The memoir is deceitful above all things.
Is the controversy over Joyce Carol Oates’ grief memoir, A Widow’s Story, a “tempest in a teapot,” as David Ulin says over at the L.A. Times? Or is it, as I proclaim here, the perfect illustration of how the memoir is inherently a dishonest and illegitimate literary genre?
That’s why I’ve hated — hated, I say! — the memoir since it first emerged as a dominant new literary genre 15 years ago, despite having read some examples of the form with pleasure and even admiration.
The current contretemps arose after Julian Barnes, the acclaimed British novelist, took Oates to task in a review of A Widow’s Story that ran in the April 7 issue of The New York Review of Books. Oates’ memoir tells of the crippling sorrow that befell her following the death of her husband, Raymond Smith.
Oates was married to Smith, a literary scholar, editor and publisher, from 1961 until he died in February of 2008 at the age of 77.
As Oates told me in an interview in March of 2009, as she was preparing to visit Fort Lauderdale for the Night of Literary Feasts, Smith had shielded her from the details of everyday life, making possible her famously prodigious output (more than 120 novels, story collections, books of essays, children’s books — and counting).
A Widow’s Story has received mixed but mostly positive reviews, with one of the more negative coming from Janet Maslin in The New York Times, where she’s much harder on Oates than Barnes is.
But for some reason — doubtless his stature as a novelist plays a part — it is Barnes’s review that has become the focus of the controversy. Barnes, writing with a tough-minded circumspection, criticizes Oates for not mentioning, in this memoir of spousal grief, that she managed to recover so handily that by the anniversary of Smith’s death she was engaged to her second husband.
Barnes memorably calls this “a breach of narrative promise.”
Amazingly, Oates has responded to Barnes’s criticism with a letter to the NYRB in which she halfway concedes his point and speculates that future editions of the book may carry an “appendeix” to round off the story with news of the author’s happy remarriage.
Ulin, a distinguished book reviewer who has evidently made peace with the memoir as a literary form, rouses himself to indignation in Oates’s behalf, chiding Barnes for disengenuousness. As a writer Barnes knows, Ulin asserts, that “the memoir, like the novel, is all about shape. It’s not a biography, not a life story, not a transcript of events. In a memoir, a writer tells a story, and whatever is extraneous gets left out.”
Although Ulin is right in his description of what a memoir is and what it does, he’s wrong to assume that logic therefore dictates Barnes is wrong in his “breach of narrative promise” charge. Many people will find it unseemly that a woman as devastated as Oates claims to have been could have met a man, fallen in love and been in preparation for a new marriage in less than a year. Such readers will hardly consider Oates’s new union “extraneous.”
What’s more, from a purely literary point of view, Barnes’s criticism would stand even if A Widow’s Story were published as fiction. Oates fails to fulfill the promise implied in the book’s very title to tell the story of how the widow survived her loss and found the will to move on.
And here is where I part company with Ulin and Oates and even Barnes, who has written memoir himself. Although I’m a veteran book reviewer, too, with a great appreciation for the truth that can come only from well-shaped fiction, the journalist in me, the old reporter who used to cover city council meetings and show up a car wrecks and house fires, refuses to deny the value of that coarser coin, fact.
The memoir, by laying claim to both novelistic truth and nonfiction fact, is a craven cheat. It wants to wield the authority of a factual account — a powerful marketing tool in this nonfiction age — while availing itself of the skills and tricks and technical storytelling strategies of fiction.
Examine again Ulin’s description of memoir. Notice how well it would function as a definition of the realistic novel. I submit that the memoir does not actually exist. It is, instead, the autobiographical novel masquerading in trendier, sexier and more sellable drag.
If Oates, a literary genius, or close to it, had wanted to write a genuine nonfiction account of her grief, it would by necessity have included her new relationship. To do otherwise is dishonest. If she wanted to leave out the new husband — for whatever reason, even simply to concentrate the impact of her sorrow — then she should have written a novel.
Which, of course, is exactly what she has done.