October 21st, 2017

Joyce Carol Oates: marriage, memoir, and disclosure

Joyce Carol Oates has been writing short stories and novels ever since the early 1960s. As a writer, she reminds me of Meryl Streep as an actress—that is, skillful, highly praised, prolific, versatile, and not especially appealing (to me, anyway).

A few years ago, Oates wrote a controversial memoir about her grief after becoming widowed. I haven’t read the book, although I’ve read a very long excerpt from it and I’ve read plenty about it. By all accounts she’d had a happy and companionate marriage for nearly 50 years until her husband passed away from pneumonia. Her memoir chronicles the first year of her widowhood.

Why do I say the book was controversial? Because of this curious omission:

Joyce Carol Oates has defended herself against Julian Barnes’s accusation that her failure to mention her remarriage a year after her husband’s death in her memoir of widowhood will cause some readers to feel “they have a good case for breach of narrative promise”.

A review by Barnes of Oates’s A Widow’s Story, which chronicles the 12 months after her husband of 47 years, Raymond Smith, died in February 2008, is largely generous…

But “there is something unhappy” in the prolific American novelist’s omission to mention the fact that she was remarried in March 2009, writes Barnes, with Oates only hinting “rather coyly on the last page” about her new husband’s existence. “She is writing about a year that began on February 18, 2008; we know from her own mouth (in an interview with the London Times) that she met her second husband in August 2008, they started going on walks and hikes in September, and were married in March 2009,” writes Barnes, whose own wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, died in October 2008.

That certainly does seem to be a startlingly large and important omission. People have taken sides on this issue, as you might expect. But I see it as two issues that are very different.

The first is about the widowhood and marriage itself, and this is about life. The second is about writing, and it is about the nature of memoirs and truth.

A widow or widower sometimes remarries, and sometimes it happens quite quickly. In fact, some of the happiest marriages are rather rapidly followed by a second happy marriage, almost as a testament to how happy the first one was. The widow or widower hasn’t lost his or her faith in marriage or in love, as sometimes can happen with the betrayed and divorced.

How quickly or slowly a second marriage occurs (or whether it occurs at all) is something people tend to have strong opinions about. Religions chime in, too, with some requiring a certain waiting time. Therapists also usually advise not to do anything within a year of a great loss, whether that loss be death or divorce. But people violate this suggestion all the time, and for someone like Oates (who was already around 70 when her husband died) it’s understandable that she might not want to waste precious time if in fact she met someone to love again.

It’s not my impression that most people who criticized Oates were having trouble with the remarriage itself. Their beef was that her failure to mention her remarriage made her book—which purported to be a chronicle of her year of grief, which was actually a year in which she met her new husband six months after the death of her first, and married him only a little more than a year after that death—was in some sense a lie, or at least a very incomplete rendering of the truth.

Which brings me to some questions: why write a memoir about this particular bereavement? And in doing so, why leave those things out? Oates herself later explained:

The hope was to write a widow’s story—one that might find some resonance with other widows in the first half-year or so of widowhood…

A memoir is most helpful when it focuses upon immediate experience, not a clinical, subsequent summation from what would be the “future” of the individual in the throes of an unpredictable and uncontrollable experience; certainly another memoir might focus upon the recovery and the (temporary?) “after-life.” It is not a charge against grief that it can’t last as pure, raw grief for very long—as one who is tortured, but survives, has not been less tortured because she has survived. To elide the two experiences would violate the actual, literal, “existential” experience of having had cancer, for instance, for the ontological predicament of not-knowing-the-future is inextricable from the experience itself. If one knew beforehand that she would be cancer-free within a year, that would yield a very different sort of perspective.

That is a very strange explanation. Why does she describe her book as dealing with the “first half-year or so” of widowhood, when all the descriptions I read say it covered the first year? Was it because, after six months, she had happened to meet husband #2 and no longer grieved in exactly the same way? Why would describing the wildest stage of early grief be chosen to the complete exclusion of describing some later development, such as the (to my mind even more interesting) process of dealing with that grief and at the same time jumping headlong into a new and satisfying relationship? And why would describing that second six months be a “clinical, subsequent summation from what would be the ‘future’ of the individual”? The second half of the year doesn’t negate the first half. The second half follows upon the first, and some of the initial grief leads into and coexists with the later reawakening, and “eliding the two experiences” (which is what actually appears to have happened in real life) would be something of great interest to hear about, too. Perhaps even of even greater interest, and certainly more unusual.

