Sunday, April 25, 2010

Joyce Carol Oates In The Atlantic

One of my favorite writers, Joan Didion, wrote a book in 2005 about the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. I thought it was her best work, and that is saying a lot since her books of essays, The White Album and Slouching Toward Bethlehem changed me on a molecular level and continue to influence my writing to this day.

Joyce Carol Oates has always been, in my mind, the counterpart to Didion. They are the two women writers who set the bar by which all others are measured. Oates is extremely prolific, churning out novels, plays, and essays at a breakneck pace, all while teaching English at Princeton. Didion tends to take longer with her novels and essay collections, publishing frequently in magazines and journals like The New York Review of Books before gathering her work together for a book.

In the current issue of The Atlantic, Oates writes a piece on the death of her husband, Raymond Smith, well-known editor of the literary magazine Ontario Review, a project the husband and wife team started and have edited together since 1974. Since Oates is far more reserved about her personal life—something she addresses in the piece—I read her words with great interest. I find her fiction to be reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor, and her essays often have an edge of violence. What other woman writer takes such a blow-by-blow interest in the sport of boxing? However, she only occasionally delves into the personal whereas Didion has made a career out of parsing apart her life.

Oates’ work in “I Am Sorry To Inform You,” is riveting. When her husband dies, she returns to work within a few days, seeking the solace and objective distance of teaching literature. Focus on the work is her motto, to avoid falling into the chasm of grief. She hopes her students don’t know what has happened. “In the lives of teachers there are teaching-days, teaching hours like islands, or oases, amid turbulent seas,” she writes. The dead calm of the classroom is her sanctuary from those seas roiling inside her with the loss of her husband of 48 years.

Oates explains how she loses herself in teaching. “For two lively and absorbing hours I am able to forget the radically altered circumstances of this life…” In the classroom, she says, “I never discuss anything personal about myself, or even my writing…My intention as a teacher is to refine my own personality out of existence, or nearly—my own ‘self’ is never a factor in my teaching, still less my career.”

In her words, I hear Didion’s view of the role of the writer: to observe and report what happens, the way the writer sees the event, even if others do not necessarily see it the same way. In her essay, “On Keeping A Notebook,” Didion quotes Jessica Mitford’s governess whispering in her ear: “You’re the least important person in the room and don’t forget it.” It is the classic journalistic credo—the reporter observes and should stay out of the story. Third person objective. Of course, New Journalism blew this concept apart. Hunter S. Thompson, the pioneer of New Journalism, is as much a character in his work as the people about which he writes.

So Oates’ view is interesting to note: the personal does not enter her classroom. I teach from the personal all the time. We find connections between the literature we cover and our experiences, and that is one way we can access the themes of the text. I was taught to do this by several teachers I admired—that the literature may have been written a long time ago, but we must find connections to it in the here and now to make it relevant and immediate. Those connections—to our lives, to history, philosophy, science, and current events—are most important.

I like this article for what it offers beyond the portrait of grief—a rethinking of teaching methodology, the point-of-view of the writer, the way we think and operate in the classroom. I appreciate the window into her life and art, even though the situation is tremendously heartbreaking and tragic. Her response teaches strength and wisdom in the face of devastation.

She will be publishing a book on this period in her life in February 2011. The title is The Siege: A Widow’s Story. Like Joan Didion’s shattering book-length essay on the death of her husband—entitled The Year of Magical Thinking—I look forward to reading one of my favorite authors addressing how we live our lives in the face of pain, suffering and loss. Hopefully, she will expand on her teaching philosophy as well. For now, the article gives a powerful glimpse into her world of teaching and writing in the face of tragedy, in the way we all must carry on in the deepening darkness of palpable sadness.


  1. Thanks for this. I've downloaded the essay and look forward to reading it. I love Joan Didion's work too especially her Year of Magical Thinking. I'm interested to read Oates' take on these things too, as you suggest, especially the way the two mesh, the writing and the personal.

    I'm with you when it comes to teaching through what's personal. It can be helpful as long as its tempered by a certain level of objectivity. I imagine you know what I mean.

  2. Thanks for your prompt comment, Elisabeth.

    I do know what you mean regarding the objectivity. There are some areas that might be a bit too personal, both for students and teachers. I do believe that sharing the personal connections we make with literature and art help others to see how the work might connect to their lives and experiences.

    Take care

  3. I think that's what I meant, Paul.

    I had in mind a teacher who once took us for novel writing and she had the odd habit of going into detailed descriptions of what I suppose we all considered a bit too much of the personal an argument she'd had with her husband that morning, the sex from the night before - as one of our group used to say - 'too much information'.

    I hope it's clearer, now. I suspect I agree with you very much, about the personal being helpful in teaching. Thanks for clarifying.

  4. Elisabeth, that indeed is way too much information from that teacher. I have had teachers who did that, and it was unpleasant and somewhat revolting.

    What I do is take something like the Odyssey and ask students how Odysseus' journey might be like their own. Then we take some of the monsters he faces and try to translate them into things we face today. You know, the cyclops sees the world one way, like people who never consider another's point of view. How do those kinds of people limit their success in life? Or I will ask students who they might be like the cyclops and how did they realize their narrow view?

    Revealing intimate details, no way. Some things are better left out.

    Thanks for commenting again.


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