A while back Sean Manning, whose anthology Bound I found an interesting contribution to the New Criticism hinted at by JC Hallman in The Story Behind the Story ( I know this is somewhat convoluted but bear with me) contacted me when his new book The Things That Needs Doing was being published. He inquired if I was interested in receiving an advance copy. I had already received one and I wrote back that I was not, at that moment (all we can do respond to those moments, yes?), prepared to advance his memoir of care giving his dying mother, to the top of my required reading mound.
Reading the Book Review’s commentary a scene from Mr Saturday Night came to mind. The Billy Crystal character is reminding his brother for the umpteenth time that he was right about something, and the brother responds, “Yeah, but you didn’t have to be so mean about it.” I was prepared to accept that the book review was at least well reasoned— but further readings of the Times’ trashing and I concluded that any editor allowing the following was incompetent or cruel beyond description or both:
Why does he do this? It’s certainly not to memorialize his mother; not only does he tell us little about her, but he also strips her of any and all dignity by describing in voyeuristic detail her vomiting, diaper changes and such.
No, the sole purpose of this memoir, like many, many others concerning some personal trial, is to generate sympathy for its author. Manning, who was in his mid-20s when he took his lengthy turn at the bedside, seems on every page to be looking for someone to say, “Poor Sean; how about a hug?”
This preposterous claim of exposing the author’s purpose is, of course, open to challenge and in fact tempts one to engage in one’s own reductio ad absurdum positing the review scribbler’s motives from sexual inadequacy to digestive disorder. Bad business I say— in any case my reading of Sean Manning’s response found it to admirably dispense with that piece of review flotsam.
The problem for Manning and other victims of the Book Review’s cynical strategy for attracting readers (I would have never read the piece if I had not heard of its viciousness) is the disproportionate power of the NYTBR with its 1 million readership and the remedies Manning and others might have.
And for those on the sidelines of these cage matches, the question of who is served— reader, writer, literary criticism, Times Company stockholders or limp dicked, tight sphinctered editors remains.