[Update: Feb 19, 2011. The piece below was written before I had finished reading A Widow’s Story, as I felt a need to immediately respond to the obvious distortions in Janet Maslin’s review. I wrote that Maslin’s questioning why JCO had not mentioned her engagement in a memoir that covered the time period of the engagement was a reasonable one. Having finished reading the book, I see now that Maslin’s primary criticism was a misrepresentation. Oh, let’s be honest: Janet Maslin lied once again.
As one of the commenters below noted also, the book does not cover a time period of a year and a half, as Maslin states, but covers approximately six months after the death of Raymond Smith. In fact, JCO ends her book on the day that she first meets her future second husband, and compares that meeting with the day she first met Raymond Smith.
I can’t appropriately express my disgust over Janet Maslin’s sleazy behavior. The New York Times is diminished by association with such unprofessionalism. ]
In her review of Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir, A Widow’s Story, about the death of her husband Raymond J. Smith, New York Times critic Janet Maslin makes haste to point out that missing from the memoir is JCO’s engagement to Charles Gross, which took place during the time period covered by the book. Maslin asks, “how delicately must we tread around this situation?”
On Valentine’s Day, 2011, a well-known critic at a prominent newspaper performed a hatchet-job on Joyce Carol Oates, questioning the reality of her grief, mocking her friendship with Joan Didion, and trivializing the decades-long editorial work of her deceased husband, Raymond J. Smith.
How delicately must we tread around this situation?
It is reasonable to ask the question why does this memoir fail to mention an event as important as an engagement to be married. I can only speculate that since this memoir is self-described as one of “loss and grief,” that JCO is limiting its scope to those themes. A Widow’s Story is not a diary nor a journal; if Maslin was expecting otherwise, that is her oversight, not JCO’s.
And that is 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.
What is inexplicable to me is why Maslin felt compelled to turn a negative book review into a vicious personal attack on Oates.
Maslin seems to be unable to comprehend the idea that the heart is capable of holding both happiness and sorrow at the same time; that JCO could fall in love with Charles Gross while still grieving for her lost husband. That JCO chose to write about the latter, and not the former, is her prerogative, and is not an occasion for characterizing her book as therefore lacking “honesty” and “courage.”
After demonstrating that A Widow’s Story is a fake memoir of grief, Maslin then claims to know that the book was actually written not out of grief, but out of JCO’s apparent jealousy of the cash generated by Joan Didion’s bestselling memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. Maslin then mentions JCO’s two cats, because good writers always use elegant transitional devices:
“Ms. Oates, who had two pet cats with Mr. Smith, shows her own sharp claws when alluding to Ms. Didion’s book as an exercise in narcissism and vanity. Some widows, Ms. Oates suggests — ahem — might benefit from a good swift slap to break the spell of grief-mongering pathology.”
Maslin does not actually quote JCO here, I assume because doing so would make the process of lying more difficult. Maslin is referring to a section in the memoir where JCO quotes a snippet of a letter that her friend Joan Didion has sent, noting that Didion’s stunned reaction to her own husband’s death over time became a realization that his death was “predictable.” JCO, who at that time was still in the “stunned” phase, wonders if being “stunned” is what compelled Didion to write her memoir. JCO then muses more generally,
“is there a perspective from which the widow’s grief is sheer vanity; narcissism; the pretense that one’s loss is so special, so very special, that there has never been a loss quite like it? Is there a perspective from which the widow’s grief is but a kind of pathological pastime, or hobby—a predilection of the kind diagnosed as OCD—”obsessive compulsive disorder….”
JCO then lists examples of obsessive behavior in which we have already seen her engaging. So clearly JCO is speaking of herself here, not of her friend Didion. JCO finishes the thought,
“If only someone would publicly ridicule the widow, give the widow a good solid kick, slap the widow’s face or laugh in her face—the spell might be broken.”
Why would Maslin deliberately make this appear as if it were an attack by JCO on Joan Didion when it clearly isn’t; when the two writers are obviously friends? Didion was offering JCO sympathy. And JCO has written of Didion in her published Journal: “her generosity, her total lack of ‘professional rivalry’ are astounding….”
Perhaps even more disturbing is Maslin’s casual dismissal of the career of Raymond Smith, for more than 30 years editor of the literary journal Ontario Review and for more than 20 years editor of the publishing house Ontario Review Press. After “treading” on JCO for leaving important information our of her memoir, Maslin carefully explains that the sole work of the Ontario Review Press was to reprint JCO’s books, and that both spouses were simply in the “Joyce Carol Oates business.” What Maslin chose to leave out of this description is that Ontario Review Press published more than 70 books of poetry, short stories, novels, essays and interviews by new and established writers. Of those 70 or more books approximately 10 were reprints of JCO’s books, or collections of her poetry and plays. Again, I have to ask, why does Maslin slight the life-work of this dedicated man? Just to make JCO hurt for real?
Even beyond these main attacks, Maslin sprinkles her piece with meanness, like broken glass on the roadway. She puts forth the helpful notion that JCO’s grief is not as big as Didion’s grief, for we all know personal grief is easily weighed and measured like fish in a market; she suggests that JCO’s husband laughs at the idea of her winning the Nobel prize, when in fact he was scoffing at the annual rumor-mongering surrounding the prize; and Maslin weirdly complains that the addresses of JCO’s homes over the years have street names that are too “treacly.” One wonders how long Maslin has resided on Bitter Blvd.
Maslin ends her piece with one final shot, that a lecture JCO had presented earlier with the title “The Writer’s (Secret) Life: Woundedness, Rejection and Inspiration,” gave her a great head-start on a memoir about pain. Maslin, unprofessional to her fingertips, of course doesn’t point out that the lecture was about other writers—Emily Dickinson, Samuel Becket, Norman Mailer, etc.—people with whom Maslin has nothing in common other than their penchant for writing fiction.
Joyce Carol Oates notes in her memoir, “This is the era of ‘full disclosure.’ The memoirist excoriates him-/herself, as in a parody of public penitence, assuming then that the excoriation, exposure, humiliation of others is justified …
I think that this is unethical, immoral. Crude and cruel and unconscionable.
And Janet Maslin’s Valentine’s Day massacre of Joyce Carol Oates is also unethical, immoral. Crude and cruel and unconscionable.
I'm a Reference Librarian at the University of San Francisco's Gleeson Library, and I run the Joyce Carol Oates web site, Celestial Timepiece.