Sarah Pett

Early Career Researcher and Teacher (SOAS)



My doctoral research looks at the literature of chronic illness, published between 1990 and 2012 by American, British, and South African authors. It begins with a survey of the ways in which illness accounts are typically read–from the institutions of Western allopathic and alternative medicine to popular media to literary and cultural studies–and identify six modes of reading illness: as diagnosis; as therapy; as educational tool; as activism; as metaphor; and as cultural construct. I then propose, and go on to develop, a new interpretive lens for reading illness accounts. Drawing on the work of Virginia Woolf and Derek Attridge, among others, this alternative methodology uses close reading to engage with the singularity of the illness account, and to explore its relationship to theories of narrative identity, embodiment, and ethics more broadly.

I take as my case studies four distinct genres of first person illness accounts: autoethnography; literary memoir; experimental fiction; and what we might call ‘middlebrow fiction’, after Shameem Black’s description of works that “encourage and circulate in a mode of reading that falls between a highbrow emphasis on aesthetic sophistication and a lowbrow emphasis on unmediated pleasure” (Fiction Across Borders 2010 12). I focus on texts from these genres that take illness as one of their primary structuring principles: texts that are brought into being, sustained, and in many cases brought to an end, by illness. Such texts, I argue, challenge existing modes of reading illness accounts–in which emphasis lies on the uses to which such accounts can be put.  Instead, by directing us to read with and through illness, they encourage us to think more deeply about the kinds of aesthetic and ethical work that such accounts undertake. 




In addition to the Medical Humanities and Disability Studies, I have an ongoing interest in South African literature and culture, animal studies, and speculative fiction. My outputs in this field include an article for Scrutiny2 on the South African author Achmat Dangor (2007); a forthcoming article on the anti-apartheid activist Ruth First (2014); and a chapter on 21st century British speculative fictions.


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PhD Submission

The beginning of the rest of my life...September 30th, 2013
"I can hardly wait"
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