Cashing In


Image by TW Collins via Flickr

Joyce Carol Oates published her contribution to the dead spouse memoir section of your local bookstore this last week or so. How another rather elderly woman is widowed by an even more elderly man rates as soul wrenching tragedy eludes me, but she felt the need to chronicle her “magical” first year and share all 400 pages of it with the world – for a price.

Because you can find more authentic accounts of widowhood for free in the blogosphere, it’s a wonder that publishers still acquire this kinds of books and shell out capital to print and promote them. Notice I didn’t include “edit”. No one, apparently, puts Joyce in the editing corner and more than a few reviews of her work have pointed out that her memoir suffers from the lack of it.

The only thing of Oates that I have ever tried to slog through was We Were the Mulvaneys. I didn’t get far. Her style is bloated and slow.

But her new memoir kicked up a bit of a tropical storm in grief culture circles because of a reviewer who dared to wonder – out loud – how Oates could leave out of her story the fact that she was dating and engaged to be married before the first anniversary of her husband’s death.

Oates herself threw out, by way of  explanation, a cliché – that widowed folk with long happy unions tend to be so grounded that they naturally move on to equally awesome new unions with more alacrity than those who had short and/or problem filled marriages. Which has always rung hollow for me because my anecdotal experiences have revealed no such pattern.

But this was lost in the vicarious rallying of the widowed around their favorite theme – no one outside the sacred brother/sisterhood has any business questioning or criticizing. So there.

Rational discussions – and there are some here and there – ignore anyone who brings up the very good point that Oates was being a bit disingenuous by leaving out the dating and remarriage thing. It’s not a small thing and it absolutely is valid to wonder what prompted her to leave it out.

“She didn’t want to be judged!”

Because we are so judged for remarriage. Yawn. Within the brother/sisterhood, we are. I’ll agree with that. But by and large the vast majority of people who don’t know us at all, or very well, find remarriage heartwarming and a just reward for our “suffering”. Aside from my late husband’s family and friends – and widows here and there on the ‘net, I never encountered judgment.

Or jealousy. There are, I hear, herds of divorced and never married women out there who will sneer and snipe at a remarried woman’s alleged “hogging” of the small pool of decent men their age. Which I don’t buy either.

Mate envy is almost a DNA XX code thing. We are taught to compete and undermine each other from an early age and some of us never quite rise above the early training meant to reinforce our Darwinian breeding drive. It’s not personal. It’s not widow-centric.

Was Oates looking to avoid envy? Wanting to compete with Didion’s dominance and firm hold on the title of “Widow of the Millenium”. Worried about the reaction of her fans? Critics.

I think she is too canny a promoter of herself and work to not have realized that including information about moving on to a new relationship would have really changed the focus of the book. It wouldn’t have been a pure “grief” memoir. And she wanted her story to focus on the sadness, the pain, the affronts aplenty from the non-grieving world. Moving on just doesn’t fit neatly into the “poor widow me” paradigm promoted by the current grief culture, which is about life long struggle with loss. Even if that isn’t actually true – it sells more books. And at the end of the day, Oates has been a writer longer than she was a widow.

People who write for a living are only as fresh and marketable as their last book. And they do look for the hot trends and try to shoe horn themselves in. Writing is a business.

One thing I read over and over from literary agents, editors and publishers is that even a memoir has to have a point and say something new. It needs a hook. It’s not enough to simply have survived a tragedy. People do that all the time. What’s different about your tragedy? What did you do that was different? How can you apply your epiphany in a way that’s inspiring and will move readers to more than just pity?

Oates told the typical widowed story ,if the examples and excerpts in the reviews are accurate, with the obligatory touch points that we all have come to recognize from other books, movies and tv. She gets away with it because she is already quite famous. An icon. The well-established are allowed to be trite and re-tell well-known tales without adding to the narrative in any significant way.

Even if she had copped to falling in love again during that first year, that isn’t a new story either. Though it’s a lot closer to reality and offers far more hope for people who are widowed.

Oates played to the readers she knew would likely be her audience. Women who are older and alone, looking to be validated. It was shrewd. Also, by leaving out her new husband, she guaranteed a bit of controversy. I doubt at all that she was surprised when one reviewer had guts enough to bring it up. I’d even venture to guess that she was counting on it.

The dead husband memoir genre is real. There are books and blogs aplenty. Workshops are built around them. Cult followings spring up. It’s a business that compels memorists and self-help writers to plug their offerings in the comment sections of blogs and every time they write on someone’s Facebook wall. That’s not altruism, you know. It’s marketing.

Every memoir has a hook. Oates’s is her well-established fame. She didn’t need anything else. But the average person does. My own story, which will never be published anywhere but in bits and pieces on this blog and in various comment sections of other people’s blogs here and there, has no hook. There is nothing special about my story. Young mother widowed. I am no different from a thousand others but for minutia.

Rob could sell his story. He’s a guy for starters. That’s not typical. He went on a quest of sorts after Shelley died to leave her ashes in all the places they’d loved. A man in his truck travels across America spreading the essence of the woman he loved in those sacred places that represented their life together. He even took pictures. People might read that.

Widowers being a rarer tug at the female heart-strings and they can sell tragedy that’s identical but for gender to a public that rolls its eyes and yawns at the female version. Young widowed father? Heart-warming. But a woman in similar circumstances is just another single mom.

But here’s the thing about memoir, everyone thinks that if they’ve lived something than they can write it in a way that resonates, enlightens and moves the discussion forward. If you’ve read enough blogs, you know that isn’t true. Living an event is not enough to make one an authority and it doesn’t ensure that one has anything to add to the subject. It also, doesn’t make one a writer.

