Joyce Maynard Essay - Critical Essays

Maynard, Joyce


Joyce Maynard 1953–

American novelist and memoirist.

While Maynard was a student at Yale, she wrote Looking Back: A Chronicle of Growing Up Old in the Sixties, a serious social document and, concurrently, a humorous personal memoir. Generalizing from her own experience, Maynard presents her generation as media-blitzed people who have low resistance to peer and social pressure.

The idealistic young mothers who are the protagonists of Maynard's recent first novel, Baby Love, are also products of the media and the materialism of smalltown America.

Annie Gottlieb

[In "Looking Back" Joyce Maynard] tries to be both exemplar and critic, to trace her own and her contemporaries' lassitude and precocious world-weariness to the common experience of "growing up old in the sixties."

That meant not only the profound trivializing influence of the media…. In school and out, it [also] meant regimentation by insecurity, relentless pressure toward refuge in a group mind, toward the illusion of an averaged-out "we" with which each individual kid could identify by adopting the symbols the media offered him—in exchange for a cut of his rich, jingling allowance.

Joyce Maynard suffers as a writer from that averaged-out "we" as she does from other generational syndromes of which she's more aware: short attention span, fascination with banality. She often talks in group images, in generalities, and while these will be familiar to anyone from a similar background, they produce a soft thud of recognition instead of the sharp, pleasant shock of glimpsing one's self in another's individualities. It is this that makes the book's flaws as telling as its insights.

"Looking Back"'s limitation is also its value: It is a criticism from within, and as such it must be respected, for if its insights are often obvious … they are obviously personally arrived at, and they can be wonderfully penetrating and aphoristic….

The book's limitations also annoy. In spite of the...

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David Tipmore

Prepare yourselves. [In "Looking Back",] Joyce Maynard introduces a whole new angle into the Gap Game. Remember the Generation Gap and the Credibility Gap and the Communication Gap and now the Great Watergate Gapola? Well, Maynard unloads one last Gap on us, the Generalization Gap, and let's hope it's the end of the load….

For 150 pages, Maynard scissor-kicks through media mania and yippie youth cults and over-solicitious Barbie dolls like Mark Spitz spotting the end of the pool. The '60s exhausted her and her generation, she tells us as her prose home movie rolls by, full of mood clues like hula hoops and Yardley slickers, Twiggy and Cheerios, sock-hops and SAT exams. The book is a cross of teen trauma and pop obituary, with Maynard playing Pancho to her generation's Cisco Kid. And for all the hype you've heard about her, Maynard is a fine writer who, when she's telling about her own experiences, sounds a lot like a lost diary…. It's deja vu with a down, but as Maynard says, "memory is, I think, a clue to why we are where we are now."

The question is: where are we and who is we? Yes, who is "we," Joyce? This "we" makes up the Generalization Gap and runs through the book like an old Burns and Allen routine. Whether it's a clever device or an unwitting habit, Maynard uses it with the deceptive ease of a film dissolve….

I think Maynard might actually be the new Shari Lewis: one minute she's just Joyce laying it on about being a collegiate virgin—and the next she's Lambchop, schmoozing about generalizational plights and problems like a whiz-kid Norman Vincent Peale. It's a real case of viewpoint ventriloquism….

If Joyce is really as tired as she sounds, if she's the fatigued little feeler who's endured the Kennedy years and Great White Dopes and trips to phony modeling agencies, then maybe she'd better slow down and ooze back into some of the lost childhood.

David Tipmore, "The Generalization Gap" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1973), in The Village Voice, Vol. 18, No. 35, August 30, 1973, p. 123.

Catherine Tennant

[In Looking Back Joyce Maynard] is concerned not so much with personal experiences—she uses these to illustrate her points—as with the common influences (the media in all their various forms) which have gone to shape her generation's outlook on the world….

"My generation is special because of what we missed rather than what we got" is, it appears, her favourite theme. In other words, It, whatever "It" was, is all over…. Meanwhile all that remains in this world—where the strongest of ambitions is to get away rather than ahead, and to buy land in Oregon or Vermont "where manure is cow shit not bovine waste"—is a rather bland interest in "Herman Hesse, marijuana and yoghourt", a good record collection and a socially acceptable stereo set….

Looking Back is a sociological document about a person who perhaps has given too great an importance to just such documents. Her direct and funny perceptions of personal experiences are too often blurred by the attempt to define them in generalized terms, to see them as the fate of everyone born in New England in 1953. This seems a narrowing viewpoint to take, although it helps to justify the sense, shared with many other generations, of being born too late, so there's no point trying.

