Joyce Carol Oates, Janet Maslin, and voicemail mementos

My little corner of the internet is  ablaze with responses to Janet Maslin's "brutal" review of Joyce Carol Oates' memoir, A Widow's Story, published yesterday (the review was published Sunday). So meta: all this commentary without anyone (except Maslin), as far as I can tell, reading the book itself, without responding to Oates' experience or perspective.

Because the review includes this sentence, which sounds — to me and many others — like an ad hominem attack, and thus, crossing the boundary of a book review:
A book long and rambling enough to contemplate an answering-machine recording could have found time to mention a whole new spouse. 
Let's deconstruct this. First, is an answering machine recording a small thing in telling a story? And second, is becoming engaged after a marriage a significant part of the story? Specifically, is it the kind of thing that, if you were writing a memoir about your loss, you'd be required to include in the book? Let's say, if you were one of the most prolific writers in America? And if one decides that you should put that engagement in your memoir, would it be dishonest to NOT talk about it in the same book as the voicemail recording?

So, first things first, because this is a juicy one, and it will take up the rest of the post (we'll do #2 tomorrow). I asked the thousand-or-so widowed people I talk with on Facebook:
Did you hang on to voice mail messages of your loved one? For how long? Were they important to you? If your late partner's voice was the GREETING on your voice mail or answering machine, did you leave it? For how long?
… And here are just a few of the tiny tales I received back:
My husband passed away March 6, 2010 and i still haven't had his cell phone turned off. It is the only place I still hear his voice. (Debbie)

I left my greeting for a long time...maybe almost 2 years? I just couldn't bear to erase it even though I know some people may have been made uncomfortable by it. Then something happened to it and I had the kids put a message on, I didn't want to replace it with my voice. I can still hear his message in my head, years later, clear as a bell. (Linda)

Never had any messages or his voice on a greeting all i have of his voice is the home movies, which took me 2 1/2 yrs to watch and can't even explain the feeling when i heard his voice after so long....(Rachel)

Yes, for some reason, I always kept several of his voicemails on my phone at all times. I have three saved. One was from 3 years ago when he called to tell me he knew the day before had been really tough (at work) and that he knew that day would be better and that he loved me. The second one, he just called to wish me a happy day. These messages are so important to me that I paid a company to save them and send them to me as MP3 files. So I have them forever, even if they get erased accidentally on my phone. I never get tired of listening to them. (Lorie)

My mother-in-law still has his voice on her answering machine, it was really hard at first but now 5 yrs later when I call I cross my fingers I get her machine just to hear him. (Dara)

I still have the "tape" from the answering machine. Its been at least 18 years. (Sandy)

I have my husbands voice message to me. It just says "I love you." Me and my daughter listen to it often. (Bev)

(My new partner) found Scott's cell phone in the drawer. "Hey Hon, I didn't know you had a Razor?" My response? "That's... Scott's phone, and I can't bear to get rid of it." I've let the battery go so I don't know if there is anything still on it. I'm thinking because the number is gone, so are the messages. There is (was) one from me on there. A happy one that he saved. (My new partner) found a place for the phone...I've always wished I would have saved the tape of my Mom's message. She's gone over 20 years now. (Lynn)

Wow, I was just looking at my phone today with the ONE message on it from Bill, he was going from one of his trips to hospital to come pick him up. I listen every once in a while. I am coming up on a year in 3 weeks. I was looking at the phone and trying to decide if I would delete it. I will miss him for everyday of my life, but I need to move forward. (Paula)

I have his voice along with the kids as my cell phone message and I never want to take it off. To me it's a way to tell the world, especially his family, that I will never forget. Even just talking about a simple message tears my heart. I miss him so much. (Danielle)

I don't have any voice messages, but I do have his cell phone, I now have people call me on that phone. There is one greeting saved with his voice on it. I play it every once in a while just so I can hear a little bit of his voice. Wish I had more. (Yoly)

At three years I still have my late husband as the greeting. He recorded it with the kids. Funny, I've been thinking it was time to change it but still I just love hearing his cheery voice every now and again. The voicemails are gone unfortunately when I changed the number. (Jenn)

My husband passed away almost 2 years ago, I am still paying for his phone so that I can call and listed to his greeting. It says he will get right back to me — I'm still waiting! (Celeste)

Didn't save anything on the phones, but we have Grampy reading a recorded book for each of the four grandkids, a video "interview" of him telling us stories from his life that our daughter made and best of all...during his last days I asked... him to "talk to me like you do when I'm sad or upset." I recorded that and a friend put it on cd for me. He just gave them to me last night and I listened in the car on the way home. I cried and cried, but it was just what I needed to hear. Every time I thought, "please say you love me again," he did! I've often thought I could go without seeing him because I have pictures and I could go without touching him because I have his robes that I can wrap myself in, but I wish I had a phone to Heaven so I could talk to him. Now with his message to me on the cd I feel I have that! (Michelle)

Are these tiny details not beautiful? Do they not illustrate emotional truths, about living without someone and having true human feelings? A modern convenience - a machine, a service — are a memento, giving us the warmth of a voice, otherwise uncaptured, saved nearly by accident on the phone company's server.

Would you leave out a detail like this from your story? This snippet is our generation's gold watch: an heirloom, a talisman, precious. Everyday and transcendent at the same time. Current, relatable, real.

