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.