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Death, truth and memoir: the debate over Joyce Carol Oates’ “A Widow’s Story”

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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.


  1. posted February 17, 2011 at 1:49 pm | permalink

    This is a fascinating topic, although it has been debated for decades, if not longer. And that fact tells us that we will likely never come to an agreement as writers about the nature of truth in memoir and how much “fact” – in the journalistic sense – a memoir must reply upon.

    I try to keep it simple: Memoir is called “memoir” because its about memory – the writer’s truth. It is not journalism. Truth comes in many forms, but the writer has the last say about what’s the “truth” in his/her story. This said, telling YOUR truth does not, by itself, make a good memoir. Memoir MUST be about a shared human condition between writer and reader. Memoir rarely works when it is nothing more than peeking through a curtain to see someone’s suffering, tragedy, or the train wreck of a life. That’s voyeurism, not memoir.

    I’ve written and published many personal essays, memoirs. I’ve published a book – also a memoir. And am I always certain that I get the right mix of my truth with relevant and emotional detail in my stories? No. I’m never certain. But I try, and that I know.

    It’s a delicate dance we play as memoirists, but we mustn’t forget that the story has to be OUR truth, as fair in its portrayal of facts and emotion that it can be while still acknowledging that both are frequently illusive.

    David W. Berner
    Author, Accidental Lessons

  2. posted March 2, 2011 at 6:04 pm | permalink

    On truth/facts in memoir, I absolutely agree with David – this is an age-old problem and one on which there will never be a consensus.

    I think the original post and David’s comment bring out a number of key issues:

    1. We expect factual accuracy in memoir, but we also expect a good story, and narrative non-fiction inevitably causes a struggle between these two. James Frey made the point that his books continued to sell even after the controversy (although maybe this was BECAUSE of the controversy). His point seems to be that readers value the story above the factual accuracy.

    2. There are different types of truth, and strictly factual accounts won’t always convey precisely the kind of truth the writer aspires to. Again, James Frey says: “I’m only interested in making good art by whatever means”. Getting from ‘facts’ to ‘art’ will always involves some kind of transformation.

    3. It’s worth considering that narratives of loss might be be a part of the grieving process – one way for a mourner to “talk it out” as we might in counselling or to a friend. For this reason their relationship with truth is likely to be unstable, because it’s through such narratives that we actually find our truth.

    I particularly like Andrea’s idea that “powerful nonfiction writing comes from a kind of truth-in-story that maintains accuracy while simultaneously accomplishing even more.” This statement captures, for me, the problematic relationship between narrative (an act of creation) and truth, which pretends to be absolute.

  3. Steven Patrick Kenny
    posted March 3, 2012 at 11:26 am | permalink

    A memoir must be the truth, whether it is a good story or not. Taking liberties with the truth in a memoir moves it outside the realm of memoir and comprimises the integrity of both the author and the story. A memoirist may quote poets, recount personal experiences, draw parallelisms, use language in any way that helps achieve the point, the effect, but truth, above all, must be maintained.

    Steve Kenny, author of -1997- A Memoir [Smashwords]

  4. Steven Patrick Kenny
    posted March 3, 2012 at 2:37 pm | permalink

    The purposeful blurring of the line between truth and fiction [factual manipulation] in memoir, for the sake of ‘art’ or any other cause, including to ‘fix’ a weak story, must always be identified correctly as a self-serving self-promotion, does the thinking, reading public a real disservice, weakens the trust between author and reader, and cheapens the form. A memoirist must express the truth and/or heighten the effects of that truth through honest literary devices alone. If truth cannot be maintained, then an essay might be the correct form, if not something closer to fiction.

  5. Steve Kenny
    posted March 18, 2012 at 10:26 am | permalink

    In light of the recent Mike Daisey revelations about his manipulation of fact in a recent ‘This American Life’ episode [a broadcast of a segment of Mike Daisey's one man show 'The Agony and the Ecstacy of Steve Jobs], and judging by the gravity of Ira Glass’ perfectly correct handling of the problem, we must admit that there are two kinds of artistic license: factual and fictitous. We must not let the lines between the two be blurred if we are to retain credibility.

  6. Steve Kenny
    posted March 21, 2012 at 11:35 am | permalink

    The irony of my statements on credibility have not escaped my notice. I am sure some of you more credentialed writers have viewed my comments as though viewing an object through a telescope. Too bad; one should always know farsight from hubris.

  7. Andrea Pitzer
    posted March 21, 2012 at 11:38 am | permalink

    I’m not sure the prior commenters saw your posts, Steve. For the record, I think if you’re going to make stuff up, even in the service of some greater “truth,” you ought to call it fiction.

2 trackbacks

  1. by Monday Tally: The Suck Fairy and the Book Ninja on February 21, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    [...] Joyce Carol Oates’ memoir, A Widow’s Story, came out this week to a little controversy. I enjoyed this reaction piece from Neiman Storyboard, which looked at death, truth and memoir. [...]

  2. [...] 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.” [...]

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