Day follows night. But does describing first night and then day “elide” the two, and “violate the actual, literal, ‘existential’ experience” of day (or vice versa)? Of course not. Why write a memoir that suggests that “raw grief” was “pure” and exists forever in that form, in a vacuum outside of time? Why not give it its due within time? Oates’ grief may have felt “raw” and “pure” at the time it occurred—because of course, we can’t see the future when we’re in any experience, just as the newly-widowed Oates could not foresee or perhaps even imagine that she would experience another joyful relationship quite soon. But why keep from the reader the later knowledge of what did in fact happen later? Why shape the experience by omitting it, especially since the book purported to cover the first year of Oates’ widowhood rather than that “first half-year or so” that Oates said was the focus of her “widow’s story”?

In other words, it seems to me that if you’re going to write about the first six months of acute widowhood, then write about that. But if you’re going to write about the first year of widowhood—and you met your future second husband six months into that year, got engaged a few months after that, and married shortly after the first year was over—then to leave those elements out because they don’t fit the narrative seems to be quite the relevant omission.

Oates has an odd comment to make to those who would criticize her for it:

However, since nothing seems to arouse reproach in reviewers quite so much as the possibility that the memoirist is less miserable at the time of the writing and afterward than she was at the time of the experience about which she is writing, it is only sensible to include an appendix to remedy this, which I will hope to do.

Again, very confusing, and a bit snippy, too. So, the reviewers are carping because they are pissed that Oates is happier now than “at the time of the experience about which she is writing”? But the book is taken from her journals (she herself says it’s “perhaps 98 percent journal entries with only two or three conventionally composed chapters, to provide marital background”), so it’s not really much of a later reflection on her earlier experience, by her own report.

I’ve not read the book itself. But several reviews that I’ve read mention that it deals with the first year of widowhood. Even if the focus of the book is probably those first six months, it’s not difficult to understand that if part of that first year was meeting a new man and getting engaged, the omission of that fact would seem like a lie of sorts to at least some of Oates’ readers. To me that omission is a mystery. But I think I found a clue to a possible answer in this interview with Oates [emphasis mine]:

“Widow’s Story” shifts into a reconsideration of her husband, and of her marriage. She wonders how well they knew each other. She reads a novel he had worked on and never completed, that he had mentioned, but never showed to her. She knew that he had had a breakdown before meeting Oates, but in the notes to his book, she learns much more…

They rarely discussed their individual troubles, as if not to distract themselves from the ongoing business of their lives. Oates did not show her fiction to Smith or lament over a negative review…

Couples “condition” themselves to each other, she says, and over time set boundaries. Had she asked him, for example, about his relationship with his father, “it would have been very startling.” But the marriage was loving, enduring, and for a writer who imagined so much chaos in her fiction, nurturing.

The domestic lives we live – which may be accidental, or not entirely of our making – help to make possible our writing lives; our imaginations are freed, or stimulated, by the very prospect of companionship, quiet, a predictable and consoling routine,” she wrote in an e-mail soon after the phone interview.

Oates is describing a type of marriage that might be called “edited”—it is shaped, beautiful, harmonious. Both partners construct a narrative that leaves a lot out (as she did in her memoir) in order to create something more beautiful and consoling than messy life, with fewer ups and downs. Personally, I cannot imagine not knowing about a spouse’s relationship with his father (and by the way, Oates’ husband was only thirty when they married, so wouldn’t it be natural to know?), nor one in which merely asking a question about the relationship would be “startling.”

No wonder Oates is primarily a fiction writer (this book was her first and only memoir so far). No wonder she leaves so much out out of the book. She did the same within her marriage, with the person to whom she was closest, and so did he. And they appear to have done that through choice, and to have both accepted and even wanted it that way.

It’s a sort of marriage to which I cannot relate: a beautiful artifact with many boundaries that cannot be crossed. But then, I was never the least bit good at writing fiction, either. That doesn’t mean that the sort of marriage Oates describes is bad, or doesn’t work. It can work very well for some people, and it seems to have done so for Oates and her husband—at least as she tells it, and I have no reason to doubt her. Others would feel stifled by it.

I wish Oates well in her second marriage, and I would be very curious to hear whether the same pattern is being followed within it. But somehow I don’t think she’ll be telling us.

[NOTE: I found an excerpt from the book here, and it’s quite moving in describing her husband’s death.]

41 Responses to “Joyce Carol Oates: marriage, memoir, and disclosure”

  1. vanderleun Says:

    Well, as we know, some of the best fiction is written as non-fiction.

