Picking on Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir

Oh, my. Julian Bond of the New York Book Review wrote of Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story that Oates should have told her readers she had remarried. What? But wait, Oates’s beloved husband of close to 50 years died within a week of being diagnosed with pneumonia in February, 2008, and she began seeing the man who would become her future husband in September, 2008. The two married in March, 2009. Not so much time to grieve alone, but enough time to think about it and send a manuscript to an editor by the end of 2009.

I went to Oates’s St. Louis author event and have read a few chapters of A Widow’s Story and found it delightfully chatty in an intensely personal way, as though Oates is writing in her journal but knowing others will be reading it. She writes her grief beautifully, heartfelt, and openly. The book ends with an epilogue containing three journal entries of August, 2008, that leave Ms. Oates — and readers — with a small sense of hope as any memoir of grief or troubles should (see my last post about Erik Larson and transformation).

So, should Oates have mentioned at the end of the epilogue that she started seeing a man a few days later? That she remarried within a year and is doing fine? Do readers feel cheated somehow, as Mr. Bonds suggests, as though she were leading us on through her sadness and, oh, she recovered fairly quickly? Partial spoiler: Oates hints at this new man coming into her life in the final journal entry. News flash: dating again and remarrying does not remove the shadow of grief or the memory of a deceased spouse.

Oates has taken Bond’s comments to heart, it seems, and is seriously considering adding a short bit to new print runs of her book to explain more about the new man. I agree with her agent in that the current hint is enough, especially as the epilogue alludes to a readiness to look forward. Agent Daniel Halpern says, “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.” Yes. And I venture to say that writing about the new husband is antithetical to the story of a grief experience. Wouldn’t it be cruel to even unintentionally suggest that there might be another man ready to sweep away the sadness and make everything all right? This is a story of a pain that many — women and men — will endure sooner or later. Its power is in the now, and should not leave us with sweet dreams of a future with another spouse. (Joyce, are you listening?)

Information for this post taken from articles in the LA Times Blog and The Guardian, UK

Linda Austin
“Cherry Blossoms in Twilight”


About moonbridgebooks

Co-author of Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, a WWII Japan memoir of her mother's childhood; author of Poems That Come to Mind, for caregivers of dementia patients; Co-author/Editor of Battlefield Doc, a medic's memoir of combat duty during the Korean War; life writing enthusiast; loves history and culture (especially Japan), poetry, and cats
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4 Responses to Picking on Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir

  1. I am getting a little tired of this rule that every story must have transformation. That's just a literary fashion.

  2. Linda Austin says:

    Well, a good story must have some kind of takeaway or change in or journey of the protagonist else the story goes nowhere. There should be an answer to "so what?" or "now what?" Often just one sentence at the end can satisfy the reader's need for completion or redemption. A grief memoir, especially, can easily turn into a poor-me "misery memoir" that goes nowhere. Historical narrative, I think, can get away with being more static, because of the educational value. Any one else want to weigh in?

  3. Linda, I'd like to thank you (albeit belatedly) for your kind feedback in the New Book Review. If you do decide to read my book, I hope you find it meaningful. And the best of luck with your own writing!

  4. Linda Austin says:

    Thanks, Susan. Your book, Twice the Marrow of Your Bones, is on my wish list.

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