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  • Disability and Popular Fiction: Reading Representations
  • Tom Coogan (bio)

This conference, organised by Dr. Ria Cheyne, Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in Disability Studies at Liverpool Hope University, was held at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) on Friday 22 May, 2009 under the auspices of the Cultural Disability Studies Research Network (CDSRN; an interdisciplinary forum aimed at promoting disability perspectives across the UK university curriculum). The venue and network have a special significance for the literary and cultural Disability Studies movement in the UK, as the Journal of Literary Disability was launched in 2007 at the first CDSRN event, which was also hosted by LJMU.

I attended Disability and Popular Fiction as a researcher who had to date consciously stressed my interest in literary Disability Studies. From this point-of-view, the day was particularly interesting for the way in which, through the course of a diverse range of papers, what I might call a strategic tension between the literary and the so-called popular emerged. It was encouraging to see a number of early-career researchers, Ph.D. students, and even undergraduates in attendance.

The day’s keynote address, “Genetics at the Scene of the Crime: The Pathology of Contemporary Detective Fiction,” was given by Dr. Lucy Burke. She built upon Mitchell and Snyder’s work on the way in which diagnostic classifications give rise to “punitive methodological strategies,” and Lennard Davis’s ideas of the novel form as one that promotes and symbolically produces normative structures, to argue that the detective novel form is the imaginative expression of intellectual discourses that emerge to categorise, classify, and differentiate normalcy and disability.

Applying these ideas in the context of contemporary Nordic detective fiction (as exemplified by Swedish author Stieg Larsson and Icelandic author Arnaldur Indriðason), Dr. Burke noted the concerns around national health and national inclusion, with both Larsson’s The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009) and Indriðason’s Tainted Blood (2004) presenting genetic “defects” as sites of the disruption of national mythologies of continuity and social cohesion. She noted the historical context of forced sterilisation in Sweden between 1935 and [End Page 99] 1975, as well as the DeCode Genetics Inc. project creating a database of the Icelandic population, on the grounds of its genetic homogeneity. Against this background, she observed that in the novels the defective gene functioned as an ambiguous trope, with the carriers of “corrupt genes” functioning both as a troubling presence and as occupiers of an ethical high ground as they expose national mythologies of social cohesion, consensus, and harmony.

This idea of the text as a space for ambiguity was also explored in Dr. Ria Cheyne’s “Alternative Corporealities: Disability in Science Fiction.” Dr. Cheyne noted that SF, like most other popular genres, remains understudied within literary and cultural Disability Studies, and that conversely there has to date been very little engagement with disability in SF studies. She noted that, beyond simply offering different representations of disability, the ways that texts work in a specific genre discourse offer an important space for challenging and rethinking the status quo. This links to Dr. Burke’s point regarding detective fiction and indicates something about so-called genre fiction in general. However, Dr. Cheyne pointed out that SF as a genre does not work in the same way as romance or detective fiction, as it does not have a universal plot pattern or set of character types.

Dr. Cheyne did, nonetheless, focus on three tropes of SF: the technologised body, the alien, and the alternative environment. She noted that all three suggest to readers the possibility, at least, of an alternative normative system that is equal but different to their own. As with Dr. Burke’s observations regarding detective fiction, Dr. Cheyne noted that SF foregrounds the process by which particular values and meanings are attached to particular bodily forms and capabilities. In doing so, Dr. Cheyne argued, it reveals the constructed nature of beliefs about bodies and emphasises the extent to which disability is a product of particular physical environments and culturally specific beliefs. It seemed to me that what she identified as the shortcomings of SF as a genre might broadly be attributed to...


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