In early 2008, Joyce Carol Oates gave a talk called "The Writer's (Secret) Life: Woundedness, Rejection, and Inspiration," about how writers go about transmuting painful life experiences into art. At the heart of her speech was a quote from Hemingway, which Oates found so profound that she cited it twice. "From things that have happened . . . and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and you make it alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality," he wrote. "That is why you write and for no other reason."
When Oates delivered her remarks, only two weeks had passed since the death of Raymond Smith, her husband of forty-seven years. Her astonishing new memoir, A Widow's Story, describes her own transformation, not through art but through pain, from wife into widow. Her book is revelatory—though not for what it shows about the inspiration this artist derives from her woundedness, which turns out to be less than she had expected. It is remarkable, rather, for how candidly Oates explores the writer's secret life: the private world of her marriage, which—in contrast to Hemingway—she asserts is far truer and more real, and of far greater importance, than any of her imaginary creations.
Oates and Smith seem to have had a marriage of extraordinary closeness. They met in October 1960, as graduate students at the University of Wisconsin, and were married only three months later. She was then twenty-two and much in thrall to Smith, eight years her elder. From the day they met until Smith's death from complications of pneumonia on February 18, 2008, the two were rarely apart for more than a night or two at a time, and they spoke every day. "We'd felt, through our long marriage, as if we'd only just met a few years before, as if we were 'new' to each other, still 'becoming acquainted' with each other," Oates writes. And they had in common an intellectual endeavor: the literary journal Ontario Review, which they founded in 1974 and which Smith would edit, with his wife as associate editor, until his death.
Yet this marriage of unusual intimacy also had a striking gap. There was one interest the couple did not share, and it was far from an insignificant one: Oates's fiction. "Most of my novels and short stories were never read by my husband," Oates states baldly. He did read her essays and book reviews, but not the creative work of this writer whom an exhibition catalogue recently referred to as "the Wonder Woman of American literature."
Oates's legendary output has not been an unmitigated blessing: As the epithet suggests, she is better known for the heroic quantity of her writing than for its quality, which has been uneven. How could it be otherwise, over a career that spans four decades and includes—according to the tally in A Widow's Story—fifty-five novels, more than four hundred short stories, a dozen-plus books of essays and nonfiction, eight books of poetry, and several dozen plays? (Sourland, a book of stories, appeared only a few months before this memoir.) Writing of a couple she knows who read all their work aloud to each other, Oates muses wryly that this would constitute "a test of marital love which one as 'prolific' as JCO . . . would dare not risk." But as her memoir suggests, more personal issues might have prevented Oates from sharing her work with her husband—and that omission may have created deep fissures had the couple not so thoroughly walled them off.
Indeed, as Oates recounts, she chose to keep her very identity as a writer separate from her domestic life. This book—which seems to have been written at Oates's usual hectic pace, between February and August 2008—is by Joyce Carol Oates, but it is not about Joyce Carol Oates. "'Joyce Carol Oates' doesn't exist, except as an author-identification," she writes. For Joyce Carol Oates is the name this writer uses only for her public persona. In private she is Joyce Carol Smith, and as the name change suggests, she identifies herself foremost as the wife of Raymond Smith. "I did not think of myself as a writer primarily, or even as a writer, but as a wife," she notes early on. In a telling moment, she remembers how, on the rare nights they would spend apart when she had traveled somewhere for a professional engagement, she would invariably call home before bed: "I would tell Ray about my reading, about the dinner, and Ray would tell me what was far more interesting to me, about what he'd done that day—what had happened in our life, while I was away."
The memoir is a monument to that common life, and a record of the widow's shock and heartbreak at its sudden dissolution. Oates recalls the intimacy of the domestic routine she and Ray shared—their trips to the gym or supermarket, their dinners with friends, the evenings they spent sitting together reading books on the sofa in their living room. In contrast, her life as a widow is full of "sinkholes": "places fraught with visceral memory, stirring terror if you approach them." She cancels her gym membership rather than risk being asked what happened to Ray; waylaid by a checker at the supermarket who was friendly with him, she is unable to speak. She dreads returning at night to the dark house and tries to slip into the bedroom without passing the "ghost rooms" that remind her most of Ray. One challenge is getting past the living room, where she now imagines, in an optical illusion, that she sees a shadowy figure seated on the sofa: "the idea—the memory—of a figure."
