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2.16.2011

Writing About Joyce Carol Oates Writing On Joyce Carol Oates


While I'm not sure where it all started, the Maslin's recent review of Oates's memoir A Widow's Story is less than shining. Choice selections from Maslin:
  • "A book long and rambling enough to contemplate an answering-machine recording could have found time to mention a whole new spouse..."
  • "Obviously Ms. Oates chose to compartmentalize. And she had at least two reasons for doing that. 1. This book’s already-sketchy portrait of the Smiths’ marriage would have been weakened by such a major distraction. 2. “A Widow’s Story” willfully taps into the increasingly lucrative loss-of-spouse market that has thus far been dominated by Joan Didion’s “Year of Magical Thinking.”"
  • "Beyond that, the dynamic of the marriage is left blank. "
Ouch!

For those who don't want to read the review (but who doesn't?), The Atlantic blog quickly lays out Maslin's arguments.

JCO book is:

  • a lie
  • her attempt to out-widow Joan Didion
  • shallow
  • not detailed enough

Randy Souther, JCO blogger at Celestial Timepiece wrote a response to Maslin's piece, calling it out as "Unethical, Immoral. Crude and Cruel and Unconscionable." He touches on the unprofessionalism of her review: "Maslin’s overarching failure in this piece—one not uncommon with certain kinds of reviewers—that she is reviewing a book that JCO didn’t write," he writes--which, I think, is precisely what is wrong with Maslin's review: she attacks the writer and not the book, or maybe she attacks the book and the writer. Whereas calling it not detailed enough is precisely a legitimate reason to give a book a bad review, implying that someone is lying is something else, also questioning a person's grief is something else.

(Okay, I know I kinda attacked Amy Chua, but--I in my defense, I was attacking her argument and its presentation; also we all know I don't purely do book reviews, I do cultural critiques)


The writer in me asks: How did there come to be a subset of memoir about spousal loss? How do we rate and rank these books? How do we rate or rank the loss? Are those with greater command of the language or the market share the ones who are most "qualified" to write about this subject? Does it depend on circumstance, or on context? Was my experience with grief and mourning worthy of a share of that "lucrative loss-of-spouse market," even though I was told way back in 2001 that the story of a middle-aged childless widow was far less compelling than that of a young mother of three whose husband had (also) died in the 9/11 attacks?....The widow in me wonders: How long?
Whatever the verdict is on the craft and ethics of JCO's memoir (I will be buying it; my life's goal [or one of them] is to write a biography about JCO a la Carol Sklenicka), the fact of its existence shows two things:

  1. Joyce Carol Oates is still rich.
  2. The memoir market is huge and is saturated with books of no importance. How does one judge personal experience? By craft? By mere story?

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