Catherine Tennant, "The Road to Anaesthesia," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspaper Ltd. (London) 1975; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3815, April 18, 1975, p. 418.

Ann Grimes

[With Baby Love, Joyce Maynard] makes her debut as a novelist by telling the story of a group of young women in rural Vermont who are compelled to have, raise, abort, or lose babies…. Maynard masterfully weaves [their] stories into one, powerfully exploring raw emotions and drawing on American popular culture to bring her scenes to life. Rarely has anyone written as poignantly, or sympathetically, about women and their simultaneous desire for, and repulsion of, children. An awesomely good book.

Ann Grimes, "Adult Fiction: 'Baby Love'," in Booklist (reprinted by permission of the American Library Association; copyright © 1981 by the American Library Association), Vol. 77, No. 19, June 1, 1981, p. 1277.

Michelle Green

Maynard's prose is sparse, her characters are deftly drawn, and her pacing is brisk. But there's a queer hollow quality about [Baby Love], as if the author became alienated from her own work. Maynard holds her fecund females at arm's length. At times, it's difficult to tell whether she's mocking them or asking us merely to take note of their foibles. Add to this an ill-conceived and premature conclusion, and the result is a curiously misshapen novel.

Michelle Green, "Fiction Briefs: 'Baby Love'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1981 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 8, No. 8, August, 1981, p. 50.

Anne Tyler

It is more than eight years since Joyce Maynard wrote "An Eighteen-Year-Old Looks Back on Life," her wry New York Times magazine article about growing up among the jaded youth of the 60's. "Baby Love," her first novel, is an entirely different sort of work … but there's much in it that recalls "Looking Back." The tone is the same: right on target, cued to the rangy, slangy rhythms of modern life, though lacking the embarrassing archness that characterized the earlier piece. There is the same acute awareness of the present moment, or at least, of the present moment as perceived by the public. Television is a constant force. So are sensational headlines, self-improvement articles, pop heroes, rock songs and glossy...

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Jean Strouse

Maynard has a fine ear for idiom, but she constantly undermines the poignancy and humor of ["Baby Love"] with the condescension of her fake-dumb tone….

Beneath this condescending tone lies the smug assumption of a superior "we" that I don't want any part of. "We" know—about the Unicorn Tapestries, the Oedipus complex, anorexia, Hemingway—all the "smart" things these characters dimly refer to. So what? "We" don't learn anything new from all this skewering—just that nobody's happy, everybody dreams of something better and the tacky stuff of modern dreams is shaped by Dolly Parton, "Dallas" and Kodak ads. Clever as it is, the novel calls more attention to the author than to her characters. In a...

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Suzanne Freeman

The issues in Baby Love—babies, love, sex, youth, music and television—have always been Maynard's favorite subjects, but it is here in this shift to the novel form that she finally deals with them best. Fiction has taken away both the cutesiness and preachiness that a young memoir-writer is liable to. Gone, as well, is the kind of misspent world-weariness that would prompt a 19-year-old to talk about "growing up old." Nothing about Maynard is weary here. It's a new world and her writing takes on a new energy. For the first time, she is free to fill her work with people of her own invention. And fill it she does.

At best count, there are 17 major characters in this book. (p. 3)


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Barbara Wilcox

Edgy and incisive, [in "Looking Back" Maynard] stated, no, proved, that the most difficult task facing the teenager today was to keep from growing up old. Public reaction was incredulous….

That edge is gone now….

[Baby Love's] "modern" tone is fashionably uninflected; in direct contrast to her earlier work, it deals almost entirely with sexual matters observed with unbearable clarity, as if someone had taken an Ann Beattie novel and drawn dirty signs all over it.

Now, no one works better in this close style than Beattie, who follows her characters through situations other writers despair of describing…. But when the people in...

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Caroline Moorehead

[In Baby Love Joyce Maynard shows,] with humour sometimes verging on farcical, wryness, and a great deal of perception, what it is like to be young, American and female, trying to adjust what is expected of you to what you really feel…. [It is how her characters] live from day to day, and more particularly how they think, that is the subject of Baby Love. Joyce Maynard is very skilful when it comes to the crazy jumble that is thought, the inchoate muddle of fears, doubts, plans, memories and desires that fill people's minds; trivia alongside essentials.

The contemporariness of … [many such] novels is one of their strongest and most attractive ingredients: the way they belong so...

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