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The memoir is deceitful above all things.

May 16, 2011

Joyce Carol Oates

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.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. May 16, 2011 3:06 pm

    I interrupt my editing of a “memoir” to respond to this discussion of a “Dishonest” and “Illegitimate?” literary genre. A memoir is a personal recollection of how things were as perceived by the writer and even more important, how things felt. The only proclamation that the term “memoir” implies, is the truth of those perceptions at the time of the writing — distorted or exaggerated as perceptions may indeed be. And even more important in judging “the memoir, ” should be its “literary” quality. I infer that the literary quality in the Oates book is not, for you, the issue, but rather the semantic appellation “memoir” as being a misrepresentation. Had she labeled it “Fiction,” that too would have been called to question by anyone who knows her. So why not compromise, and as in Jeanette Walls’ ,”Half Broke Horses,” (I believe she called is Fiction based on truth ) find a label with “wiggle room” – Non-fiction, based on perception and writer’s discretion.
    I, for one, enjoy the intimacy of the memoir genre, the exactness of its content having transpired in the real world, and the truth that “truth is stranger than fiction,” resonates in a more far reaching way as does the honesty of fceelings that can only be rendered by a memoirist. That fiction has to be “made up” in a world where reality offers the creativity of interpretation and analysis tells me that there is indeed room for both, but that “memoir” deserves at least the same level of respect as fiction. Do some people get “it” wrong? Yeah! Does Oates’ letter to Barnes connect the dots of her memoir? For me it does. She is a professional writer, not a professional widow. And that is how her book should be judged.
    . And where is it written that the ability to do both well,— “wield the authority of a factual account …. while availing oneself of the skills and storytelling strategies of fiction” — is contra-indicated and therefore renders one “a cheat?”

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 16, 2011 4:39 pm

      Why, it’s written so right here in this blog. While you make an impassioned, if somewhat confused, argument for the legitimacy of the memoir as a literary genre, you address neither Barnes’s objections to Oates’s book nor my more stringent objections to the memoir in general. And you’re being either naive or cynical, I can’t tell which. Please explain exactly how the memoir differs from the older if slightly fusty form of the autobiographical novel? I say none exists, except that when a piece of writing is called a “memoir” it as if by magic becomes more marketable. Leaving the new husband — and the somewhat shockingly short period of time Oates need to find one — out of her grief memoir is dishonest. As Barnes suggests, more respectfully than I do, it plays false with the reader.
      Regarding literary quality: As a journalist I say that literary quality is not a cover for all sins. It’s not enough, if you make up stuff, or leave out important stuff, or raise and level the course of actual events, or fiddle over much with the time line in a book that is supposed to be factual, then you are being dishonest. More then two decades of book reviewing leaves me with the impression that all memoirs indulge in literary slight of hand.
      And please, spare me the cliche about truth being stranger than fiction. If that were true, memoirists would have no need to resort to novelistic storytelling in order to attract readers. In the case of memoirs, truth is exactly as strange as fiction. In fact, it is the same thing.

  2. May 16, 2011 6:10 pm

    There’s nothing dishonest about a memoirist focusing on what she wishes to focus on and omitting what she doesn’t. That’s the nature of memoir. As you said yourself, this is not autobiography; it’s more malleable and allows the writer to be selective about her reminiscences.

    So she was engaged within a year? So what? She is in no way obligated to deal with that in her memoir. Seems to me that some people have fixed ideas about how people should grieve and for how long, and that might be colouring their opinion on the matter. Yes, I mean you, and that Barnes fellow too.

    Chauncey, you dislike the memoir and there’s nothing wrong with that. I dislike magical realism and there’s nothing wrong with that either. There are several pejorative adjectives I might use to describe the latter, as you might have some choice ones to describe the former. ‘Dishonest’ is not one of those that would apply.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 16, 2011 10:19 pm

      Dishonest is directly applicable. No literary form should have both the freedom of fiction and the authority of fact. This is not a complicated proposition. It’s also irrefutable.

