilection for what is called perfectionism but which might resemble, to a neutral observer, obsessive-compulsive disorder. Thus, Ray was the ideal editor—as well as copy editor and proofreader. Though he sent out page proofs to our authors, he never trusted any eye but his own, and so he did everything except “set type”—in those days when type was still “set”—and no doubt he would have done that, if he’d been able. Apart from our domestic life, Ray’s work was his life. Most of all, Ray had loved working with writers: no relationship is quite so intimate and intense, when an editor is truly absorbed in editing, and a writer is willing to be “edited.” Enormous sympathy, tact, diplomacy, shrewdness are required—and a sense of humor. Ray took—this does sound rather masochistic, or at least eccentric—genuine pleasure in reading unsolicited submissions, which numbered in the thousands, annually; he passed on to me fiction that was “promising” but needed work, so that, if I wished to, I might work with the writer, making editorial suggestions. He took particular pleasure in working with writers one or the other of us had “discovered”—like Pinckney Benedict, my prize-winning Princeton student whose remarkable senior thesis, Town Smokes (1987), was one of our first OR Press books, and would be one of the most enduring.

When Ray spoke of Pinckney it was with a special—warm, tender—intonation in his voice.

When Ray spoke of a number of writers and poets with whom he’d worked closely over the years, you could see how much they’d meant to him—even those whom we’d never met.

How touching it is, if heartrending—the dedication to the 2009 Pushcart Prize: The Best of the Small Presses, edited by Bill Henderson, reads:

for Raymond Smith (1930–2008)

Now, all this has ended. No one can take Ray’s place. Most of all, continuing to bring out Ontario Review without Ray could have no meaning, for me—it would be like celebrating someone’s birthday in absentia.

The May issue was nearly completed, when Ray had to be hospitalized. Just a few more days’ work—which I hope I can do, with the assistance of our typesetter in Michigan. I have a dread of letting down Ray’s contributors, who are expecting to see their work in his magazine.

I will have to pay them too—of course. I will have to calculate what they should be paid, write checks, and mail them. I will have to package contributors’ copies, and mail them. A kind of wildness sweeps over me, almost a kind of elation. If I can do this, how impressed Ray would be! How he would know, I love him.

When I called Gail Godwin, to tell her about Ray, Gail’s response was immediate. “Oh Joyce—you’re going to be so unhappy.”

How true this is! It’s a blunt fact few would wish to acknowledge.

Some friends we see often—and some friends we see rarely. My friendship of more than 30 years with Gail Godwin has been mostly epistolary, writerly. We are like cousins, or sisters, of a bygone era—the long-ago era of the Brontë sisters, perhaps. And Gail’s house on a hillside in Woodstock, New York, overlooking, at a distance, the Catskill Mountains, has something of the air of romance and isolation of the fabled Yorkshire moors.

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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