Sunday March 06, 2016

Taking the temperature of "sick lit"

(Getty Images)

Listen 25:01

Doctors, it seems, write more than just prescriptions. Some of the world's greatest writers, in fact, have been physicians. Such as Chekhov, Somerset Maugham, the poet William Carlos Williams, Sherlock Holmes's creator Arthur Conan Doyle … and Rabelais, the French writer who wrote the ribald Renaissance epic, Gargantua and Pantagruel. For that matter, the doomed English romantic poet, John Keats, was a medical student.

The medical training of these writers … the patients they treated, the maladies they sought to subdue and the deaths that mocked their best efforts ... all informed their work. But the primary condition they wrote about was the human condition. Not medical conditions. 

That struck another celebrated writer, Virginia Woolf, as a little strange. 

"Consider how common illness is," she wrote, "how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view ... when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature."

Virginia Woolf was tormented by depression for much of her life. She drowned herself at the age of 59, despairing of being able to surmount the madness she felt overtaking her. Her experiences with mental illness are reflected in the title character of one of her best novels, Mrs. Dalloway. 

It's a rare case of illness - mental or physical - playing such a focal role in fiction … Sylvia Plath's semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar being another example. 

Memoirs are another story. It's a genre rife with narratives of illness. In recent decades, The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon, My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossel, Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel and Darkness Visible by William Styron are just three examples of best-selling, highly influential books chronicling their authors' struggles with mental illness. 

Cancer memoirs are virtually a genre unto themselves with books by the likes Christopher Hitchens, Lance Armstrong, Susan Sontag and the poet Audre Lorde alternately triumphant, angry and reflective. 

And in the Internet age, first-person accounts about living and dying with cancer abound online. If you search "cancer blogs" on Google, you'll get more than 250 million hits. 

Cancer memoirs are virtually a genre unto themselves with books by the likes Christopher Hitchens, Lance Armstrong, Susan Sontag and the poet Audre Lorde alternately triumphant, angry and reflective. And in the Internet age, first-person accounts about living and dying with cancer abound online. If you search "cancer blogs" on Google, you'll get more than 250 million hits. 

Suzanne Koven is a primary care physician and Writer in Residence for the Division of Internal Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. The proliferation of the medical memoir prompted her to write an article called "Poor Historians: Some Notes on the Medical Memoir" in the current issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review.

Michael speaks with Dr. Koven about what is impelling patients and doctors to write in such intimate detail about illness, and why medical memoirs are so popular with readers.