    And as some will remember, there is an old saying that goes, “The man who works hard, saves a lot of money, and buys a good house will be fondly remembered by his widow’s next husband.”

  2. Frog Says:

    I think Oates is implicitly indicating her marriage of 47 years was a superficial relationship, and when Husband #1 died she was able to move on rather quickly, as if shopping in a supermarket in the Spouse/Partner/Buddy section.
    That would call into question the validity and revelations of the grief she so briefly experienced and quickly profited from, her name being so well known and all.

    Every couple I have known married for this long a time, the surviving spouse rather quickly declined and usually expired within two years of the first-deceased. And in my profession I have known more than a few. It is truly as if the two have become one in the fullness of time.

    You may reply that they were both old and at the ends of their strings anyway, but I think it is more along the lines of my belief. In the absence of the one, life becomes hollow and pointless for the other.

  3. steve walsh Says:

    How long is not long enough? Is it impossible to grieve the loss of your life companion and nearly simultaneously meet and engage a new one? Why would I or should I be entitled to an opinion or point of view about you and this?

  4. parker Says:

    I have never read Oates, have no desire to do so. Her failure to disclose her remarriage after a year of her long time, apparently content marriage, is curious. However, I can not judge her quick romance and then remarriage. It is not my business, or anyone else’s.

  5. parker Says:

    Frog, as you judge so shall you be judged. I don’t care about Oates, I do not know her on a personal basis and neither do you. Why second quess?

  6. Ann Says:

    Janet Maslin was much tougher than Julian Barnes in her NY Times review of Oates’s book:

    How delicately must we tread around this situation? Ms. Oates can say (and has said, on the rare occasions when interviewers have had the nerve to ask her about it) that people whose long, sustaining marriages end often choose to remarry. Fair enough. And who would begrudge her this respite from the anguish that “A Widow’s Story” describes? But it is less fair for “A Widow’s Story” to dissemble while masquerading as a work of raw courage and honesty. A book long and rambling enough to contemplate an answering-machine recording could have found time to mention a whole new spouse.

    Obviously Ms. Oates chose to compartmentalize. And she had at least two reasons for doing that. 1. This book’s already-sketchy portrait of the Smiths’ marriage would have been weakened by such a major distraction. 2. “A Widow’s Story” willfully taps into the increasingly lucrative loss-of-spouse market that has thus far been dominated by Joan Didion’s “Year of Magical Thinking.”

  7. huxley Says:

    I too would be troubled reading the memoir of a grieving widow who failed to mention, oh by the way, I met a new sweetie six months in, we started dating and we were happily married six months later.

    There’s a new literary category called “creative nonfiction” in which true stories, or supposedly true ones, are told with fancy literary techniques which go beyond the more pedestrian memoir.

    Which sounds interesting, but it does move the writer closer to choices which make the result more “creative” than “nonfiction.”

    Given the left’s abiding interest in “narratives,” we have seen a number of memoirs — Obama’s “Dreams from My Father” is at the top of the list — which play fast and loose with the truth to get smoother, more effective impact.

  8. huxley Says:

    “A Widow’s Story” willfully taps into the increasingly lucrative loss-of-spouse market that has thus far been dominated by Joan Didion’s “Year of Magical Thinking.”

    Ann: Bang-on! That didn’t occur to me, but it sure sounds right. “Magical Thinking” was a bestseller and critically acclaimed.

    Although Didion mostly wrote nonfiction, she and Oates were rivals in the small world of top American women writers in their time.

    I’ve loved Didion since the sixties and I thought of her while reading neo’s post. Didion has an undeniable, even ponderous point-of-view in her writing but she never lost my trust. Partly because she knows and admits she shouldn’t be trusted.

    My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrustive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does.

    That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.

    –Joan Didion

    That bit should be written on stone and erected in front of journalism schools.

  9. Ann Says:


    I especially admire the 2005 essay Joan Didion wrote on Theresa Schiavo; it’s here. An excerpt:

    Yet even if we had managed to convince ourselves that this case involved the right to die, a problem remained. No one even casually exposed to religious teaching believes any such right exists. “So teach us to number our days,” the Episcopal litany asks, “so that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” This is a prayer for the wisdom to accept that death is inevitable, not a plea for control over its timing. “Control” itself, when it comes to the natural processes of life and death, is seen as an illusion, an error we learn through life to relinquish. This is by no means a view confined to Christian fundamentalists. It is a view shared by anyone whose ethical principles or general idea of how life works have at any point been touched by any of the world’s major religions.