Oates is a writer, though of the literary set, meaning she appeals to a limited audience most of the time. Memoir has a wider audience. Voyeurism can be counted upon in the U.S. at any rate. But I question the value of her contribution. It’s not like older couples are unaware of their mortality. We get old. We die. That a woman her age remarried is the bigger statistical surprise, but even that is a tired, well-worn story path.

She doesn’t strike me as someone who is too worried about what others think of her. She left out the second husband thing because it didn’t fit with the image of herself she was promoting. Very simple and strategic choice.

Being a widow has more cachet than being remarried after all. It conjures up all manner of heroic stereotypes. Look at Liam Neeson, for example, a recent interview touted his statement about “grief waking him up in the middle of the night”. I wonder how lines in the story touched upon the fact that he’s had a girlfriend now for quite a while? Actually, I don’t really wonder at all.

Widowhood is the hot.

Moving on? Not so much. Oates is a savvy woman.

10 thoughts on “Cashing In

    1. Nah, I have a draft but this blog serves as memoir enough. Who cares about my story? It’s not a blueprint and it’s not special. I have nothing to say – that anyone would listen to – so my writing efforts should go somewhere else.

      I totally agree with Abel. Very few widowed have a story worth a memoir. They are emoting for the peanut gallery only – a little bit like JCO appears to be.

  1. It’s interesting how people react to Joyce Carol Oates. They seem to either love her or hate her. I always have been a big fan and think she is underrated. So what if her memoir isn’t like Joan Didion’s? I also don’t like this idea about it being wrong for writers to “cash in”. Writers deserve to get paid.

    1. Writers indeed deserve to be paid for their work and they have every right to make the most of trends in the business. That’s what JCO is doing, imo. I just find it interesting that the bulk of her target audience refuses to see it and that they are rallying around her as if she was being spit on while lying prostrate on her 1st husband’s grave. It was just one unfavorable review and it only wondered why she didn’t really go into the whole engaged at 11 mos business. it was the tamest bad review I have ever read.

      Frankly, I think most people who write their tragedies for publication specifically are looking for a cash pay-out (maybe to make up for what they have been through) and dream of movie rights and fame. I certainly entertained those notions, but I realized after a while – which included talking to editors and publishers – that my story added nothing new. I’m not special. Dead spouses and rebuilding lives is not that big of a deal in the larger scheme of things. Who cares?

      For the record, I found Magical Thinking to be an old person’s book, written from the point of view that losing someone is akin to having a mental breakdown with grief being some life long disability. It does widowed people no favors with the stereotype it pushes on all of us. It’s prettily prosed crap. JCO could have found a better model to work from.

  2. Great entry. I think that for those of us who have experienced great tragedy and happen to have a propensity to write believe we “have a book in us” when, in fact, you hit the nail on the head–we have nothing more to add to the canon. God forbid I judge another widow, but Oaks IS a mass market (those targeted) writer and it is her livelihood – so even if she has nothing new to add–she will sell books. Now my bias-I never have liked her writing, so I wouldn’t read it anyway even with the “shared experience” angle.

    1. Knee jerk reaction is to defend a “fella widda” but she is a writer first and it’s not uncommon at all for the more famous to rehash topics for which there is nothing left to say. I’d love to see someone write about the supposedly according to research more common grief scenario, which wraps up btwn 6 to 12 months for the most part. It would be refreshing to hear someone admit that while widowhood was painful – it wasn’t a chronic emotional blight and that joy and moving on came sooner than expected and life turned out okay. But then, where’s the drama- o-rama in that? It wouldn’t sell workshops or t-shirts, would it?

  3. Where to start? Where to start!

    You’ve basically summarized why I set my own book aside. I just don’t feel that I have anything to add the canon of widow stories, especially since there seems to be a spate of them out there in the last few years. I had thought that my approach to the genre was different enough to make it worthwhile, but I wasn’t sure that I would be saying anything that hadn’t been said before. Of course, MY words would have been well-edited, and MY tale would have been more compelling, etc. etc. etc.

    I have seen some of the hoopla about JCO’s book, but I haven’t been particularly interested in it. One commentator made a point similar to yours (about the cursory mention of remarriage), saying that talking about it in detail would have changed the book. This commenter (on Slate, I think) is herself a writer, a widow, and remarried, and she said that a book about both the grief and the remarriage would be too hard to write. It would be too easy to lose focus and too cumbersome to put into one book. She said that people were criticizing JCO for the book she *didn’t* write rather than critiquing the book that she did write.

    As I wrote this cooment, I thought of CSLewis, whose book A Grief Observed is yet another grief memoir I never read (even though it seems to be required reading for Christian widows). His tale of remarriage is in a separate book (Surprised by Joy), so why shouldn’t JCO allow herself the chance to write yet another book about that part of her life?

    1. She is Joyce Carol Oates and I get the feeling she does as she pleases all the time. And I read the review you mention, I don’t really agree that a book about dating while in early widowhood would be too hard to write – especially not for someone like Oates. I think she shrewdly targeted her audience and tailored her message.

      Memoir is a pretty self-centered genre. Kind of like blogging is. You are required to serve any needs but your own in memoir but if you publish it, you aren’t immune from those who will ask “why this?” and “what about that?” and wonder what you are hiding or trying to promote or what kind of image you are actively trying to create for yourself. That’s actually fair too. Especially if you only show one face – because we are round not flat and everyone knows that.

      But getting back to “what can I add”. I agree that there is little to add to the current conversation except for another opportunity to solidify whatever image you have of yourself and gather up some validation for what you went through (which I admit is a powerful enough motivator – along with the idea that everyone has that they will make money and Julia Roberts will play them in the movie version and they will get to met Oprah).

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