Joyce Carol Oates vs. Critics Over Bereavement and Remarriage

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Players: Joyce Carol Oates; Julian Barnes, New York Review of Books; Janet Maslin, New York Times Book Review.

Opening Serve: Joyce Carol Oates' memoir about the death of her husband, Raymond J. Smith, has received a fair amount of criticism since it came out in February. After its release, New York Times book reviewer Janet Maslin knocked Oates for omitting the fact that she was engaged less than a year after she was widowed; for alluding negatively to Joan Didion's own reflection on the death of her husband; and for shallow writing and a lack of description of her late husband and their relationship, as we observed  back in February. "'A Widow’s Story' tries to make up in immediacy what it lacks in depth and insight," Maslin wrote. "Ms. Oates writes with frantic energy about feeling lost, alone, frightened, disoriented, angry, hurt and 'like one who has been slammed over the head with a sledgehammer,' to cite one of this book's many painful metaphors for pain."

In the April 7 issue of the New York Review of Books, Julian Barnes echoes Maslin's criticism, particularly with regards to leaving out her marriage to a man who, Barnes points out, Oates met during the year on which the book is focused. Barnes quotes the book's last chapter, entitled "The Widow's Handbook" which reads, "Of the widow’s countless death-duties there is really just one that matters: on the anniversary of her husband's death the widow should think I kept myself alive." To this, Barnes asks:

But if she is also thinking "I might be getting married in a few weeks' time," does this not change the nature of that statement? This isn’t a moral comment: Oates may quote Marianne Moore's line that "the cure for loneliness is solitude," but many people need to be married, and therefore, at times, remarried. However, some readers will feel they have a good case for breach of narrative promise.

Return Volley: Oates reacts to her detractors with a written defense of her decision in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books. She writes:

I would not have thought that my personal history in the aftermath of early widowhood was so very relevant to the subject. A Widow’s Story is perhaps 98 percent journal entries with only two or three conventionally composed chapters, to provide marital background; it was not meant to be an autobiographical work, which would include many, many developments in the memoirist’s life subsequent to the early experience of widowhood, but rather an intimately detailed account of the raw, early weeks and months of "widowhood"--so much of this time is derangement, wild (and pathetic) rationalizing, the constant challenge of "getting through a day"--in segments … It is not a charge against grief that it can't last as pure, raw grief for very long--as one who is tortured, but survives, has not been less tortured because she has survived.

At the end of her letter, though, she gives in, acknowledging that "since nothing seems to arouse reproach in reviewers quite so much as the possibility that the memoirist is less miserable at the time of the writing and afterward than she was at the time of the experience about which she is writing, it is only sensible to include an appendix to remedy this, which I will hope to do."

What They Say the Fight's About: Barnes and Maslin argue that, since Oates's book is about her experience grieving for the year after her husband's death, it is dishonest to the reader to exclude a relationship with her future second husband that developed within that same year. Oates insists that her objective was to focus on her immediate grieving process and that an acknowledgement of her subsequent marriage is not only unnecessary but might illegitimately de-legitimize her tale of mourning in the eyes of readers.

What the Fight's Really About: Does an author need to share exhaustively with her reader at all times? Especially with almost all information so being so accessible, is it necessary for the writer to inform her audience of something they can easily find out for themselves if, in her opinion, it doesn't contribute to the story? Daniel Halpern, president and publisher of Ecco and Oates' editor, told The New York Times' Charles McGrath he disagrees with Oates' concession that she should have added an appendix to her book. 

"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. What is she supposed to say--that she finally met someone and got married? That certainly breaks the spell of the book, which is written differently and perceived differently from anything she's ever done before."

Who's Winning Now: This spat currently stands at a draw. If Oates does give into her critics demands by adding an appendix to her book, it would seem as though the critics have won, though it is unclear whether she actually plans to do so.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.