    That this was a situation offering space for legitimate philosophical differences seemed obvious. Yet there remained, on the “rational” side of the argument, very little acknowledgment that there could be large numbers of people, not all of whom could be categorized as “fundamentalists” or “evangelicals,” who were genuinely troubled by the ramifications of viewing a life as inadequate and so deciding to end it. There remained little acknowledgment even that the case was being badly handled, rendered unnecessarily inflammatory. There was an insensitivity in the timing of the removal of the feeding tube, which took place on the Friday before Palm Sunday, meaning that the gradual process of dying coincided with a week that for Christians has specifically to do with sacrificial suffering and death. “Oh come on,” someone said when this was mentioned on a cable show. There was a further insensitivity in the fact that the tube was removed at all. If the sole intention is to terminate feeding and hydration, there is no need to remove a gastric feeding tube. All anyone need do is stop plunging the formula into the tube. Hospitals routinely leave gastric tubes in place long after patients have progressed to oral feeding, because any later need to replace the tube (after the incision has begun to heal and scar tissue to form) can be difficult and require surgery. In this case, in the absence of some unusual circumstance that remained unreported, the sole purpose of actual removal would seem to have been to make any legally ordered resumption of feeding difficult to implement.

  10. Frog Says:

    I merely commented based on my decades of medical experience, which lead me to certain conclusions, for reason indicated.
    Go shoot an elk!

  11. Kelly Says:

    To me it would be more interesting to hear how she dealt with her grief and a new relationship. I’m not judging at all since I’ve never been in her shoes.

    I know a man who lost his wife and two young children in a fire. He remarried quite quickly which people were shocked over, but who am I to judge having never lived with that amount of grief?

  12. neo-neocon Says:


    The Catholic position on feeding tubes:

    it is not surprising that within the Catholic tradition a number of theologians, ethicists and groups of bishops have come to different conclusions regarding the use of tube feeding. The pivotal question for them has been: Is tube feeding a medical intervention—not just basic care—that can be morally evaluated using the traditional distinction between ordinary and extraordinary means of care? Other questions further complicate the issue: Can a persistent vegetative state be diagnosed with certitude? How does one determine the quality of life of a patient in this state?…

    The moral obligation to provide medically assisted nutrition and hydration, then, is conditioned by medical efficacy. Do the means used achieve the proper goal, which is to nourish the patient and alleviate suffering? When it is medically demonstrable that these goals are not being achieved, however, the moral obligation to use tube feeding ceases.

    While the giving of nutrition and hydration is considered ordinary care even when medically administered, its use is bound by the church’s traditional discernment of ordinary/proportionate and extraordinary/disproportionate means (see Declaration on Euthanasia, 1980).

    The pope’s allocution underscores the following key points: 1) All human persons, regardless of their state of development or decline, possess an inviolable dignity; 2) Every person has a right to receive ordinary health care to preserve life and alleviate suffering; 3) The decision regarding the use of medically assisted nutrition and hydration must be based on the actual medical condition of the patient; and 4) An exception can be made if tube feeding is determined to be disproportionate or medically futile, in which case the intervention may be withheld or withdrawn. In all cases the patient is to remain the subject of care, comfort and love. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reaffirmed these teachings of John Paul II in 2007….

    One can even indicate in one’s advance directive that medically assisted nutrition and hydration is not to be administered because of one’s “psychological dread” of tube feeding. Psychological dread is one of the accepted and traditional moral categories that can constitute extraordinary or disproportionate means (see “A History of Extraordinary Means,” Ethics and Medics, September and November 2006). Reasonable persons might regard tube feeding as excessively burdensome because it causes them great dread (vehemens horror).

  13. parker Says:


    No elk in Iowa. I shoot 2 deer a year, black poweder rifle and shotgun (slugs). I don’t judge what I do not know, with certainty. I do not second guess, well for the most part.

    Rain is falling, with some booms and flashes. After a dry summer, it is welcome. I live day by day.

  14. The Other Chuck Says:


    I’m surprised at the enlightened position of the Catholic church regarding advance directives. I’ve been away from the faith a long time but never followed the intricacies of church doctrine anyway. It’s interesting how they can thread their way through the mortal sin of suicide to allow for the exception of an advance directive while at the same time not giving an inch on abortion, even in cases of rape or the life of the mother.

  15. Lowell Says:

    Thank you, Neo, Ann, and Huxley. I’ve always liked both Oates and Didion, haven’t by any means read all of their output, but now my opinion of Didion goes up quite a bit. Oates – not so much.

  16. Sarah Rolph Says:

    Excellent analysis.

