Memoir and the sins of omission: Joyce Carol Oates responds to her critics

Joyce Carol Oates has responded to Julian Barnes’s review of her memoir, A Widow’s Story, in a letter to the editor in the current edition of the New York Review of Books. In “For Sorrow There is No Remedy”, Barnes read carefully and responded on the whole sympathetically to Oates’s contribution to the genre of “grief memoir” – a genre with which he is all too familiar as the author of last year’s Nothing to Be Frightened Of. However, he cannot quite get beyond the fact that Oates neglected to mention in her account of her long marriage to Raymond Smith and his sudden death, that she met another man who became her second husband approximately one year later. “Some readers will feel they have a good case for breach of narrative promise,” Barnes concludes.

In her NYRB letter, Oates makes the point that she conceived the book as “an intimately detailed account of the raw, early weeks and months of ‘widowhood’ … the original experience of loss and grief which I was hoping to record in a visceral way unmediated by a retrospective vision.” This understanding of her work explains Oates’s choice of title and her approach to the material, but it is disingenuous. As anyone who has written a memoir knows, “retrospective vision” is essential to the very possibility of writing one. While many memoirs, including A Widow’s Story, are comprised of diary entries, they are typically heavily edited and often rearranged to correspond with an overarching structure for the book as a whole. One of the most difficult moments I had while writing my own memoir was to read through a large swathe of draft words, only to be simultaneously overwhelmed by sadness at its contents, and dismayed to realise what I was reading was raw material. That draft material, which included words adapted from rough scribblings and incoherent ramblings from the those first months after my husband’s death, was a very long way from being a book.

There is a chasm between raw material and a finished book, with countless decisions to make during the process. Where to begin? Where to end? How to convey dramatic action in an experience that is often highly interior? Who and what to include? Most importantly, what to leave out?

All memoirists leave out material that readers potentially might have found interesting or valuable. Relevance is in the eye of the writer. Even so, Oates seems surprised at the charges laid against her memoir: “I would not have thought that my personal history in the aftermath of early widowhood was so very relevant to the subject,” she writes. On this point I have some sympathy for her. I was fortunate to entertain more than one offer to publish my book, but one offer was conditional upon my writing a “coda” in which the reader would be reassured that I had recovered from the worst of my grief. Because the memoir ends with my moving to New York, the editor suggested I could write something about what it’s like to live there. She all but said the reader should see me sashaying down 5th Avenue loaded with shopping bags and some guy by my side. (Some of us were still in their own post-Sex In The City grief.) However, I declined the offer because I had nothing relevant to add to my manuscript. I was feeling better, I was functioning in the world, but I was not “cured” of my grief. There was no new guy. There certainly was no money for new clothes. The journey of the memoir was from the total devastation of losing my husband to starting to make my way in the world again, by myself.

I suspect that in my own case and in Oates’s, the lack of a man appearing by narrative’s end is considered, however slightly, as some kind of betrayal of a trope of storytelling. If Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love ended not with a romantic union but a brief pause as she wondered where in the world to travel solo next, I don’t know whether she would have sold quite as many books as she did. It would appear that some version of a “happy ending” does seem to work for readers, in fiction and nonfiction alike. Barnes’s claim of “breach of narrative promise” only holds true if we accept that a grief memoir – by a woman writer – must conclude with proof of her recovery in the form of a new relationship.

Which brings us back to the question of relevance. Conceding that perhaps the criticisms of her memoir were not going to go away, Oates finishes her letter by announcing that she will attempt to address the alleged omission by including an appendix in a new edition, saying

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.

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