Jurecic, Ann. Illness as Narrative. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012.
Book Review, by Mary Assad
A couple of months ago, a friend and colleague – Kristin Kondrlik – told me about a book she was reading for her exams. She pulled a copy of Illness as Narrative out of her purse as we chatted over tea, and I glanced through the pages. The table of contents immediately caught my attention because of its reference to Susan Sontag, and I made a note to read this book if only for the chapter on Sontag’s writing.
Now, having read most of the book except for the final chapter, I can say that it’s one of the most interesting and engaging that I’ve read this year. My library copy of this book, which I keep mercilessly renewing (I’m a slow, plodding reader) is filled with Post-It tabs marking all the references to other sources that Jurecic makes along with all of the insights I want to refer back to later. I now need to buy some more Post-It tabs.
Jurecic explores the challenges that illness narratives pose to traditional literary criticism. For such narratives, Jurecic suggests, Ricoeur’s “hermeneutics of suspicion” may hinder critics from fully listening to what these texts reveal about the illness experience. She briefly traces the history of illness narratives in the twentieth century before delving into a detailed discussion of the way the “risk society” emerging in the 1980s altered this genre. Subsequent chapters focus on the tensions evident within Sontag’s work; address the issue of responding to others’ expressions of pain; and delve into the complexities of critical theory in relation to illness narratives.
One issue that seems to recur across all the chapters concerns our response to illness narratives. The emotion and pain communicated through these stories invites many reactions: while some readers empathize, others may view the stories as “misery memoirs” or “victim art” (10). While some literary scholars may recognize a place for these works in academic conversations, others may shun them. Jurecic suggests that such works deserve attention in the academy not only for what they can tell us about narrative but also for what they can tell us about life, death, and the role that language plays in shaping these human experiences.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in the medical humanities or medical rhetoric. It is rigorous in its scholarship yet readable enough to keep you company on the stationary bike.