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Illness Narrative as Fiction and as Life Writing

Key information

  • Module code:

    7AAEM831

  • Level:

    7

  • Semester:

      Spring

  • Credit value:

    15

Module description

Over the last two decades there has been an explosion of interest in the literary possibilities of illness. Illness narratives used to be the preserve of patients: most illness narratives were written by patients for fellow sufferers; they were in fact a sub-genre of that much-reviled form, the self-help book. Beginning in the late 1980s, however, a stream of books began to appear by literary authors. John Updike's Self-Consciousness (1989), about a life marked by psoriasis and William Styron's Darkness Visible (1990), a memoir of the author's struggles with depression, are notable examples. With the publication in 1993 of John Bayley's Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch (1993) illness narrative began to reach a much larger public than had hitherto been the case. Iris was also significant as one of the first illness narratives to be turned into a mass-market Hollywood film. Over this same period, patient groups and others have been using the internet to develop illness narrative in ways that distinguish it from commercial ones. Illness is for instance an integral part of the life imagined and lived out on Second Life.

This module will explore a variety of illness narratives: fictional and non-fictional, by patients and carers, written singly or collectively. We will consider how far illness narrative can claim to be a genre in its own right as well its relation to other forms of life-writing (especially trauma narrative and testimony). We will also read and critique the body of criticism to which illness narrative has given rise, both academic and extra-mural. There are specific questions in life writing that illness seems to throw into especially sharp relief. Chief among these is the question of authenticity. Early theorists of illness narrative took honesty and authenticity to be the most important qualities that the genre could exhibit. More recently, it has been argued that illness narratives should be thought of as performances through which the ill person comes into existence. By carrying out this performance he or she can then claim a place within a separate ""honour system"" peculiar to the sickness group.


 

Assessment details

Coursework

1 x 4,000 word essay

Teaching pattern

1 two-hour weekly seminar

Subject areas

Department

Module description disclaimer

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