Oates chronicles in exhaustive detail the miseries that afflict both her mind and her body in the aftermath of Ray's death. Suicide is continually in her thoughts: She imagines her grief as a "basilisk," a sinister lizard that lurks in the shadowy corner of her eye, waiting for the right moment to spring out and consume her. She fears addiction to the multitude of medications she has been prescribed—for depression, anxiety, insomnia—and suffers from an excruciating bout of shingles. Friends attempt to help, and she diligently records the kindnesses of those who assist her with all the painful obligations—filing Ray's will, changing the title on their car. (An e-mail she reproduces testifies to how absurdly difficult these mundanities can be: "Thank you for your kindness in interceding with Verizon!") But she can be cruel as well: to a nurse whose chitchat torments her as she and Ray sit quietly in his hospital room, to friends who may have meant well but failed to follow through on their promises, to the opportunists who beseech her for blurbs ("Joyce Carol Oates sincerely regrets that, her life having unraveled like an old sock, she is unable to aid you in knitting up your own," she imagines writing back). Particularly useless is the flood of "sympathy baskets" that overflow her dining-room table at a time when she can barely bring herself to eat. When she calls the county to find out when the recycling is picked up (something Ray always took care of), the woman on the other end tells her, "My husband died ten years ago. It doesn't get any easier."
And to Oates's surprise, she finds little solace in work. Unable to focus on her writing (though she does admit to "taking notes," which, one assumes, were the basis for this volume), she cocoons herself in bed, watching television and rereading Ray's reviews and essays. To Robert Silvers, her editor at the New York Review of Books, she explains that she is trying to get back to a piece she is writing, because "in the end it is our work that matters." But Oates, it turns out, doesn't believe this is true. "How frail a vessel, prose fiction! How fleeting and insubstantial, the 'life of the mind'!" she laments later. "This is not a person. This is not a life. A writing-life is not a life." Never mind those fifty-five novels: For this writer, her domestic life—"our life"—was the fulcrum of her existence.
In Philip Roth's novel Exit Ghost, which Oates was reading around the time of her husband's death, Zuckerman, Roth's alter ego, argues that the "fictional amplification" of life is what is most important: "The unlived, the surmise, fully drawn in print on paper, is the life whose meaning comes to matter most." Not for Oates such highfalutin abstractions. "My life is my life as a woman, my 'human' life you might say, and that 'human' life is defined by other people; by the ever-shifting web, weave, waxing of others' emotions," she writes in response. "Roth's claim is that 'print on paper' endures in a way that life can't endure, and maybe this is so . . . and yet, what chill, meager comfort!" She prefers the warmth of the domestic sphere: the house and the garden and the sofa. (The marriage was childless, apparently by choice.) Without this, she writes, "the small—even the colossal—triumphs of a 'career' are shallow, mocking."
All writers, of course, experience a certain separation between their "writing voice" and their selfhood. The journalist Janet Malcolm once gently joked in an interview that "the narrator of my nonfiction pieces is not the same person I am—she is a lot more articulate and thinks of much cleverer things to say." But Oates is so insistent about this compartmentalization that one starts to wonder about the psychological purpose it serves. It is not a surprise to learn, toward the end of the memoir, that Ray himself had once hoped to be a novelist and had stashed away the draft of an unfinished work he had not shared with her. When they were younger, she recalls, Ray had given her pieces of his novel to read, "but overall, he was doubtful, and did not wish to seek encouragement from me, as his young adoring wife. . . . Objective criticism does not flourish in such soil." And she had felt the same. "Ray's response to my work was likely to be identical to his response to my cooking: Honey this is really good! Or, Honey this is excellent."
Oates seems to believe that Ray was right to abandon his novel—that his true talent was his ability, as an editor, to nurture other writers. "There is no relationship quite so intimate and intense, when an editor is truly absorbed in editing, and a writer is willing to be 'edited,'" she writes. Does she regret the lack of that intimacy and intensity in her own relationship? If so, she does not say, and there is something crass in speculation about the dynamics of another person's marriage, even when the gates to that marriage are partially opened. If he did not love her for her work, then he loved her for who she was; and if that is not the route to immortality, it is nonetheless a thing that is true and alive.
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at the New Republic and the author of A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction (Oxford University Press, 2010).