What is it that we really want from memoir? The kerfuffle this week over “A Widow’s Story,” a narrative from Joyce Carol Oates about the loss of her husband and their many years together brings this question front and center again.
Oates was married to Raymond J. Smith for nearly five decades; in addition to their separate careers, they worked together on the Ontario Review literary journal. Smith was sick for one week in the hospital before dying in the middle of the night while Oates tried in vain to get to him in time to say goodbye. (Those with a subscription can see an excerpt of her account in The New Yorker.)
Oates is known for her speed and productivity – she has a staggering 50 novels to her name, not to mention many other kinds of writing and more than 30 years of teaching at Princeton. Yet Oates’ speed in producing this memoir and her exclusion of material about getting engaged 11 months after her husband died did not play well with The New York Times’ Janet Maslin, who wrote in her review of the book that it “willfully taps into the increasingly lucrative loss-of-spouse market” and shows “worrisome signs of haste.” A Salon.com piece written in response by Nikki Stern addressed both Maslin’s review and comments made in another Times op-ed.
Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” comes up frequently in these discussions, although there is a wide range of accounts of such loss. John Bayley wrote multiple works about his marriage with writer Iris Murdoch during her struggle with Alzheimer’s and after her death. And the New Yorker ran a short narrative about love and death just last month, in which novelist Francisco Goldman wrote about the loss of his young wife, the writer Aura Estrada, after a mishap at the beach.
Setting aside “A Widow’s Story” and any particular tale, what makes these stories compelling or forgettable? And why does memoir provoke such strong reactions?
The first hurdle for a memoirist is knowing which story to tell. We all feel compelled to share our stories, but what makes a story worth sharing beyond the circle of people who are already connected to it? And what parts of a life are relevant?
In an essay on this site, Adam Hochschild describes memoir as both more and less than the summing up of real life: “Many memoirs don’t work because the things that most of us tend to celebrate about ourselves are less interesting than those things that hold readers’ attention.” Of course, as soon as the writer begins shaping the story by walling off certain experiences, those decisions affect the narrative: Did the author leave something out that should have stayed in? This is in part Maslin’s critique of Oates’ account.
Memoir relies on more than one kind of truth, but memoir is nonfiction, so facts come first. (For more on this topic, see the Roy Peter Clark essay “The Line Between Fact and Fiction.”) While a certain anxiety about correctness and what can be proven has flattened the language of more than one autobiography, how much worse it is to give up on facts altogether.
James Frey has earned his spot as the perennial whipping boy on matters of accuracy, but it could just as easily be Misha Defonseca, with her story of surviving the Holocaust living among wolves. Or Margaret Seltzer’s invented account of a gangland coming of age.
A predictable fury arises over the clear-cut con, but there is more than one kind of honesty. People telling ostensibly true stories have long defended the idea of a deeper truth – one that somehow permits making stuff up. The CBS show “The Good Wife” mocked this notion of truth this week in a parody of Aaron Sorkin and “The Social Network,” suggesting that sometimes lip service is paid to truth by those who really want latitude with their story.
Still, as “Liar’s Club” and “Lit” author Mary Karr said last year, “the least of my problems as a memoirist, as a writer, is getting my facts right.” Even if the standard of factual accuracy is met – and no one seems to be suggesting that Joyce Carol Oates, for example, is making things up – what additional accountability to truth does the memoirist have?
Writing about atrocities, Vanderbilt University professor Kelly Oliver describes the value of testimony. She argues that bearing witness is not just the presentation of a series of facts, or even the revelation of true but unknown information. If accuracy were all that stories relied on, then it would be enough for anyone to present those facts, and we would not value testimony the way we do. In spite of the tendency for factual errors to be part of eyewitness accounts, such stories have a complex cultural value.
Extending Oliver’s ideas, I would say that powerful nonfiction writing comes from a kind of truth-in-story that maintains accuracy while simultaneously accomplishing even more. Oliver argues that bearing witness speaks to the very events that facts alone can’t illustrate, a kind of path into another’s experiences accompanied by the realization that those experiences cannot be fully comprehended.
While Oliver writes about epic horrors of history, her ideas also apply to the domestic tragedies of parental cruelty, the loss of a child or the death of a spouse. The best memoirs recount loss and change in a way that offers more than thrills based on peeking into someone else’s suffering. Instead, the most powerful stories say something unknown about the person’s life, touching on universal experiences while giving us a glimpse of the ultimately unknowable aspects of another’s existence.
Beyond not making stuff up, we want to know that a deeper honesty is in play – that despite the impossibility of complete understanding, the author is permitting us to be present for the serious examination of a life.