Disability, Literature, Genre: Representation and Affect in Contemporary Fiction (Ria Cheyne)

Reviewed by Diane R. Wiener

Ria Cheyne’s Disability, Literature, Genre: Representation and Affect in Contemporary Fiction is a nuanced, interdisciplinary academic text that will be of interest to many readers who engage in discussions about emotional life, while seeking out rigorous and thoughtful literary resources. As noted on the publisher’s website, this monograph is “the first book to examine disability representation in a range of popular literary genres,” and includes “the most in-depth examination of disability in popular genre fiction” ever created.

The text begins with an exceptional literature review explicating the relationships between and across cultural disability studies, affect theory, and literary analysis. Cheyne distinguishes between cultural disability studies and humanities-based disability studies, asserting her interpretation and understanding that the former joins “the activist imperative of disability studies with the analysis of particular forms of cultural production” (15). Such activist-scholarship is of course presumably quite different from analysis for its own sake, often devoid of any impact intended (or possible) for or within the lives of the people for whom such an analysis has (or could have, potentially) immediate and direct relevance and meaning. Despite Cheyne’s helpful and timely demarcation, it remains debatable how much direct impact academic work about disability or its representations has upon disabled people’s daily lives and experiences.

Horror, crime fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and romance, Cheyne argues, each has its own genre-specific and genre-driving disability stereotypes and emotional projects. “Disability makes us feel,” her introduction begins (1). At the conclusion, she emphasizes, “Disability and genre fiction both make us feel. In order to appreciate how genre fiction’s representations of disability might make us feel disability differently, an affective approach is required” (172).

“This book examines the affective—and effective—power of disability representations in contemporary genre fiction, offering an ‘affectively attuned criticism’ of disability and of genre,” Cheyne summarizes (1; quoting Thrailkill 17). Disability summons certain experiences of affect, indexes others, and complicates disability’s own meanings, which are neither stagnant nor fully malleable. Cheyne notes that affect theory has only relatively recently been met by or engaged within critical scholarship in disability studies. Elizabeth J. Donaldson and Catherine Prendergast, editors of a 2011 special issue of the Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies (JLCDS), are lauded in Cheyne’s commentary for their efforts to bridge these gaps in compelling, sensitive ways.

Cheyne helpfully explicates and unpacks the social model of disability, particularly as underscored in the U.K., as well as discusses the limits and limitations of defining impairment as compared with disability, as happens across the pond, stateside. Disability is never able to be fully described, and exceeds totalizing explanations; the same can be said of affect, itself, as well as of genre(s). Moreover, Cheyne notes that there has been a strong tendency, even among disability studies scholars, to categorize emotional descriptors as welcome or understandable versus what she calls “naughty” or unacceptable (pity, triumph, inspiration being among the latter). These taxonomies, however well-meaning they are in their progenitors’ efforts to disrupt ableism, may further or variously restrict understandings of disability, disability identity, and disability experiences, in ways that are differently problematic than the ableist practices being avoided and critiqued, Cheyne notes, citing and paraphrasing Alison Kafer.

Genre texts can be understood, per Cheyne, as “satisfy[ing] or resist[ing]” the expectations surrounding disability representations, as some of these “narratives and tropes” are disrupted rather than upheld by readers’ anticipation and a priori perspectives. Part of her argument lies in the fact that each genre is set-up in the first place with, and thus relies upon, its own tropes and standards, so that—for example (as she notes)—even students of hers who have little direct familiarity with science fiction know about what science fiction is supposed to be about, do, and mean. These students can list with relative ease a large host of icons and expectations to accompany the genre’s stylistic conventions and imagery, just from the students’ mainstream familiarity with and the commonplace discourses about sci-fi that exist in the popular imaginary.

A close analysis of genre fiction, Cheyne notes persuasively, “can illuminate affects in all kinds of disability encounters” (17). She continues, “However, genre fiction’s representations of disability are particularly significant from a disability studies perspective not only because genre fiction is affective but because it is both affective and reflexive. Genre fiction is reflexive fiction in that it always writes back, indirectly or directly, to the conventions of the genre as shaped by its history” (17).

