This module will explore the nonfiction forms available to describe physical and mental illness, as well as related experiences of being embodied. We will study key literary texts in the history of representing illness, with a focus on autobiography, essays and creative nonfiction. Students will produce their own texts in these or other nonfiction forms. The module will introduce contemporary literary and artistic debates about the representation of illness. It will combine seminar discussion and writing workshops.
It would be useful to begin by reading some of the key texts that are available online, and think about how these writers of nonfiction approach describing illness, expressing how they experience it, and addressing wider concerns about healthcare and culture and society. Among all the readings below, Eula Biss's book On Immunity may be the best contemporary place to begin: it's quite relevant to recent events.
- John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions
- Letter from Frances Burney to her sister Esther about her mastectomy without anaesthetic, 1812 (with manuscript images, transcript and commentary)
- Virginia Woolf, “On Being Ill”
- Anne Boyer, “What Cancer Takes Away”
- Leslie Jamison, “The Empathy Exams”
This article has some useful links to recent essays about COVID-19 and life under lockdown.
Here are some online videos by or about some of the writers we'll be looking at:
- Roxane Gay:
- Eula Biss: “On Immunity”
- Esmé Weijun Wang,
- Writing during the Covid-19 crisis
And here's the provisional reading list, with the books you should buy or borrow marked with an asterisk:
John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions
Fanny Burney, "Account from Paris of a Terrible Operation – 1812"
Virginia Woolf, On Being Ill
*Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (£14)
William Styron, Darkness Visible
Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain
Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals
Derek Jarman, Smiling in Slow Motion: Diaries, 1991-94
Sarah Manguso, The Two Kinds of Decay
*Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams (£9.99)
*Anne Boyer, The Undying (£16.99)
*Esmé Weijun Wang, The Collected Schizophrenias (£9.99)
*Roxane Gay, Hunger (£6.99)
Sinéad Gleeson, Constellations
*Eula Biss, On Immunity