Yes, it does seem like Joyce Carol Oates is legally required to have something published in the Atlantic‘s annual fiction issue. But that doesn’t mean her curious essay, “I Am Sorry to Inform You,” didn’t merit inclusion. In the piece, presumably an excerpt from her forthcoming memoir, she addresses the death of her first husband, Raymond Smith, in 2008, though it might be more precise to say that the story is about how she evades it. While she bemoans the writers who robotically send submissions to the Ontario Review even after Smith’s death prompted its shuttering, she candidly describes her own robot-like behavior—her urge to see her husband’s death as a frustrating interruption and not a source of anguish. But eventually that grief emerges:
Ray would also, could he return from the dead, be concerned about the May issue of the magazine. The first thing he would say, in an urgent voice, is Did you send the rest of the copy to Doug? What about the cover art which I didn’t finish—can you prepare it and send it to him by overnight delivery?
(Doug Hagley is Ray’s excellent typesetter, in Marquette, Michigan.)
I may as well admit it—if Ray could miraculously return from the dead, within a day or two—within a few hours—he would be working again on Ontario Review.
He was working in his hospital bed, on the very last day of his life. He’d be terribly concerned now, that the publication date of the May issue will be delayed…
I am trying. Honey, I am trying!
That last line is where the dam starts to break, but the parenthetical before it may be the most heartbreaking line in the whole piece. Her husband is on his deathbed, so what better time is there to recall that there is an excellent typesetter located in Marquette, Michigan, with whom they work? It encapsulates just how deeply her personal life has collided with her work, which she has spent her career diligently keeping separate. “I never discuss anything personal about myself, or even my writing,” she writes. “[M]y own ‘self’ is never a factor in my teaching, still less my career; I like to think that most of my students haven’t read my writing.”