I can bet you that that anecdote which Maslin picked on will be one of the parts that resonates the most deeply with readers.

How about art other than memoir? I'm honored to be able to share with you this special song about listening to a loved one's voice later on — sung by my sister after her loss, more than a decade ago — a song which she movingly performed at Gavin's memorial service:

And tomorrow.... I'll address Maslin's charge of "major omission" from my point of view as a remarried widow.


annie said...

Well, you know my answer but no, it's not small thing and yes, it's a glaring omission.

You can't expect the reviewer to know about voicemessages or the faux pax of relegating it to "small" status. The point was about leaving out the engagement, which in my mind is big b/c it occurred during the first year and that was the focus of her memoir.

As a newly widowed person, I chaffed at the advice of "older" widowed folk about not dating in the first year and was royally pissed off when it came out that those who were most against it were the ones who did date, get engaged or remarried within or shortly after. So to me. Hugh. And to non-widowed, it's puzzling and/or hypocritical. In any case, should have rated a mention and explanation somewhere.

Supa Dupa Fresh said...

Yeah, I'll talk more about the "first year" thing tomorrow.

Did you read the book yet? Is it as fatty as Maslin says? The person on JCO's site says it WAS mentioned in the book, not necessarily as a central thread... but in there.

It'll be interesting to see... but the Konigsberg is still probably juicier for all of us.... :-)

Anonymous said...

I think the reviewer's point was that during the time period when the voice message was portrayed as a major issue, the author was already engaged..... not just met somebody, not just forming a relationship, but fully fledged in love, committed, moved on and engaged to be married. So you have to imagine that the author's connection to the voice message was somewhat less than for example a widow who is still entrenched in grief and whose only relationship and focus is with the dead spouse.

I of course have not read the memoir, nor will I because I have read other books of hers and did indeed find them to be long, rambling and ultimately pointless and unsatisfying. (So maybe I am a bit biased).

Supa Dupa Fresh said...

Yeah, I understand Maslin's point, and I'll get to the "moving on" thing in tomorrow's post.

Abel said...

I'm intrigued by the discussion on this book. I really need to read it so I can comment on it.

Susan G. Weidener said...

I'm not sure why she wrote the memoir - and then gave it the title "A Widow's Story - if her husband was so easily replaced. Or maybe she was capitalizing on the word "widow"? because that is what her publisher suggested.

Hira Animfefte said...

I just read the NY Times review. I haven't read the book (yet). However, just the review got me royally P.O.'d. The reviewer clearly knows nothing about the experience of widowhood, as evidenced by her tone of sarcasm and derision. It's always the ones who haven't experienced it who think they're the experts.

Yeah, am I bitter much? Heh.

annie said...

Our library doesn't have it yet, so I am working off reviews - which are mixed really and she isn't fave author of mine in any event.

Hira brings up a good point about these types of memoirs being reviewed by people who haven't experienced similar events. And it's the problem with memoir b/c there are competing worldviews btwn read and writer.

Anon's point about the voicemail losing significance in the face of new love. Not likely. Anything that can trigger a memory - and a voice certainly would - can bring a person up short no matter their current state of happy. But I can see where someone without that experience would be confused by it.

If she was dating, engaged and nearly remarried in the first year, it would invite more criticism to admit to it, but she miscalculated by not mentioning it at all. She had the opportunity to point out that new love is not the cure for loss that our culture paints it as. It is wonderful and life-affirming, but it doesn't wipe the slate clean and present different issues that have to be dealt with. She didn't take it though. She went the magical thinking route even though that doesn't appear to be true to her actual experience. She could have told a great, new story about loss and love again. She just didn't, which makes me skeptical and not inclined to care much more about it. The controversy, in fact, will probably be better than her book now.

Supa Dupa Fresh said...

Anonymous, moving on!
Susan, so easily replaced!
Gack, my head is exploding!
But to that tomorrow, when I have recovered, at least a bit.

Hira and Annie, I disagree that the reviewer should be expected to be sensitive to the story-behind-the-story. It's up to Oates to tell her experience of widowhood in such a way that the answering machine IS significant and emotionally relevant. The reviewer does not bear the burden of needing background to read something, most especially a memoir.

Likewise, the author doesn't bear the burden to tell any particular story. Annie, the one you describe is lovely, but no doubt "off topic."

If memoirs open you up to LIFE criticism, maybe that's fair... but I still think falling in love is a parallel story and not part of the same. MAYBE.

May never get around to reading the dang thing now...

Maria Toyofuku said...

Please read the book before judging it. I agree with Supa that it is the author's story to tell. I read it and thought it was beautiful, moving, real, and a wonderful tribute to her relationship with her late husband. The way in which the author chose to move into the next phase of her life is up to her.

Deborah P said...

Unless you have lost a spouse, how can you "imagine" what it must be like? Even if you have, everyone's experience of their grief, their loss, their own path in life, is different. There are no shoulds, no rules - each of us has our own unique experience.

It is complex to deal with the cacophony of needs that may seem conflicting at times - to honor the loved one you have lost, celebrate the love you shared, and discover and celebrate new love in your life. I think each of us should have the freedom to define and tell our stories any way we wish...


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...