      As for how she should grieve: Oates’s book is a grief memoir. How she grieves — and how she finds the will to go on — are precisely what it’s about. She’s parading her grief for our edification, thereby inviting all of us — you, me, Barnes — to pass judgment.

      Oates’s surprising offer to include an appendix with information about her remarriage shows she is not insensible to such concerns.

  3. Eileen permalink
    May 17, 2011 2:06 pm

    i’ve always found oates and her prodigiosity fascinating — sort of the way i find running and people obsessed with it fascinating, even though i find actually running boring. she’s so … wraithlike, and seems to look more so every time i’ve seen her, as if without that feverish drive to write, write, write, she’d just disappear.

    anyway, thinking about that, and reading this post (and all the other stuff written by people who seem to share my vaguely repelled interest in her) does make me wonder how much she really “loved” smith (or maybe she never even used that word and i extrapolate) and how much he was just a means to an end.

    kinda tangential, i know … meanwhile, finding all these comments in defense of the memoir (and oates) fascinating too. neither one really *needs* a defender.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 17, 2011 2:56 pm

      You know that Oates is a runner, right?

      • Eileen permalink
        May 18, 2011 11:54 am

        i didn’t, but whoa, makes sense! i was just reading (yet another) piece in the nyt about what constitutes happiness for us humans, and by the end the writer seemed pretty at a loss about it himself. he said he’d *thought* he was really enjoying playing bridge for, you know, the right reasons, but now he wondered if it “was just fidgeting until we die.” well, what isn’t? but that phrase made me think of oates again.

  4. May 18, 2011 12:48 am

    This discussion is really about how to categorize a book that purports to be a true story of some aspect of the writer’s life. And there is an assertion that if a piece of writing is called “memoir,” it becomes more marketable, which must mean that publishers perceive that more people are likely to buy something called “memoir” as opposed to something called “fiction,” I wonder why. Do you think that if a book were to be categorized as an “autobiographical novel” it would be more or less marketable than as a memoir? (and BTW, I have nothing against the use of that term, fusty as it may be, especially since the new popularity of the “Historical Novel” and all the license that is therefore inherently acceptable)
    Leaving the Oates book aside for a moment, because this is actually about the legitimacy of the existence of the genre, I believe that if a memoir has an important theme, and pretty much sticks to the facts as the writer remembers them, and does not distort the truth of that theme – then it doesn’t affect the integrity of the book to declare that something happened on Monday when actually, it could have been Tuesday, or on Broadway when it might have been Sixth Avenue. or if the writer dramatizes a scene to make a point. We are, after all, talking about an art form and not a “Scientific Study “

    And back to Oates, she pretty much answered Barnes in her letter to him. And I accept that too, as being legitimate. (and I am not an Oates fan)

    In conclusion, I quote ”More then two decades of book reviewing leaves me with the impression that all memoirs indulge in literary slight of hand.” the implication being that you believe that the Memoir is an illegitimate art form. I figure you are not likely to be dissuaded from that position. But – it’s a “free country” if you’ll pardon another cliché (or two) – so I respectfully disagree.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 18, 2011 11:25 am

      I accept your respectful disagreement in the spirit in which it is offered, well aware that mine is a minority position. Nonetheless I am absolutely convinced of the rightness of my cause. I wish time allowed for a fuller exploration of this matter, for you express the opposing point of view well. A few comments, however:

      There is absolutely no doubt that a memoir is more marketable than a novel. Nonfiction has long (perhaps always) sold better than fiction. Witness the charming, transparent pretense to factuality found widely in 19th century stories and novels, in which dates are written “18–,” as though to give the exact year would reveal too much and embarrass the people in the story. Note that A Million Little Pieces was shopped to 17 publishers as a novel, each and everyone of which turned it down. Only when someone suggested Frey resubmit the thing as a memoir did it find a publisher, become a bestseller. We live in a nonfiction age — reality shows dominate televisions, documentary films have never been more popular and the memoir has replaced the autobiographical first novel as a writer’s best route to publication. But as I state above, it’s a bastard form, a cheating genre, that seeks to eat its cake and have it, to wield the authority of nonfiction and the artistry and narrative suppleness of fiction.