    I’m highly sympathetic to people getting remarried whenever they want to.

    I have no sympathy whatsoever for a writer leaving important facts out of a nonfiction story. Any writer who does that is a hack. A hack memoir about the death of one’s husband is really distasteful. How could she imagine people would see it otherwise? She clearly has a very high opinion of the value of her prose.

    There’s certainly nothing wrong with telling only the part of the story you want to tell, but if you’re calling it nonfiction you have an obligation to frame the story in a way that isn’t dishonest. (Of course, many writers do this, especially in memoir. It started to give memoir a bad name–but people love them so much the genre has come roaring back, just because of the strong market. Giving weight to Maslin’s accusation…)

    One thing I found odd while reading this–I thought I knew who Joyce Carol Oates was, I remember her name from way back, and I thought she wrote a novel that was very famous that I had either read or tried to read. But I find on googling her that she wrote 40 novels, and a bunch of other stuff, none of which sound the least bit familiar to me. So I guess I just know her as a famous personality. I guess she was an outspoken feminist in the 70s.

    Speaking of Didion, I thought her Year of Magical Thinking was terrific. I wonder if anyone has asked her about this Oates book. It does sound a bit like an imitation. But the marriages sound like complete opposites!

    I subsequently read a lot of Didion and ponderous is a good word for the aspect of her work I don’t much like. I also found her voice exceedingly judgmental and some of her choices rather mean. I got tired of that voice. But she sure can write. And I didn’t quite lose trust in her (also well put–that is sort of the main thing in writing, the ability to gain and keep the reader’s trust).

  17. Missy Says:

    I am a widow of 18 months after a marriage of 43 years. My husband was given two years to live at his diagnosis, and my profound anticipatory grief made the transition to widowhood simpler than it is for those faced with the sudden death of a spouse. Six months later it was rumored among my neighbors that I had a lover spending the night here. I was dumbfounded, as this was not the case. The fellow who has his deer stand on my property would arrive at dusk, hunt, leave, and come back at dawn to hunt some more. He is 35. Ooh la la. I have begun dating in a formal, eighth grade kind of way, and both guys were friends of my husband and perfect gentlemen. Marriage? My late husband told me to do whatever I wanted after he died and to have a third act of my choosing. I love him for that and will love him profoundly till the day I die.
    And to the point, Oates’ publisher probably insisted she leave out the remarriage as it does diminish the narrative of the book quite a lot.

  18. neo-neocon Says:


    Please accept my condolences on your loss.

    In interviews, Oates has spoken about the book in such a way that I feel I’m on very firm ground in saying it was her own choice to leave it out, not her publisher’s.

  19. neo-neocon Says:

    The Other Chuck:

    I see the Catholic position as very narrow, admitting of only a few very strict exceptions. I’m not sure what you’re seeing, but the Church does not honor advance directives per se, only in a very small set of circumstances. It’s a bit confusing, I think; I had to read a lot of explanation, and never felt I completely understood exactly what they were saying, but it seems to me that a person had to be both dying and suffering, and/or that person had have explicitly said (or even written) that they had a horror of feeding tubes while in a PVS, or something like that.

  20. Ann Says:

    Not sure, Neo, exactly whose choice it was to leave that second marriage information out. I’m left with the impression that the publisher probably had a hand in it after reading what he said about Oates’s idea of adding an appendix with that information in a revised edition:

    This was news to her editor, Daniel Halpern, the president and publisher of Ecco. “I completely disagree, and I thought I had talked her out of that,” he said. “She wrote a book about what it’s like to be in limbo — about what it was like to lose the man she had been married to all her life. Why include the next husband? That’s not what the book is about. What is she supposed to say — that she finally met someone and got married? That certainly breaks the spell of the book, which is written differently and perceived differently from anything she’s ever done before.”

  21. neo-neocon Says:


    I’m basing my opinion on several things. The first is that she’s defended herself quite vociferously and personally in interviews and in print and never for a single moment suggested she wasn’t following her own ideas in what she originally left out of the book. The second is that it fits in with what she said about the marriage itself—how very much she and her husband left out of their own discussions with each other.

  22. Deep Cover Says:

    I find that woman to be absolutely unreadable, and I love to read everything. I’m not surprised her latest memoir is unsatisfying to read. How could it be otherwise? Disappointing though. The first year after the death of a spouse must be horrible for the happily married, and I’d love to read an account of such an experience. i did enjoy Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, I think it was titled. Also, yes it would have been interesting if Oates had talked about what it was like to start a exciting new relationship while grieving her husband’s death. But I guess a book about One Year into Widowhood has a sort of poetic symbolism about it. “the First Six Months of Grieving” is not as catchy a hook as “The First Year of Grieving”, so perhaps that’s why she called it that. For marketing purposes. I just can’t read her. Never could.

