Swimming in a Sea of Death: Reviewers Respond to a Journalist's Work of Mourning with Humour
This book chapter was originally published as:
Rickett, C. (2015). Swimming in a sea of death: Reviewers respond to a journalist's work of mourning with humour. In R. L. Keeble & D. Swick (Ed.), Pleasures of the prose: Journalism and humour (pp. 54-69). London: Abramis Academic.
In an article for the New York Review of Books entitled ‘For sorrow there is no remedy’, author and critic Julian Barnes (2011) makes this astute observation: ‘In some ways, autobiographical accounts of grief are unfalsifiable, and therefore unreviewable by any normal criteria.’ While Barnes is largely referring to Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story: A Memoir (2011), his statement highlights a reticence that can inhibit critical reviews of works of mourning. Other texts exploring less personal and poignant themes are subjected to analytical and exacting commentary; the burgeoning field of memoir recounting the death of a family member is publicly quarantined from this.
After his mother, the American writer and film maker, Susan Sontag (1933- 2004), died, David Rieff – an acclaimed investigative journalist, author and literary editor – turned to memoir to reflect on the final months of her life. Rieff, whose literary reputation had long been established through polemical prose on humanitarian issues, war and politics appearing in high profile publications such as The New York Times, Le Monde, The Atlantic, and Harper’s, typically received reverential regard for his autobiographical work, Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir (2008).
This chapter draws attention to a range of dissenting critiques featured in selected newspapers and online publications that refused to be constrained by either Rieff’s literary lineage or the pathos of his prose. Instead, these selected reviews employed unanticipated humour and wit to appraise and question the motivation and merit of his memoir.
Rickett, Carolyn, "Swimming in a Sea of Death: Reviewers Respond to a Journalist's Work of Mourning with Humour" (2015). Arts Book Chapters. 26.
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