Illness as Narrative

Illness as Narrative was chosen for the list of Outstanding Academic Titles for 2012 by the journal Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries. Choice is published by the Association of College & Research Libraries, a division of the American Library Association. Every January, Choice publishes a list of Outstanding Academic Titles that were reviewed during the previous year. The selective list contains about ten percent of approximately 7,000 works reviewed in the journal each year. Illness as Narrative was reviewed in the January 2013 Issue.


Literature and Medicine, Spring 2014 (excerpt)

Illness as Narrative is an ambitious and provocative book, not least because it is willing to ask how literature (and literary critics) can and should do meaningful work in our everyday lives….

Illness as Narrative is strongest in its thoughtful readings of a variety of texts and in its demonstration that critical engagement need not be dismissive of lived realities. To value, as Jurecic does, “ordinary” uses of narrative is to enlarge the possible conversations both inside and outside of educational settings. In fact, Illness as Narrative is an ideal text for starting conversations across the methodologies that isolate scholars within singular disciplines. It seems well suited not just for the literary critics at whom the weightiest critique is leveled, but also for the broader collection of medical humanities scholars, health care professionals, and individuals struggling to tell their own stories of health and illness. For reading groups, this text provides accessible and thoughtful analyses of a variety of literary and non-literary engagements with illness. It asks us to reconsider commonplaces about the body and its articulation: Is pain beyond language? Can fictional narratives represent actual lives? Why do readers read and writers write so insistently about pain, suffering, and illness in this postmodern era? What constitutes an ethical response to stories of sickness? In the end, what can we learn about ourselves and our fellow human beings by considering illness to be a narrative problem?

From news reports to literary memoirs, Jurecic continually calls our attention to the myriad locations where texts encounter and struggle with health and illness. Accessible, entertaining, and deeply compassionate, this book challenges academics to stop and consider the relationships illness narratives construct among people, institutions, cultures, and histories. Further, it reminds its readers that literate practices—not just what we choose to read, but what and how we choose to write in response—can tell us a lot about the realities of our physical and mental environments. The specificity of pain may elude language, but it does not escape it entirely. We are well served to attend carefully, responsively, and reparatively to the stories that emerge from encounters with pain, suffering, and illness.

 –Kimberly K. Emmons


Medical Humanities, January 2013 (excerpt)

With Illness as Narrative, Ann Jurecic seeks to reclaim the validity of illness narratives from the still dominant ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ in literary criticism and its allies. That widespread faction, when not ignoring illness narratives entirely, tends to dismiss them for their earnestness, naiveté, subjectivity and affectivity. Illness narratives are pragmatic and not theoretical. Like much life writing, they disregard the social, political and cultural powers that shape discourse, and therefore, they simply fall out of the jurisdiction of legitimate scholarly consideration. Or so the criticisms go. Jurecic does not wish to discount the established critical climate, but to expose its inadequacies, in particular, its neglect of our ordinary motives for writing and reading illness narratives. It is these motives that she thinks must be brought to bear in any serious critical treatment. She looks first at the history of personal accounts of illness, and then devotes separate chapters to risk narratives, narratives about pain, Susan Sontag’s seismic shift from theory to fiction, the changes that have occurred in theory, and the prospects for reforming how illness narratives are read. Throughout, Jurecic supplies important lessons for readers of these texts, be they theorists, educators in the medical humanities, or the general public.

Many well-chosen examples of illness narratives illustrate her case, including novels, journalism, ethnography, memoirs (‘misery’ and otherwise), conventional tales of struggle and recovery, genre-busting experimental works, and the narratives of some who would normally be most comfortable on the theoretical side of any theoretical/pragmatic divide (eg, Foucault, Stephen Jay Gould, Sontag, Bruno Latour). Jurecic is exceptionally sensitive to the individual character of each of her chosen texts. She accepts that not all live up to the expectations of conventional narrative, while others exploit those conventions in such a fashion as to undermine their own insights. Her relation to narrative is complex and occasionally ambivalent, and that it is so makes her book stimulating and worthwhile.

–Kathy Behrendt


Times Literary Supplement, 11 May 2012

The field of study once loosely referred to as medical humanities has morphed in recent years into a movement known as narrative medicine. Numerous practitioners and students of medicine, nursing and social work, as well as undergraduates, are reading a wide variety of non-scientific texts from The Death of Ivan Ilyich and The Plague to The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. Many patients, family members and other caregivers are also reading and writing about their experiences; this does not include the many novelists, poets, scholars and journalists whose encounters with illness have steered them from one literary genre to another.

Narrative medicine aims to reclaim the human element of health care practices in clinical settings by cultivating the desirable characteristics that have often been lacking in medical professionals—not only empathy but also attentiveness and what has been called cultural competence. It is unclear, however, just how this salutary transformation of the hearts and minds of future doctors and others works.

Ann Jurecic’s excellent book Illness as Narrative discusses various challenges inherent in both writing and reading medical narratives that encompass uncertainty, risk and pain. The heart of her argument, and her book’s greatest contribution, lies in the opening and closing chapters. Here she develops the startling new notion (or is it so new?) that literature (or authors, who aren’t dead after all) can speak directly to readers, affecting them emotionally and perhaps even changing their behaviour.

It is striking that Illness as Narrative makes some of the same points about a “distrust and suspicion” of reading, as Jurecic phrases it, that have recently been made by very different writers working in other genres.

