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Book Chapter

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Pleasures of the prose: Journalism and humour pp. 54-69



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119999 Medical and Health Sciences not elsewhere classified| 1903 JOURNALISM AND PROFESSIONAL WRITING| 200101 Communication Studies| 2005 LITERARY STUDIES

Avondale Research Centre

Scripture, Spirituality and Society Research Centre

Avondale Research Centre

Lifestyle Research Centre

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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.


This chapter is made available for download with permission of the editors and the author.

Pleasures of the prose: Journalism and humour may be accessed from the publisher here.

Staff and Students of Avondale College may access Pleasures of the prose: Journalism and humour from Avondale College Library (070.444 K24).