Read This: A Widow’s Story


Although I’m probably best known to Shelf Awareness readers for my science fiction and fantasy reviews, that’s not all I do. Yesterday, I reviewed A Widow’s Story, Joyce Carol Oates’ memoir about the despair and grief she went through during her husband’s fatal illness and the months immediately following his death. It’s a powerful and surprising read—for all the creative activity of her public life, Oates in private comes across as a very passive and fragile woman—and though I wouldn’t exactly call it inspirational, I do believe “we should appreciate not only how Oates has pulled herself back from the brink of despair but also how she has been able to articulate a despair that all of us are in time likely to feel, to reassure us that this raw pain is both normal and survivable.”

I also did a Q&A with Daniel Halpern, who edited A Widow’s Story for Ecco, and among other topics we discussed the experience of working with a writer of Oates’ caliber:

“She writes very carefully. People feel that because she writes so much, she doesn’t revise, that this all shoots out of her and she can write book after book, and that’s absolutely not true. Having worked on her books for a long time, I can tell you she doesn’t make very many mistakes… It’s a joy to edit somebody who writes a finished book, and the kind of work that I would do as an editor is pretty superficial.”

This book was more complicated because given the nature of the book, and because she had never written a book like this, she was nervous about it. She did something she had never done before, which was to show me parts of the book before it was finished, and she showed other people parts of the book. That’s very unlike her; usually, you get the book when it’s done, and mostly it is done. This was a whole different process for her. She was writing it as she was living it, and it was a very intense experience for her.

Some of the other coverage of A Widow’s Story I’ve seen in recent days has harped on the fact that Oates remarried roughly a year after the time she writes about in this memoir, which she doesn’t address at all, and whether or not the reviewer (or readers) ought to feel cheated by that omission. I don’t see it: That’s just not the story Oates wanted to tell. Memoir isn’t a promise to the reader, it’s a trick—an illusion of transparency, if you will. OK, maybe that’s not quite fair: The memoirist can be transparent, about the things she chooses to be transparent about. But that choice is always bounded by creative decisions, and even if we’re assuming a memoirist who is being fundamentally honest and not deliberately distorting, those creative decisions refine away the “raw data” that doesn’t fit the chosen narrative. And so it is here: Oates isn’t writing a story about “getting better,” she’s writing a story about the immediacy of struggling through the worst kind of emotional pain. Instead of griping about the memoir we didn’t get, let’s stick with the one we did.

16 February 2011 | read this |

A Quick Post About Nothing

I had the good fortune back in January of attending two of the Rubin Museum’s “Talks About Nothing,” including the conversation between theater and opera producer Peter Sellars and social activist Raj Patel (who had just published a book about the value of nothing) that brought the series to a close. I’ve seen Sellars speak a few times; he’s always been tremendously inspiring, and this was no exception—in fact, it was even more inspiring than usual, because the creative inspiration was amplified by the moral inspiration that came from his dialogue with Patel.

The quote I singled out was especially meaningful to me as it resonates very powerfully with a project that I’ve been developing over the last few months, in which I’ll be directly engaging with a vast amount of literature covering a subject about which I have just slightly more than a superficial knowledge, but which I’ve long wanted to learn more about. (Sorry to be so coy here, but the official announcement is still a short ways off.) But I’ve also been thinking a lot about Patel’s comment that “the nothing that we ought to be recognizing is the nothing that stands in your way from doing something.” Pretty awesome takeaways from an event about “nothing,” and the one other conversation I attended—between Fiona Shaw and Simon Critchley—also took some fascinating turns, starting with a discussion of themes in Ibsen’s plays and making its way through Beckett and Yeats before the hour was up. I really love projects like this, both as a spectator and a presenter, that push me into unfamiliar territory and force me to pay real attention to what’s going on.

If you live in New York, and you haven’t attended an event at the Rubin Museum of Art yet, I highly recommend it: Programming director Tim McHenry draws inspiration from the themes of the art exhibitions, tailoring the various events series to their broad themes. The “Talk About Nothing” dialogues, for example, sprung from an exhibition of five contemporary Buddhist artists working with themes of emptiness and impermanence. The latest series, “Brainwave 2011,” is the fourth annual run of collaborative conversations between artists and neuroscientists; this year, they’re going to be talking about dreams. (It actually kicked off last week, with a conversation between Henry Rollins and David Eagleman about which I’m already making a note for myself to watch online once they upload the video.) Try to get there early enough to see the actual museum itself, or at least to hang out in the café—it’s a really nice space, and rapidly becoming one of my favorite museums in Manhattan.

15 February 2011 | uncategorized |

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