Book Review: Reading & Writing Cancer

cover-lg“For those who survive and those who do not.”

That is the dedication Susan Gubar gives to her new book, Reading & Writing Cancer: How Words Heal. The straight-forward acknowledgement that some people with cancer survive and others do not, suggests instantly that this book is not be about drippy cancer stories floating rhetoric of overzealous cheerfulness and inspiring self-promotion. This book is about the power of words to help people make sense of incomprehensible and terrible experiences.

Diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer in 2008, Gubar underwent three abdominal surgeries, three cycles of chemotherapies, radiological procedures, and other conventional medical regimens. Knowing she had an incurable disease, she went into a Phase I clinical trial in 2012. A year later she published Memoir of a Debulked Woman: Enduring Ovarian Cancer in 2013. She also writes The New York Times blog Living With Cancer.

Susan Gubar says that her imperative to write is not atypical. In fact, in Reading & Writing Cancer her goal is to offer guidance to those who want to use writing as a means for therapeutic self-expression. She shares writing prompts, exercises, and suggested readings. She discusses audiences, ethics, and publishing. In addition to sharing elements of poetry, fiction, art, and photography, she maps out the typical structure of the cancer memoir, giving summations and excerpts from a wide variety of examples. “Writing cannot cure patients,” she says, “but it facilitates the progress of repairing the damages done.”

Much of the literature explored in this book strives to understand the human condition of suffering and illness. Just as the readers and viewers of those texts do. In sharing aspects of such representations, readers get to see how people handle the often drawn out experiences of sickness and death-in-proximity. Written texts in particular, both fiction and nonfiction, offer details and contexts that allow readers to: “Derive pleasure from observing vulnerable individuals like ourselves who are talking back to the experts, releasing pent-up emotions, gaining some sort of control over situations of vertiginous vulnerability, and instructing us on ingenious ways to name or picture perilous circumstances.” (62).

As I read on, I realized that the book’s dedication was also a testament to one of its main themes, the power of the sublime. Within the ever-expanding cancer canon, this literary concept — defined as the power to stir delight in one’s readers — “finds its source in pain and danger that pose a threat to the preservation of the individual.” (108). She writes:

“The sublime springs from a fearful awareness that disease bequeaths: an intuition that the future is radically abridged shockingly saturates the present with mortality. Here at the very start of my day, the middle of my mundane life, looms the end. If we want to understand the consequences of this buckling of time, we must return to the writers preoccupied by the imminent endings of cancer stories.” (125).

I devoured this book and recognized many of the cancer journals and memoirs cited. I’d analyzed some of them myself, albeit with a sociologist’s eyes first. As I found myself nodding and underlining on almost every page, I realized that my personal and professional aspirations to break through the everyday social mores that dodge the realities of illness’s pain and torment, come from a deep desire to bear witness to suffering. In reading those stories, interviewing people with cancer for my research, and living my life, I’ve known more than a small share of the Ivan Ilyches of the world and grappled myself with “riddles” about the process of dying.

Yet I am still only an observer, not yet facing for myself (in anything but philosophical terms) the experience of living terminally. This book gives me a chance to mull over that fact with compassion and empathy. Susan Gubar says that, “the surprising extension of [her] life has deepened [her] awareness of mutability and mortality and of the need to appreciate and testify to life as it is lived.” May her book do the same for all of us.

Susan Gubar received the Natalie Davis Spingarn Writers Award from the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship and, with Sandra M. Gilbert, was awarded the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Book Critics Circle. She is the Distinguished Emeritus Professor of English at Indiana University and lives in Bloomington.

Reading & Writing Cancer: How Words Heal by Susan Gubar. W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (May 17, 2016). 240pp. ISBN: 978-0393246988, $26.95 (Hardcover).


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