  23. miklos000rosza Says:

    I was warned by my then-agent never to review Oates as she would take revenge on anyone who ever said anything negative about her work. Allegedly her many years at Princeton meant that she could activate all kinds of Princeton grads — Padgett Powell is the only name I remember now.

    But if you’re a novelist, who can have your career affected by bad reviews, it’s disillusioning to find out how corrupt and impure all this is.

    I never, by the way, liked anything I ever read by Joyce Carol Oates. The novels she did about killers and bloody crimes seemed uninformed by any real experience, sensationalizing matters she knew nothing whatsoever about.

    I don’t think I’ve ever met another writer who’s liked her work. Oh well. She’ll be forgotten soon enough. Like Eugene Sue, whose “The Mysteries of Paris” was the most popular novel of the 19th century. Try to find a copy of it now.

  24. AesopFan Says:

    miklos000rosza Says:
    October 23rd, 2017 at 12:28 am
    I don’t think I’ve ever met another writer who’s liked her work. Oh well. She’ll be forgotten soon enough. Like Eugene Sue, whose “The Mysteries of Paris” was the most popular novel of the 19th century. Try to find a copy of it now.
    * * *
    Many years ago, I read an anecdote which IIRC was about Dorothy L. Sayers (as good a person to pin it on as anyone, I suppose) which took place during a period of intellectual malaise, when she wondered why so few people read any 19th century writers other than Jane Austen and a couple of the other best-known authors.*
    After a summer spent in the library reading every holding from that period, she concluded, “Now I know.”

    A companion story, told by our drama teacher, was of a director who decided to mount a series of “The Little-known Works of Shakespeare.” At the end of the season, he remarked, “Now I know why they are little known.”

    *Although Austen was born in 1775, her novels were not published until starting in 1811.
    Anyone else remember the card game “Authors”? I haven’t yet read every book in the list, but am getting closer. A lot of the “classics” really are almost unreadable today, though, due to changes in literary tastes and reading habits, and a lack of historical context. Austen really is exceptionally accessible, much like Twain. Some of Dickens’s books are actually quite tiresome.

    The other popular writers of the day are completely forgotten outside academia, and possibly even there. Oddly, many if not most are writers of then-derided “popular” works, rather than the serious “literary” pieces; on the other end were the real “best sellers” who had no staying power outside the popular moment.

  25. miklos000rosza Says:

    Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy remain quite readable. Also Flaubert, Edgar Allan Poe, Turgenev, Maldoror by Comte de Lautreamont. Guy de Maupassant. Anton Chekhov’s stories (some of which, like “The Duel,” are novella-length.) Chekhov’s fiction sometimes gets overlooked.

    Yes, indeed it is instructive to look at best-seller lists out of the past. Out of each year’s top ten, you can see how many have survived… if only by way of rumor. So many had three names. Like William Dean Howells. I can’t quite bring myself to check him out.

  26. Gringo Says:

    I have read 1.5 books of Joyce Carol Oates. I didn’t particularly like them. Her liking of the grotesque doesn’t intersect well with creating a narrative to make the grotesque plausible. She has acquired a reputation for annoying tweets. (“Joyce Carol Oates annoying tweets:” 898,000 hits in Bing)

    There is no simple answer regarding loss of a spouse and remarrying. Maybe or maybe not remarrying will indicate a lack of attachment to the deceased.

    Not liking what I have read of her, I would not purchase her memoir of widowhood.

  27. Gringo Says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever met another writer who’s liked her work. Oh well. She’ll be forgotten soon enough. Like Eugene Sue, whose “The Mysteries of Paris” was the most popular novel of the 19th century. Try to find a copy of it now.

    Project Gutenberg has transformed quite a few of his works into e-books. Not that I am rushing to read them, mind you.

  28. Gringo Says:

    A further example of a prominent 19th century author who is little read today is Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Certain of his phrases are well remembered.

    He coined the phrases “the great unwashed”, “pursuit of the almighty dollar”, “the pen is mightier than the sword”, “dweller on the threshold”, and the well-known opening line “It was a dark and stormy night”.[1]

    A telling illustration of his contemporary reputation is that his “dark and stormy night”, while rather well-known, is commonly mocked as an example of poor writing.
    In researching Charles Dickens, I found out that Bulwer-Lytton was a friend of Dickens.