      I admit it maddens me a bit when you say: “I believe that if a memoir has an important theme, and pretty much sticks to the facts as the writer remembers them, and does not distort the truth of that theme – then it doesn’t affect the integrity of the book to declare that something happened on Monday when actually, it could have been Tuesday, or on Broadway when it might have been Sixth Avenue. or if the writer dramatizes a scene to make a point.” How can the first and second parts of that sentence be reconciled? How can a memoir fail to “distort the truth of that theme” if the author “dramatizes a scene to make a point”? I say: It cannot be reconciled. You are describing an autobiographical novel, while pleading for the legitimacy of a literary chimera known as the “memoir.” No such creature exists. Being casual about dates and streets, “dramatizing” anecdotes to make the story better — these are the tools and prerogatives of fiction, and only fiction.

      Finally, those, like you, who would defend the memoir, or as it’s sometimes called “creative nonfiction” — we’ll all have a good horse laugh with Orwell in heaven over that one, won’t we? — do a profound disservice to the novel. The novel is the apex genre of the Western literary tradition. It is to literature what the symphony is to music. It is capacious. It contains all things, from myth and legend to fantasy to magical realism to metafiction to the most realistic mimetic narrative and every conceivable combination and permutation. What you call the “memoir” actually falls within its confines. Naming its something else is a marketing convenience.

      Finally, no writer seeking to capture the reality of what happened to him or hear will, in good conscience, “dramatize.” The will and discipline to refrain from easy dramatization is the soul of good nonfiction, as any decent craftsman knows.

      The memoir is indefensible.

  5. May 18, 2011 5:59 pm

    Yes! suck it up – Today’s marketplace — whore-mongering capital of society, that it is — has chosen “reality” in all its forms, as its dish of the day. or yawn of the year, or demon of the decade – whatever! And even writers still have to put broccoli on the table and torn jeans on their bods.. So why begrudge a semantic that sells? And I am not defending James Frey, here, since he compromised the truth of his theme. But Frank McCourt, Kathryn Harris, Mary Karr, Bill Bryson, Rick Bragg, Calvin Trillin, and OMG I could go on … of recent vintage, have produced fine pieces of literature
    So, if “creative non fiction,” evinces a chuckle with Orwell at some future meet-up with the guy, I say- go for the laugh and use the label. If “autobiographical novel” would pony up the same contract from a publisher as “memoir” – again – sure, why not! But don’t go depriving the world of some of the greats because you think it is deceitful for them to use dialogue that has not been accurately recorded for Snopes or have conjured up a scene to illustrate a point, that might or might not have taken place.
    “The novel is the apex genre of the Western literary tradition. It is to literature what the symphony is to music” And I say – Give Jazz a Chance !

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 31, 2011 8:55 pm

      Oh, I’m just one shrill, lonely voice. I doubt my arguments have influenced a single writer, reader or acquisitions editor. So the genre in all its commercial potential is safe from the likes of me. As a journalist, though, I insist there are useful distinctions to be made between truth and fact. I insist that tarting up barely remembered dialogue or conjuring a scene to illustrate a point in a memoir — a work that is supposed to be nonfiction! — is the very acme is dishonesty. I’m sorely tempted to wax biblical here, thundering verses about narrow gates and broad ways, but I would be merely entertaining myself. Maybe I’ll make a sandwich board: “The end (of the autobiographical novel) is nigh!” But I will never accept the argument that whatever makes “great literature” is permissable.

  6. May 18, 2011 7:50 pm

    Oh- and BTW — I am not knocking the novel. This is not “either/or” stuff.

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