Acknowledgments ix

Chapter 1

Illness Narratives and the Challenge to Criticism   3

This introductory chapter charts the evolution of personal writing about illness throughout the twentieth century and examines this new genre as a cultural and literary phenomenon.

Chapter 2

Life Narratives in the Risk Society   18

This chapter introduces the subgenre of “risk narratives,” a new type of illness narrative that examines our awareness of calculable, but largely uncontrollable, risk in contemporary life.

Chapter 3

Responding to the Pain of Others   43

A generation of literary scholars has embraced Elaine Scarry’s argument that pain destroys language and renders empathy impossible. Those who write memoirs about pain, however, tend to see their challenge differently. Without claiming that pain readily lends itself to expression, they suggest that the primary problem they face is how to make readers receptive to stories of pain. Who will listen and what will they hear?

Chapter 4

Sontag, Suffering, and the Work of Writing   67

Susan Sontag forcefully argued in Illness as Metaphor that literature cannot communicate the reality of disease. Despite the certainty of her stance in this early book, Sontag struggled throughout her career with the question of how best to represent human misery: with the essay? the photograph? the novel?

Chapter 5

Theory’s Aging Body   92

As the body of theory has aged, so have the bodies of the theorists who built their reputations during the theory boom of the 1980s. Confronting illness, vulnerability, and mortality, theorists such as Michel Foucault, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Bruno Latour sought and seek alternative critical practices to better address a mundane fact that has not changed over time: we are all mortal.

Chapter 6

Reparative Reading   113

If aging, illness, and loss bring suspicious critical practices into question for mature critics and theorists, how can affectively rich, “reparative” reading and writing practices be taught to students?

Notes  133

Works Cited 149 Index  169