Feminist Voices or Demure Ladies or What?

Feminist voices are loud in noting that male literary lions consider female authors inferior. But who, really, is to blame?

In A Widow’s Story Joyce Carol Oates, recipient of a half dozen highly prestigious literary awards; author of some of the most enduring fiction of our time, writes, “Because so much in a writer’s life can be distressing—negative reviews, rejections by magazines, difficulties with editors, publishers, book designers—disappointment with one’s own work, on a daily/hourly basis!—it seemed to me a very good idea to shield Ray from this side of my life as much as I could.”

Oates is giving a day-by-day, hour-by-hour report on her thoughts and actions during and after her husband of forty-six years, Ray Smith, editor of the Ontario Review, dies unexpectedly of complications from pneumonia. She goes so far as to say she, “walled off from my husband the part of my life that is Joyce Carol Oates—which is to say, my writing career.”

She praises her husband for his editorial skills while sharing that he did not read her fiction, and, “in this sense it might be argued that Ray didn’t know me entirely—or even, to a significant degree, partially.”

I recently tried to explain this “old-school modesty” by women of a certain age who had it ingrained to appear less than to protect the fragile male ego. Oates gives a classic example. I confess I am only 123 pages into this more than 400-page tome, but it has already become a recurring theme. “As he didn’t read most of what I wrote so he didn’t read most reviews of this [my] work, whether good, bad, or indifferent” which she follows by a qualifier defending her husband or her own reticence. “Always it has astonished me that writers married to each other—for instance Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne—should share virtually every page they write…” and again, “Perhaps it is naïve to wish to share only good news with a [my] husband.” Oates doesn’t even claim her work or her husband when she goes into demure mode but chooses the impersonal as in this work and a husband.

What do you think dear reader? What’s a woman to do?

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3 Comments

Filed under Memoir musings, On writing

3 responses to “Feminist Voices or Demure Ladies or What?

  1. Glad I stopped by today! I’ve been reading a lot about this memoir — too long, too this, too that. But you’ve intrigued me … I may just have to read it now! It’s difficult for me to imagine a great author like Oates having to “protect” her husband at the same time. Sounds exhausting, almost humiliating. Was he weak? Was he disinterested in the ups and downs of her ambitions? Was he non-supportive or threatened by her ability? Don’t know, haven’t read the book, but having gone to a college for women in the ’70s, this topic is of interest to me! Thanks for the post. Hope you have a lovely day. –Daisy

    • I think she was just playing the role of supportive wife that women of her generation were taught they must do to keep a man. What is difficult for me to comprehend is how she can practically self-distruct upon his passing when, in fact, she was the woman who brought home the bacon and fried it up in the pan, so to speak.
      Daisy, your comment inspired me to write a follow-up posst to help answer some of your questions. And I’m going to have to do one more. Thanks for checking in.

  2. My first thought was a sadness that this man, this editor, never had a taste of his wife’s work. Or maybe he did–and never told her. So, they lived separate lies. I know that my husband reads mine and tells me what he thinks. I glow in his accolades and grind my teeth during his critiques. Always, he is supportive. I keep thinking of what she missed.

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