One thinks of Jeffrey Eugenides’s depiction of college English classes in the 1980s in The Marriage Plot and Francisco Goldman’s scathing sketch of graduate literary studies at Columbia University in Say Her Name; in both these books, students who choose to study literature for sheer love of reading are made to feel like fools. But Jurecic observes in a chapter called “Theory’s Aging Body” a countermove, that “numerous literary theorists who built their reputations during the theory boom of the 1980s have begun to argue openly for connecting their work with everyday concerns, among them illness, vulnerability, and mortality….[P]rofessionally honed modes of reading now seem inadequate to the task of providing insight into a mundane fact that has not changed over time: we are all mortal”.

It remains to be seen whether the Scylla and Charybdis of technological development and economic constraints in health care will develop in this humane way. In any case, it is good to have Jurecic’s multifaceted and timely book to help us think about these tangled issues.

– Rachel Hadas


Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database, July 2012 (exerpt)

Illness as Narrative takes up questions so central to discussions in the medical humanities that it should be read by those who teach illness narratives in medical school and other curricula.  It carries forward the important cases made by Anne Hunsaker Hawkins, Arthur W. Frank, and Rita Charon that illness narratives are valuable to medicine, contemporary culture, and individual lives.  But it more rigorously addresses questions of how to respond to and teach the literature of suffering.

Ann Jurecic’s book has consequential implications for literary studies and for the critical humanities more generally.  It represents an example of the way a marginalized sub-field can offer a perspective that the dominant theories in the larger discipline miss.  Perhaps the most salient and urgent question Jurecic asks is what theory loses if writers and readers attuned to the ill or suffering body are not part of the critical discussion.  The chapter “Theory’s Aging Body” suggests important answers.  The chapter on Susan Sontag, “Sontag, Suffering, and the Work of Writing,” complicates much of the published medical humanities readings of Sontag.  It also offers anyone interested in questions of representing suffering a fuller understanding of Sontag’s essays on pain and illness in the context of her body of writing.

While Jurecic, a literary and writing studies scholar interested in contemporary personal writing about illness, frames her discussion for literary and medical humanities scholars, her clear, jargon-free prose and the texts she writes about invite a much wider range of readers.  They include medical practitioners and educators, social scientists, philosophers, bioethicists, and those interested in humanities pedagogies, among others.

– Carol Schilling


Journal of Medical Humanities, March 2012 (excerpt)

If the critique and reframing of Scarry’s work is one of Jurecic’s singular contributions, the other is her reading of the career of Susan Sontag, morphing from Sontag’s life-long engagement with representations of suffering to representations of Sontag’s own recurrences of cancer, including the controversial photographs taken by Anne Leibovitz and the memoir by Sontag’s son, David Rieff. This chapter is the most successful for me because it is structured by the chronology of Sontag’s changing ideas and the tension of Sontag’s reversal of expressive practice. Her early work is suspicious of stories, which she groups with photographic images of suffering. The early Sontag argued “that repeated exposure to images of horror threatens both „conscience and the ability to be compassionate’” (72). She believed in “the superiority of the critical essay over personal narrative” (72) and avoided any references to her own cancer in her landmark Illness as Metaphor. Although many people talk about this book as if it were a personal narrative, Illness as Metaphor is an anti-personal narrative.

Sontag may not have changed her opinion of photographs, but she came to believe that “Narratives can make us understand” (82). More important, she became a storyteller: “I thought I was a ruminator … And then I discovered that I liked to tell stories and make people cry” (76). Jurecic’s discussion of The Volcano Lover did not make me cry, but it does bring together the diffuse stands of Sontag’s project and display both her changes of literary practice and consistency of purpose. To adopt the prose of critical pronouncement myself, the chapter is an achievement of intellectual summation.

– Arthur W. Frank


All Heart Matters9 March 2012  (excerpt)

Ann Jurecic’s new book, Illness as Narrative, offers substantive confirmation of the continuing scholarly trends in support of the genre of narrative medicine and for the primary value of the patient’s voice  in the practice of medicine. As an assistant professor of English at Rutgers, she demonstrates her seamless erudition and scholarship in a critical close reading and examination of a range of literary responses to the salient work of Susan Sontag, Elaine Scarry, Eve Sedgwick, Reynolds Price and Ann Fadiman….Her book is a must read for all Literature and Medicine courses and certainly will be added to Medical Humanities programs around the country.


Contemporary Women’s Writing, 18 May 2012 (excerpt)

At the heart of Illness as Narrative is the argument that Susan Sontag ‘‘has done more than any other single writer to bring attention to how literature documents and shapes the cultural meaning and experience of illness, pain, and suffering’’ (67). Ann Jurecic examines Sontag’s lifelong exploration of how to respond ethically to representations of suffering, citing Sontag’s vacillation between essay and narrative, critic and storyteller, and rationality and emotion as effective means to communicate pain….

Illness as Narrative is both a compelling analysis of tales of affliction, and an expression of the writer’s frustration with the limitations of contemporary theory and criticism…..Although Jurecic’s argument with contemporary criticism places Illness as Narrative in an academic context, the most memorable passages are the specific, [powerful], and irresolvable narratives.

–Alexandra H. Boyer


Composition Studies, Fall 2012 (excerpt) 

As a whole, Jurecic’s text is successful in exploring contemporary works on pain and illness and the critical responses they elicit. Illness as Narrative seeks to draw wider attention to the illness narrative and to argue for new approaches to both literary criticism and teaching narrative in a way that balances the fragility of human life–it delivers. She asks that we consider why writers compose stories of illness, how readers receive them, and how both use these narratives to make meaning of human anguish, encouraging a practice that’s both critical and compassionate in an otherwise often-distrustful critical context. In a time where illness pervades society more than ever before, Illness as Narrative is timely, considerate, and thought provoking — it is a helpful review of writing about illness and critical response to such narratives, one that reminds us that, in the end, we are all mere mortals ourselves.

–Erin Trauth