New York Times Book Review: Sean Manning Responds to Unfair Review

Sean Manning questions why The New York Times Book Review would review his memoir about his mother's terrible illness in such a snarky and dismissive way. Is this true criticism?

Three weeks ago, I learned my memoir The Things That Need Doing had been scheduled for review in The New York Times Book Review’s January 30 issue. The NYTBR has a circulation of over a million. Of the hundreds of books its editors regularly receive for consideration, only a dozen or so are selected for review each week. Rarely are these trade paperbacks like mine. You might say I was excited.

I guessed the editors’ interest had to do with the national health-care debate. The book concerns my mother’s death and the preceding year I spent with her at the Cleveland Clinic as she battled congestive heart failure, lung cancer, stomach paralysis, and ventilator dependency. The total cost of her care came to $2.4 million. All but $3,000 was covered by insurance. My mom’s experience could be used as an argument for both supporters and opponents of President Obama’s controversial health-care legislation. Without insurance, she never would’ve been able to live as long as she did. Because of insurance, she’d been allowed to live too long, at a great expense.

I guessed wrong. In last Sunday’s NYTBR, in a review titled “ The Problem With Memoir,” a Times staff editor excoriated my memoir and two others (a fourth he praised) in “possibly a futile effort to restore some standards to this absurdly bloated genre”:

Sean Manning [watched] his mother die a lingering death from cancer, and in The Things That Need Doing pummels us with the details of every intubation, change in medication and debate with doctors. 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?” But it’s the reader who will need a hug after choking down this orgy of self-congratulation and self-pity.

This is a gross mischaracterization of my work and motivations.

That the NYTBR editors would condone this retreaded snark is disappointing and puzzling, especially coming from someone who writes almost exclusively on television and film.

I wrote the book precisely to memorialize my mom and her courage, her indefatigable will to live. I also wrote it to bring comfort or strength to anyone who has served or is in the midst serving as caregiver to a loved one—especially males in their 20s. While there is no shortage of caregiving memoirs—Robin Romm’s The Mercy Papers, Patricia Hampl’s The Florist’s Daughter, David Rieff’s Swimming in a Sea of Death, and, of course, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, to name a few—none with the exception of Brian Fies’ wonderful graphic novel Mom’s Cancer (that I’ve been able to find, anyway) concern young men. If the reviewer is so enlightened as to differentiate between a short-term acute care and long-term acute care hospital, a J- and G-tube, a peripherally inserted central catheter and subclavian line, a tracheostomy and bronchoscopy, there are many others like myself at the outset of my mom’s illness who aren’t and would benefit from the elucidation of such jargon.

There’s little I don’t tell about my mom—her rebellious youth that culminated in dropping out of college, she and my father’s courtship and marriage, her diagnosis of Hodgkin’s disease in her early 30s, the effects of the radiation treatment she received including her decision to return to school at age 40 and pursue nursing, she and my father’s divorce and enduring friendship, the evolution of our own relationship.

As for stripping her of dignity, there’s nothing undignified about vomiting or needing your diaper changed. That’s being sick. It happens to human beings. Denigrating the dead and otherwise plying sensationalism to advance one’s professional stock is undignified.

The memoir-glut diatribe is hardly original, as author Ben Yagoda detailed in a 2007 Slate article. That the NYTBR editors would condone this retreaded snark is disappointing and puzzling, especially coming from someone who writes almost exclusively on television and film. Their pairing of reviewer and book is typically defter.

More perplexing still is that this should arrive less than a month after the NYTBR laudably devoted an entire issue to “ Why Criticism Matters." “I wonder whether a general audience, made up of what Virginia Woolf called ‘common readers,’ still exists,” wrote Adam Kirsch, one of the six prominent critics tasked with providing a mission statement. “If it does, the readership of The New York Times Book Review is probably it.”

And it deserves considered analysis not shameless pot-stirring.

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Sean Manning is the author of The Things That Need Doing: A Memoir and editor of several nonfiction anthologies, most recently Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book.