Illness Narratives and the Consolations of Autofiction

  • Graham J. Matthews
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Life Writing book series (PSLW)


In the late twentieth century, illness narratives—personal accounts of illness and dying, authored by physicians, patients, and novelists—became established as a literary genre. Illness narratives are valuable because they foreground the lived experience of the patient instead of the dominant biomedical narrative that occludes the experience of suffering with its exclusive focus on physiology. Although medical humanists tend to read illness narratives as powerful and moving stories that honour the experience of sickness, literary critics often distrust affect and value indeterminacy and ambiguity over sentimentality. Whereas illness narratives are typically read as a subgenre of the memoir, this chapter identifies the ways in which a selection of autofictional pathographies blur the boundary between fiction and autobiography and as a consequence problematize notions of truth and authenticity in any illness narrative. The first part details the ways in which the act of narrating the experience of illness through autofictional pathographies produces a provisional, varying and performative self while the second part identifies a series of autofictional theatre and dance performances that literally instantiate this performative aspect. Autofictional pathographies disrupt typical standards of judgement and set aside rigid distinctions between truth and falsity, criticism and sentimentality, consequently empowering sufferers to recount their pain on their own terms. Consequently, autofictional illness narratives reclaim patients’ voices from the biomedical narratives imposed upon them by modern medicine, challenge readers to reconsider their expectations of truth and authenticity and develop awareness of the fungible relationship between the discourse of the clinic and the lived experience of being ill.

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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Graham J. Matthews
    • 1
  1. 1.Nanyang Technological UniversitySingaporeSingapore

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