  29. Frog Says:

    I am pleased at your use of the phrase “anticipatory grief”, which I have also exercised, to useful effect, in anticipation of my father’s demise. I have pointed out its utility to a few who could understand.

    parker: “Elk” was a joke! Of course there are none native to Iowa. I await the woodcock migration myself, only hunt upland birds with my dogs. Might go to AZ for quail this winter (3 species in SE AZ), which is real hard on the dogs. And me. Gotta carry their water, plus pliers to pull cactus thorns, and a comb to remove the dreaded cholla. That I can do it at all at age 75 is a blessing.

  30. Fausta Says:

    I don’t like her books, and the only time I met her was when I was stuck in a long line of traffic & she wanted me to move off the street because my car (stuck in traffic) blocked her driveway,

  31. Julia Says:

    America? Oh neo – they’re leftwing, dissenting “c”atholics.

    “One can even indicate in one’s advance directive that medically assisted nutrition and hydration is not to be administered because of one’s “psychological dread” of tube feeding.”

    They seek out ambiguity where there is none. Psychological dread?

    Complete and utter BS. Like going to the Dem Party for opinions on Bibi.


    ” 13. Although not every circumstance related to artificial nutrition and hydration has been taken into account in this document, it is most desirable that Catholics understand that human life has an intrinsic value that must be respected at every stage of existence. The foundation of this value has its source in the creation and eternal destiny of man. Each person is created in the image and likeness of God. Man is created by God and for God. God is the Author of Life and is the only One who can determine its limits.

    The administration of nutrition and hydration, even when provided artificially, upholds this inherent dignity and value of the human person and ought to be based on the Catholic principles provided in this document.”

    Bishop Olmsted (http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=9128)

    Or Pope St. JP2:


    On March 16 the Vatican released an opinion that feeding tubes are not medical therapy and cannot be withheld from a permanently unconscious person. And for those who hoped it wasn’t official, Pope John Paul II confirmed the position a few days later, announcing that artificial food and water is always “morally obligatory” and removing a feeding tube is “true euthanasia by omission,” violating God’s law.

    Or where I go for solid, orthodox opinions (older article, but still true) and it says there are reasons we may skip the feeding tube, but they are very limited:


    (National Catholic Bioethics Center)

  32. Brock Says:

    Reminds me of what Annie Dillard left out about her actual life at the time of ‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’. Kind of wrecked the book for me. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/02/the-thoreau-of-the-suburbs/385128/

  33. neo-neocon Says:


    If you read the link I gave, it was not in conflict with the official position, at least not as I understood it. One of the statements of the church was that “An exception can be made if tube feeding is determined to be disproportionate or medically futile” and the “dread” discussion refers to the idea that if a person has explicitly written that they have such a dread (and ONLY then), then the tube can be considered in certain circumstances to be “disproportionate.”

  34. neo-neocon Says:


    Only a small number of writers ever stand the test of time, although some eras produce more of them than other eras, I think. Nineteenth-century Russia being one, IMHO.

    The achievement of someone like Homer or Shakespeare is immense.

    I can’t stand Oates’ writing. Among other reasons, I find it cold. But that excerpt I linked to from the memoir is pretty good, I think.

  35. Ymar Sakar Says:

    Why would the Patriarch of Rome or the Vatican’s opinion matter for Schiavo?

    Is the US now a theological vassal of Rome?

  36. Baceseras Says:

    Oates wrote a very good novel, them (all lowercase like that); it was highly acclaimed when it came out (late ’60s), but has been somewhat forgotten lately, or swept under the tide of books she’s published since then: she writes an awful lot, which seems to be one of the things workaday reviewers hold against her: they can’t keep up with her output; the sparkling review sits in some editor’s slush-pile waiting to see print and here comes Oates with a newer book out already and another announced for this Christmas . . . aargh. Surely anyone who writes that much can’t be any good, can they?

    But them is worth your time. In a short note at the front of the book Oates claims the characters invaded her dreams and her waking, too; they dictated the novel to her. If that note is a put-on, it’s perfectly deadpan. Oates doesn’t insist too much, but I’m inclined to believe she means it, and to believe the statement, too, though in a suspended-judgment way.

    The novel concerns the Appalachian dispossessed who migrated to the industrial cities of the upper Midwest, in particular to Detroit where the novel is set. (Oates taught I think at Wayne State U.) The action spans two generations – it would be wrong to call it a chronicle of horrors; though there are horrors, they don’t dominate; they simmer rather, keeping us on edge. We see the horizon widening for the characters: we see them seeing the horizon widening . . . .

