Maren Emde – Narratives of Suffering

Narratives of Suffering

Illness and Therapy in Popular American Life Writing

(working title)

My project “Narratives of Suffering” focusses the intersection of life sciences and life writing by asking how illness, trauma and therapy are addressed and culturally negotiated in popular life writing produced for the mass-market. Subject of my project are the so-called “misery memoirs“, a subgenre which has registered wide success on the American literary market during what has become known as the “memoir boom”. I am especially interested in books written by “ordinary people” (and therefore not already known writers, politicians or celebrities) whose memoirs are centered around experiences of various physical, psychic/psychosomatic illnesses or traumata.

In my project, I analyze the interplay of two developments which become visible in the phenomenon of the “misery memoir boom”: firstly, the rising of individual articulations of private suffering in autobiographical memoirs and secondly, the genre’s commodification for the literary market, as well as the literary, social, cultural and political preconditions, transformations and consequences of the two developments. In my project, I pose the following questions: in how far do misery memoirs’ narratives offer a space for articulation and discussion of boundary experiences like illness, trauma and therapy? How are these experiences literally and culturally discussed in popular memoirs? How do stories of illness and suffering become enjoyable and entertaining pleasures for larger reading publics? How are the applied narratives used in / how do they become part of a production process of cultural goods that follows specific rules and a demand on the (literary) market?

My goal in this research project is not only to analyze the structure of the different, frequently used narrative patterns in misery memoirs, but also the narratives’ role in the processes of production and reception of misery memoirs. This research shall provide a coherent understanding of how the articulation of individual experiences with illness and therapy finds new possibilities in the misery memoir boom on the one hand, but also to which extent this individual articulation is subject to market rules and how the social and cultural perception of illness is shaped by these limitations on the other hand.