Over thirty years ago, Andrew Ross called his foundational book No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture for a reason. Alas, in some respects, this reason remains true today. Cheyne’s goal—to “increase engagement with forms of representation ignored or neglected by disability studies” (21)—is satisfied in this collection, to be sure. Readers with relatively little background in the type of “academic” language used will likely find the book difficult to digest—at best. However, the references accompanying each chapter, and the excellent resources at the end (including an annotated bibliography on “disability in genre fiction”) will be useful to a plethora of interested readers who want to encounter directly the genre-specific texts described within the book, and learn more about how disability fuels, disrupts, and shifts throughout these varied works.

Cheyne’s project is not just one of reclaiming or recuperating; rather, with respect to most if not all of these five chosen genres, as she argues, disability studies scholars have been largely avoidant of—if not disdainful in—their overall refusal to engage, except relatively minimally, with these genres (and, as noted—particularly with regard to affect theory—engagement has occurred only relatively recently). Her book is an admonition and an invitation, more than a challenge, to colleagues and other parties; Cheyne offers a door opening to a would-be accessible space, newly dusted.

Seeking to get past the “evaluative approaches” that “remain prevalent in cultural disability studies” (25), Cheyne’s work undermines the binary that she finds remains pervasive in cultural disability studies; namely, the claims about which representations are worthy and which are not. As she puts it, “reductive dualisms” do not advance disability studies, but hold it dogmatically, rather than either forwarding the critical work its creators wish to foment or advancing the rights of disabled people.

The book references—understandably, strongly, and respectfully—myriad work by contemporary disability studies scholars, including but not limited to: Sami Schalk, Ellen Samuels, Robert McRuer, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, David Bolt, Alison Kafer (as noted), Elizabeth J. Donaldson and Catherine Prendergast (as noted), David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, and Margaret Price—among many others. In this and other respects, Cheyne’s book joins with and is meta-commenting on an ongoing conversation about the purpose and future of disability studies in the 21st century—globally and locally. Using generous, precise while flexible readings of the selected genre-specific texts, Cheyne’s book expertly and insistently melds affect theory and cultural disability studies, thus broadening each scholarly locus in impressive ways, while breaking down proverbial silos.

Title: Disability, Literature, Genre: Representation and Affect in Contemporary Fiction
Author: Ria Cheyne
Publisher: Liverpool University Press
Date: 2019

Editor’s Note: An Open Access version of the book is available. Please note that we at Wordgathering cannot affirm or confirm the accessibility of this version, across all available platforms. Please direct any questions or concerns about the text’s accessibility to the publisher.

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About the Reviewer

Diane R. Wiener became Editor-in-Chief of Wordgathering in January 2020. A poet since the age of seven, her first full-length poetry collection, The Golem Verses, was published in 2018 by Nine Mile Press. Diane’s poems also appear in Nine Mile MagazineWordgatheringTammyQueerlyThe South Carolina Review, and elsewhere. Her poetry is forthcoming in the anthology, Welcome to the Resistance: Poetry as Protest (Stockton University Press). Diane’s creative nonfiction appears in Stone Canoe and Mollyhouse; her flash fiction appears in Ordinary Madness (Weasel Press). After serving as Guest Editor for Nine Mile Literary Magazine’s Fall 2019 Special Double Issue on Neurodivergent, Disability, Deaf, Mad, and Crip poetics, Diane was appointed Assistant Editor for the magazine. The Founding Director of the Syracuse University Disability Cultural Center (2011-2018), Diane now serves as a Research Professor and as the Associate Director of Interdisciplinary Programs and Outreach for the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University, where she also teaches in the Renée Crown University Honors program. She has published widely on disability, pedagogy, and empowerment, among other subjects. Diane is a proud Neuroqueer, Mad, Crip, Gender Nonconforming, Jewish Pantheist Nerd (etc.). She blogged for the Huffington Post between May 2016 and January 2018. You can visit Diane online at: https://dianerwiener.com.