Katherine Rosman is a culture reporter at the Wall Street Journal and the author of If You Knew Suzy, a memoir about the death of her mother. Today she responds to the Times book review that will run this Sunday.
I wrote a memoir called If You Knew Suzy and it gets savaged in this coming Sunday's New York Times Book Review. The review, by Dana Jennings, considers three memoirs that involve cancer, including mine-a chronicle of my 60-year-old mother's death, as well as the year I took off from the Wall Street Journal to report on her life. Mr. Jennings, an editor at the Times who blogs about his own prostate cancer, calls my book "a magazine article that got out of hand," "self-absorbed" and "like a dreary episode of ‘Sex and the City.'" And that's just in the first sentence!
This is my first book. When it debuted in late April, it was met with favorable mention from publications including People, Elle, Slate, New York Observer and Vanity Fair. The Journal excerpted it, as did Psychology Today and Harper's Bazaar. It got one middling-to-bad review, in the Los Angeles Times. Once I got the sense that the review was fairly negative, I stopped reading it. If Angelina Jolie doesn't read her bad press, I decided, I don't have to, either. But the New York Times piece I read entirely. It was short, the mention of my book even shorter-reductive, really, misrepresenting the content of my book in the apparent service of tossing as many nasty barbs as possible into 212 words. When I got an advance copy of the review last week, my sister and her family were visiting. "Who cares what the New York Times says?" my 8-year-old nephew, Zack, said to me. "I don't even know a single person who reads the newspaper."
Oh, kids. They say the darnedest things, and often the most incisive. The readership of newspapers is dwindling and money-saving cuts to arts coverage is a difficult reality for the book trade, because the success or failure of a book by an unknown, first-time author rests largely on the media coverage it can attract. For this reason, I lobbied hard to get my book considered for review by editors at the Times. When I learned that my book would, in fact, be reviewed, I was thrilled. "Even a bad review in the Times is better than no review at all," I was told by many. They should reiterate that to the gal whose dead mother is to be called "vain, materialistic and manipulative" by Mr. Jennings. (P.S. She was all that, and a bag of chips.)
A complicating factor of newspaper criticism is how editors choose reviewers. Often, they pick writers who, based on their own writing, life experience or both, will come to the books they are being asked to review with an opinion if not an agenda. The woman who reviewed my book in the Los Angeles Times had written a memoir about her murdered father. And presumably Mr. Jennings was selected to review my book because he writes for the paper's web site about living with cancer. None of this is to say that two randomly selected reviewers wouldn't hate my book. But it raises the question of whether the reader is served by critics selected for their biases. (Speaking of Mr. Jennings' oeuvre: Should a man who wrote in the Times, "Yes, my erectile dysfunction is still a work in progress, but I don't feel diminished; I don't feel less a man. My voice is still as deep as a well, my eyes a steely blue" be calling anyone "self-absorbed"?)
Likely to expand the volume of books that can be covered, editors group together books they can present as representative of a genre. Such is the case with Mr. Jennings's review, which says, "Rosman doesn't offer many insights in this memoir of grief. [Joan] Didion, in ‘The Year of Magical Thinking,' lets us peer into the Möbius strip of the obsessed and grieving mind, admits to us that ‘grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves." I haven't yet had the pleasure of reading the other two books included in the review with mine, but "Suzy" is not a grief book. It's a book about relationships among women (mothers, daughters, sisters) and a look at the enormous and meaningful role that strangers can play in our lives. It's about the impact on patients, family and hospitals of doctors who lack of compassion-and those who show it in abundance. It's about the ways we don't know people we're close to. Mr. Jennings can hate my book, but I'd prefer if he didn't try to shoehorn it into a space it doesn't fit, and then criticize it for not fitting. Might I add: comparing all memoirs that involve themes of death against Ms. Didion's is like measuring the work of every carpenter against Jesus Christ's.
For all the effort of Times' editors to assign my book to be reviewed by someone with whom the themes might resonate (for better or worse), Mr. Jennings just didn't "get" my book. He describes me as "chirpily" laying out on the first page of the book that the day my mom died my sister and I took her credit cards and went shopping. Then he castigates me for not telling the "white-boned truth." I'm not sure how much more truthful you can get than admitting you shopped on your mom's dime before her body was cold. And I told that truth for a few reasons: first, to explode the taboos surrounding death-to defy the judgment of people like Mr. Jennings who have decided there is a right and proper thing to do on the day the suffering ends for someone you love. Also, as readers who complete the first chapter will see, the shopping spree led me into an interaction that helped me to recognize, on that most significant day, the blessings of loss. Sometimes we end up exactly where we need to be. For me on the day my mom died, that was in a makeup store in Tucson. (Also? Would Mr. Jennings ever describe a male writer as chirpy? I don't think so either. But I'm not hiding from my chirpiness. And only the New York Times could criticize a writer for using a little humor and optimism when deconstructing the impact of death on a family.)
My sister and I coped with the long and terrible strain of Mom's illness in ways that are influenced by the popular culture we live in. I'm guessing there are a lot of women-and men-out there like us, and like mom: Masses of contradictions who are spiritual and materialistic, warm and moody, nurturing and selfish. My mother was not one-dimensional, nor was my portrayal of her. With his quick dismissal of her and a book that describes how a family of women faced a matriarch's life and death, it's Mr. Jennings who comes off as one-dimensional in a haughtiness that borders on sexism.
We live in perhaps the most materialistic culture in the world. Taking an honest, hard look at how things shape our lives and psyches is not silly or vapid. Tim O'Brien helped us understand the conflict in Vietnam based on the things that soldiers carried. Part of what "Suzy" does is examine the impact of vanity, physical beauty, athletic achievement and clothes on a woman's life. These are totems in the contemporary lives of plenty of people in today's society. That you care about looking beautiful and want a dress you saw in a magazine doesn't mean you have no inner life. In fact, possessions can very much reflect inner life which is exactly why I spent time reporting on the origin of my mother's treasured glass collection, her house, her clothes. As I wrote in my memoir, "The things a person leaves behind become markers of a life once lived, like a Swiss Army knife inscription on a wooden rafter: Mom Was Here." Does Mr. Jennings consider the ancient Egyptian practice of burying the dead with their finery and jewels-connecting life and death-superficial? If so, that's not very P.C. or Timesian.
This week, just a few days before the actual publication of the Times review, my book was discussed by dozens of bloggers as a selection of the "From Left 2 Write" online book club. On their Web pages, women dissected my story thoughtfully. Not all loved it. But free of space constraints, and the need to manufacture common themes among barely similar books, these writers managed to say something about relationships among women, and to material things. On the blog, "West of the Loop," Emily describes how "dressing nicely and wearing make-up reminds me that I am an adult with a graduate degree and opinions on the latest Supreme Court opinion, even if I do spend my days satisfying the whims of young children….Our clothes are the way we tell the world who we are." Even as the Internet destroys the printed word, it may just save the written one.
*Disclosure: When I first read of Mr. Jennings' cancer, I wrote and mailed to him a letter sending him my best wishes. I guess I should have asked Ms. Didion for help in crafting it.
Update: The Times review is here.
[Katherine Rosman is a culture reporter at the Wall Street Journal. You can find her online at katherinerosman.com.]