In her memoir “A Matter of Appearance,” Emily Wells isn't selling silver linings or looking away from hard truths Jean-Martin Charcot demonstrating hysteria in a hypnotized patient at the Salpêtrière. Etching by A. Lurat, 1888, after P.A.A. Brouillet, 1887. In a cultural milieu that is increasingly recognizing the value of narratives that describe the experience of chronic pain and illness, Emily Wells' memoir is a unique contribution. In some ways, A Matter of Appearance is not a memoir at all, though that's where you'll find it shelved in bookstores. To be sure, Wells' story is included in its pages. But so are a collection of other stories, from a history of medical misogyny to an examination of ballet pathology, to a (searing) critique of capitalist systems. If literary genres were amenable to nuance, or if I owned a bookstore, this book would sit squarely in the “A Little Bit of Everything” section. (It's probably a good thing I don't own a bookstore.) Like Wells, I am deeply skeptical of culture, even as I appreciate it profoundly and make a living wading into it. Cynically, I suspect the recent explosion in sick lit is attributable not only to an influx of formidable literary talent—writers like Sarah Manguso, Meghan O'Rourke, and Chloe Cooper Jones—but also an awareness in industry that pain equals profit. In my imagination, there is a corporate goblin behind every lifesaving drug and beautiful piece of art asking, And how much can we sell it for? If reality in any way approximates my imagination, I want people like Emily Wells writing about it. Wells and I connected via Zoom to talk about the aesthetics of illness, the visualization of pain, and whether suffering can be, for lack of a better term, productive. Wynter K Miller: One of the things I like about your memoir is that it doesn't try to make illness happy. You don't try to soften the blow for readers. You are very explicit about the conclusions you reach—and they are bleak . You write that pain has not taught you anything, that there is not […]
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