The Illness Essay

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Montaigne invented the essay genre in response to a near-fatal injury. He produced a flexible, wandering form that was especially well suited to confronting illness, injury, and mortality. Literary critics, however, have focused attention on illness memoirs to the exclusion of the illness essay. Given the publication of a number of extraordinary book-length illness essays in 2013-2014, among them Leslie Jamison's The Empathy Exams, Eula Biss's On Immunity: An Inoculation, and Rebecca Solnit's The Faraway Nearby, critics should pay attention to the illness essay. Following Montaigne, these essayists examine the workings of the writers minds, explore tangents, and make unexpected connections. At the same time, they take advantage of the hybrid essay, blending memoir, contemporary journalism, and cultural criticism. Their projects overlap in notable ways. They all contemplate how people conceive of their own suffering and the suffering of others. And at the core of their work is a shared interest in the complexity of empathy, which they recogniSe as a felt response, a social practice, a philosophical conundrum, and a writer's tool. In the end, they affirm Montaigne's commitment to using the essay to contemplate how to live a good life.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)13-26
Number of pages14
JournalLife Writing
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Literature and Literary Theory


  • Essay
  • Illness
  • Montaigne
  • Twenty-first century literature


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