    What gave the novel’s brooding tone its fullest degree of tension was that the story was clearly making its way to the then-present, a moment in time when many feared that cities like Detroit were heading for some final catastrophe, whether revolution or riot or something else.

    The weakest strand is the political consciousness one character develops towards the end. Oates’s writing lacks objectivity here; perhaps out of sympathy with the direction his political thought takes, she romanticizes it. His awkwardness in expressing himself rings true, but gets compounded with the awkwardness of her writing: she puts a blur on things, perhaps to keep us, and herself, from recognizing that the quality of his thought is nine-tenths codswallop.

    them is a novel I read about 1970 and haven’t re-read since. I recommend it to you with as much caution as enthusiasm. If I were to re-read anything by Oates, it would be her early collection of short stories, The Wheel of Love. I recommend that one also, and whole-heartedly.

  37. neo-neocon Says:

    Ymar sakar:

    The position of the Catholic Church was brought up by Joan Didion in an essay of Didion’s on the Schiavo case that Ann quoted in the thread here:

    Yet even if we had managed to convince ourselves that this case involved the right to die, a problem remained. No one even casually exposed to religious teaching believes any such right exists…

    “Control” itself, when it comes to the natural processes of life and death, is seen as an illusion, an error we learn through life to relinquish. This is by no means a view confined to Christian fundamentalists. It is a view shared by anyone whose ethical principles or general idea of how life works have at any point been touched by any of the world’s major religions.

    In response, I brought up some quotes from Catholicism that seemed relevant.

  38. Ymar Sakar Says:

    That’s why there is a Catholic civil war going on.

    Troubles started around Vatican II, then there was the lawyers cashing out on Leftist protected pedos in the Vatican, and now Patriarch of Rome Francis is in on it.

    The parts I read from Joan Didion didn’t mention too much about the Catholic position. It looked to be a sub unit of the point concerning religious ethics.

    The case over Schiavo was about FLorida judges being corrupt, taking personal interest the way Roe vs Wade’s judges were biased (one of the judges had a teenage daughter that needed an abortion). Just humans wanting to get rid of a person because it would be more convenient.

    The humans that wanted to preserve their daughters life, lost to a system and world that only protects the powerful.

  39. Julia Says:

    neo: ” One of the statements of the church was that “An exception can be made if tube feeding is determined to be disproportionate or medically futile” and the “dread” discussion refers to the idea that if a person has explicitly written that they have such a dread (and ONLY then), then the tube can be considered in certain circumstances to be “disproportionate.””

    But it isn’t a ‘statement of the Church’. That is an interpretation by dissenting “c”atholics. You might think it nit-picking, but the Church is being undermined terribly by the ‘interpretations’ being bandied about all over the place.

    Ymar’s comment about a civil war is accurate (although he probably doesn’t truly understand it). That’s how our “c”atholic progressives roll. The details of the current controversy (pitting cardinals against cardinals) is something that most non-Catholics wouldn’t care about, but they are doing it the exactly the same thing – “interpreting” things inaccurately.

    No educated*, “o”rthodox (faithful) Catholic would accept that feeling dread towards a feeding tube means removing it is ok.

    (*educated = knowing and accepting Church teachings on faith and morals)

  40. Ymar Sakar Says:

    (although he probably doesn’t truly understand it)

    Part of the Vatican’s teachings is that the Patriarch of Rome is the Pope and Vicar of Christ. He stands between you and the Messiah, interceding for you on behalf of the Messiah, instead of each individual having their own conduit to the priest powers.

    This is the cause of the split between the Patriarch of Constantinople and the P of Rome, back during an Ecumenical Council. Then they excommunicated each other, with Rome firing first.

    While many conservative catholics have a political position, that does not supersede their religious head’s authority.

    It means that if the Religious Head says A is true, then A is true. The civil war is a cold one, where conservative Catholics try to find a way to be Catholics without actually obeying the Papacy. It’s a struggle I think they won’t be able to compromise on.

  41. Ymar Sakar Says:

    Because the Cardinals are the future popes, this is a theocratic oligarchy. As such, a lot of the Cardinals determine policy for an unusual extent. Then there are the personal subordinates of the Patriarch of Rome, like Opus Dei, or other archbishops who don’t report to other sections.

    Normally the hierarchy is de-centralized a bit, where local archbishops take care of bishops and their internal discipline matters. That is how the Papacy could say that they didn’t know too much about the child abuse stuff going on. Although that’s not the case with Francis.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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